Simon Winder on German food: “I'll have some green sauce with that.”

If there is one subject on which pretty much anyone British or American will agree, it is horror at German food. As we ping some blend of sugar, salt and fats in the microwave or munch on curry-flavoured tortilla chips (a current British enormity), we will shake our heads about the unique awfulness of what Germans eat, topped off with a joke about what goes into the sausages.

It has to be said that much of Germany is made up of a landscape that does not imply much in the way of cuisine. There are bits of Pomerania or Brandenburg of a near-Dakotan awfulness closed-down, wind-battered moonscapes dotted with little houses of a kind usually described as 'huddled', but which have in practice moved on to a stage where even huddling has been abandoned as a survival strategy. These houses imply worlds so circumscribed that the only activity consists of the husband waiting to hear the sound of the wife getting the circular saw going to carve up some more winter cabbage, giving him the chance to run over to the DVD player and put on his favourite disc of horses mating. These are the landscapes that so bedevilled nineteenth-century Prussian planners, who dreamed of settling further thousands of hardy beet-farmers, but who instead watched them head off by the million to have fun in America. These landscapes are matched by immensely productive ones such as the verdant stretches of Swabia or the famous Golden Meadow, set between two sets of Thuringian mountains, which gives a visitor a sense of being trapped in a child's picture-book farm of neat fields and orchards (with a certain amount of visual ducking and weaving to avoid the pharaonic heaps of mining slag and battered schnapps factories). But almost everywhere this is a landscape not unlike England's, reacting in the same way to relatively weak sunlight and frustrating northerliness.

Admitting that this is a land of pickle and schnapps and not a nursery for cooking greatness, the sheer oddness of broader German geography further conspires to make the achievements of lucky Mediterranean countries hard to compete with. The Germans must be the only major linguistic group so hemmed in (setting aside, as usual, the British and Irish), with long winters to the north, a reasonably temperate middle strip and then the climatic disaster of mountains to the south. Like some circling, trapped beast, German cuisine is goaded by its climate into turning out endless sausages, turnips and potatoes. Within these stifling brackets, there are big regional variations, with a patent gravitational pull from neighbouring countries. So in the north there is a cult for eating long-dead fish in the Scandinavian manner, whereas in the south there is a sort of unviable form of pasta. To the west you really do reach a point around the Mosel where the salads are genuinely attractive and fresh, whereas the further east you go the more likely you are to come across denatured, spiceless versions of goulash and the omnipresent solyanka, a nearly flavourless version of an in itself uninvolving Ukrainian soup. This aversion to spices is generally shared across Northern Europe. Every year Germany imports immense amounts of cinnamon and paprika the sweet and savoury supplements to a thousand dishes but it is striking just how little impact these clouds of old powder actually have the taste is generally only just noticeable. The ubiquitous presence of paprika-flavoured crisps (the German equivalent of ready-salted) 'in the Hungarian manner' is a bane to all travellers as sometimes they will be the only option at small railway stations. These crisps taste horrible but also oddly unpungent and are a sort of insult to everything Magyar.

These orbital cultural pressures are what you would expect this is a relatively low-self-esteem, ingredient-thin bit of Europe, hemmed in by other cultures with access to serious sunlight: it is melonless, basilless, oliveless. This means that for the heart of German cooking it would be rational to look in the central belt and with remorseless logic this does indeed turn out to be true, with a region roughly from Frankfurt over to Regensburg turning out the classic German cuisine of genuinely lovely, densely flavoured sausages and stews. This is also where the cult of fine river fish comes from. I feel a bit shut off from this last since having my second-worst meal ever in Nuremberg (the cult town for good traditional German food). This consisted of a big blue carp, cooked so that its head and tail met, served with desultory boiled potatoes and parsley. It was awful. I remember once reading about streams in New Jersey so polluted by metals and chemicals that if you were to wash your hands in them, all the skin would come off in one go, like gloves. This fish seemed to have died in a similar way, the blue colour not helping. The effect wasn't improved by my, mistakenly, cutting into the flesh, which gave off a smell like a vault tomb after flood water has just subsided. I managed a couple of mouthfuls and swore off any further engagement with mystical German freshwater fish, no doubt to my loss.

In a tiresome, leading sort of way I said 'second-worst meal', implying something to cap it. I once went with some friends to a traditional Frankfurt restaurant which turned out to be a sort of temple to German hard-core, with undrinkable apple-wine and guests greedily tucking into blocks of lard on black bread. On the disturbingly narrow menu, the only choices seemed to be between cuts of hot fatty ham served with the notorious Frankfurt 'green sauce' (an old enemy — vinegared chopped herbs), yet another bratwurst of a kind that even I was getting bored with, or some­thing described as a 'slaughterhouse platter'. In a spirit of fatalism I went for the platter. This turned out to be a central ridge of sauerkraut flanked by two skin canisters, sealed with metal surgical clips — the one filled with blendered liver, fat and water, the other with blood and a kind of mealy material. Sticking a fork in one caused the canister to detumesce, jetting its content over the sauerkraut. I recognized I was cowardly, but I couldn't eat even one mouthful. The meal was rescued by my mucking about photographing the slaughterhouse platter on a mobile, enhancing its ghoulish appearance by tipping a companion's untouched 'green sauce' all over it. There seemed to be no pudding on the menu and the waiter denied having any. When we pointed out that the people at the next table were gorging themselves on vanilla ice-cream and raspberries, he claimed that these were in fact bowls of heavy fat with raspberries — but he may have been having us on.

I realize at this point that I am not making a brilliant case for German food. But within narrow limits — narrow limits shared it has to be said with the stunted cuisine of a certain high-quality off-shore European group of islands — Germany does do some great food. There is always a pig and a potato just around the next corner, but there is a lot to be done with these two life-forms. Diced, mashed, braised, fried, generally hacked about, hundreds of years of semi-industrial ingenuity have gone into presenting potatoes and their friends (root vegetables and cabbage) in a cheerful light, in innumerable soups, stews and roasts, with their unvarying but oddly satisfying sprinkle of chives or parsley.

And what Germans do with ducks and geese has to be tasted to be believed. Remarque's All Quiet On the Western Front (a book at least as much about food as about fighting) has a central scene where two soldiers steal a goose and cook it in a shed with almost no equipment at all: the pedantic detail engaged in by Remarque and the resultant orgy of eating make it clear that this was a goose that did not die in vain.

At this point I've probably been in more Ratskellers than most people in the world, and sometimes I can almost feel myself metamorphosing into a fat-necked, glassy-eyed and complacent townsman in traditional costume, wiping the back of my head with a napkin as I launch, breathing heavily, into a further, monstrous plate of thick bacon, sauerkraut and pan-cooked potatoes, drained down and emulsified by vast bocks of lager or a candlelight-filled glass of Riesling.

Sadly my own almost tearful, nostalgic enthusiasm for German food is not in practice shared by most Germans. Indeed, I am sheltered from the true impact of this stuff. Intermittent visits to Germany make huge bowls of 'farmhouse-style' potato soup or 'hunter-style' stew highly entertaining — but if I were doomed actually to live somewhere like Bamberg and settle in, it is clear that on such a diet I'd be both rapidly bored and (running not very far behind) quite quickly dead. Even in the most lovely surroundings — and nothing can perhaps be more lovely than Lübeck's Ratskeller, with its little wooden booths and crazy heaps of paraphernalia hanging from every surface — it is hard not to notice that many fellow guests do seem in shocking condition. Massive figures with girths and complexions like Gert Fröbe's Goldfinger and beards covered in bits of lager foam and pig are not perhaps ideal role models.

Sometimes I will be in some adorably traditional Hof — I remember a particularly stark dinner in Ingolstadt — and I will be more or less alone except for some boss-eyed, rheumy old nationalist in a feathered hat. Walking back down that ice-encrusted Ingolstadt street, I was stunned by screams of laughter, overturning furniture, group singing and blasts of jocularity from entrance-ways as the entire population of the frozen town lived it up inside the scores of Thai, Indian, Greek, Chinese and Italian restaurants crammed within the city walls. For at least a generation most active, smart, thin, forward-looking Germans have seen their traditional foods as a marginal if not dangerous aspect of their heritage, just as the core German vacation fantasy has been to abandon the pleasures of a brisk hike in the Harz Mountains in favour of being pleasured in a sweat-streaming Thai massage parlour. But that's another topic. Increasingly 'German food' is an abstraction completely at odds with the green curries, vindaloos and gnocchi actually consumed by most Germans, leaving only me and the elderly man in the feathered hat (who, on reflection, may have had a minor stroke) to tuck into their 'farmer-style' goodies.

One food area that remains alive and well, albeit only for Germans over about fifty, is the afternoon cake. Desserts with meals tend to be a bit perfunctory, even if the default adjective to match 'farmer-style' is the almost unvarying 'dreamlike' (as in 'dreamlike chocolate praline marzipan ice-cream nougat dessert'). Given the medical issues that crowd around the main course, it implies an almost cavalry-officer recklessness to further challenge Death by ordering such material. But this is because hefty amounts of sugar can always be taken on board on other occasions. Cake shops thickly scatter both Germany and Austria, surprisingly often run by refugees from the territories lost in 1945. Perhaps this is a very readily transferable skill — a cake-and-coffee establishment in Breslau can quite easily move to Goslar, providing at the same time a ready-made set of nostalgically decorative pre-Nazi-era photographs. I used to plunge into these places with gusto but after a bad experience in Wörlitz I could stand it no longer. The hit rate for genuinely excellent cake was just too low: for every perfectly presented Sachertorte there would be five or six stale disasters with cream of a consistency reminiscent of the insulation foam injected into wall cavities. But this may be an unfair response, a cry for help from someone who after decades of heavy sugar use is finally hitting some serious hidden medical constraint.

Simon Winder, Germania, A Personal History of  Germans Ancient and Modern, London, Picador 2010, pp.  31 - 37