How Baiersbronn, a tiny German town, became a world-famous culinary destination

On the surface, Baiersbronn looks like any other Black Forest town. It has pretty, rolling hills, bucolic pastures upon which cows and sheep graze, and cute-as-button houses adorned with window boxes brimming with colourful flowers. With a population of just 16,000, it’s the type of place where neighbours take in each other’s mail when they’re away on holiday.

But Baiersbronn is not any other Black Forest town. This is one of the world’s top culinary spots boasting seven Michelin stars, spread over three eateries. It has as many three-star restaurants as Chicago and London.

That wasn’t always the case. Baiersbronn’s global reputation for fine dining has grown along with that of Germany. Sure, schnitzel, sausage and pretzels are part of the scene, but it is no longer the scene. Germany’s culinary culture has evolved in bold new directions and, along with metropolitan centres like Berlin, Baiersbronn is at the forefront. This small town has a key advantage over larger cities – location. It is situated in the heart of the country’s best growing regions, from grapes to strawberries. Add to that its proximity to the bounty of ingredients available less than an hour’s drive away in France and it’s a recipe for culinary greatness.

The culinary scene started with Schwarzwaldstube, a restaurant located in the luxurious Traube Tonbach hotel. Its roots can be traced back to 1789 when it opened as an inn licensed to sell food and beverages to lumberjacks. Today, it’s a family-run business with Heiner Finkbeiner and his wife Renate at the helm, backed by their children, Matthias, Sebastian and Antonia, and grandkids. In 1977, Finkbeiner had what seemed to be an impossible dream. “At that time, there wasn’t the same level of cuisine we have now in Germany. There was one restaurant in Munich that had an international menu, but that was it,” explains Finkbeiner. “We really wanted to create a restaurant that would become a true destination — one built on the reputation of Traube Tonbach as being a place where you could eat very well.”

Harald Wohlfahrt at Traube Tonbach in Baiersbronn

Harald Wohlfahrt at Traube Tonbach. • Courtesy Traube Tonbach

At that time, it was easier said than done. High-quality ingredients were in short supply, so much so that Finkbeiner had to drive to France and smuggle back items like fresh fish for the restaurant. But quickly, the restaurant attracted star-powered chefs who realized that, given the terrain, Europe’s best ingredients could be at their disposal here. Culinary legends including Paul Bocuse, Jean Troisgros and the Haeberlin brothers attended the opening. In 1980, Harald Wohlfahrt was hired as executive chef — a position that he still holds – drawn by the beauty of the area and the sheer potential for creating a culinary scene from scratch. He’s regarded as Germany’s culinary kingpin. He’s trained many of the top talents in Europe and his former apprentices now hold more than 60 Michelin stars among them.

Wohlfahrt’s style is tough to pin down, but German fusion is a term that works. He marries locally sourced ingredients, north-coast seafood with foraged items like mushrooms from the Black Forest, for instance, then elevates them with exotic flavours. A classic dish like Coquilles St. Jacques gets a mash-up treatment when plump scallops meet macadamia nuts, a palm heart coulis and a Thai curry foam.

In between meals at Traube Tonbach, hotel guests can burn calories in a myriad of ways. It offers gorgeous spa facilities where they can swim in an outdoor heated salt-water pool, sweat it out at variety of steam rooms and saunas, or unwind with a massage at the hands of a Thai therapist. Even kids can stay amused with far-from-ordinary activities like soccer camp, dance class and puppet theatre. But, since the resort is smack dab in the middle of the Black Forest and next to newly created national park, many come for the hiking. There are more than 550 kilometres worth of paths in Baiersbronn, so there’s plenty to explore. A good thing, too, because there’s also plenty to eat.

In true German style, good food is never far away — even in the middle of a forest. Traube Tonbach also has a Blockhütte, a rustic log cabin that serves up delicious comfort food. This is the spot to order quintessentially German dishes like Bavarian veal sausage with a doughy pretzel, Swabian meat-stuffed ravioli and creamy potato soup. And for dessert, nothing tops eating Black Forest cake in the Black Forest — a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Dining at Hotel Bareiss in Baiersbronn.

Dining at Hotel Bareiss. • Courtesy Hotel Bareiss

Just down the road is the Hotel Bareiss whose roots can be traced back to Hermine Bareiss, a war widow who started a guesthouse to help support her family in 1947. It expanded and morphed over the years to add many more rooms, more floors and guest facilities, yet it still maintains the feeling of being in a garden paradise in the heart of the Black Forest. It is brimming with beautiful flowers, shrubbery and green spaces that have everything from trout ponds to quiet terraces.

In 1982, the Restaurant Bareiss opened and, in just a year, it was boasting a Michelin star. Two more stars followed. The man behind the success is Claus-Peter Lumpp. He began as an apprentice in the kitchen of Hotel Bareiss after he decided — around his 16th birthday — that school wasn’t for him. Aside from the year he spent interning at other three-star restaurants and learning from chefs like Alain Ducasse, Lumpp has happily stayed put.

He has a reputation for having an impeccable cooking technique. As dishes flow out of the kitchen for the lunch tasting menu (six courses, plus too many extras to count), each one is the epitome of perfection. A goose liver crème brûlée opens the meal, followed by mushroom risotto crowned with a seared scallop, venison, char with lentil salad and smoked ham, sorbet, hazelnut parfait, and plum sorbet. It plays out like a symphony of light flavours that build into rich robust ones — crunch, creaminess, sweet and savoury in harmonious balance.

Coupled with ninja-like service in which new cutlery appears before guests have noticed, along with smartly matched wines (both local and international), it leaves you with a new appreciation for the artistry that goes into great cooking. At the end of the meal, Lumpp slips into the dining room without any fanfare and goes to each table to ask, “Was the food okay?” If you didn’t know better, it was like it was his first time behind the stove. He seems completely unaware that he is one of Germany’s most celebrated chefs. Okay? Not okay. It was magical from start to finish.

The good news for international diners is that even top-tier German restaurants like this offer luxury at great value. If you were to have the five-course tasting dinner menu at Per Se, chef Thomas Keller’s famed three-Michelin star resto in New York, you could expect to pay close to $400. In Baiersbronn, a similar meal costs roughly $225 to $275. The lunch with three wines at Restaurant Bareiss was a steal at around €130 ($190). Overall, Germany offers plenty for the dollar, from meals to hotel stays, and, these days that’s good news for luxury-minded travellers who like to star gaze at the world’s best Michelin restaurants. 

Read more from La Carte’s Luxury issue here.

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