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Germany Holidays: Cabbage patch culture

Everyone knows about Germany’s passion for Sauerkraut, but northern Germans get excited about cabbage in its other manifestations, too.

©Felix Stein The reward for a long day's Kohlfahrt: Grünkohl and Pinkel ©Felix Stein
©Detlef Oehlschlaeger Kohlfahrt essentials travel by handcart ©Detlef Oehlschlaeger
©Oldenburg Tourismus und Marketing Throwing the Bossel during a Kohlfahrt ©Oldenburg Tourismus und Marketing
©Niedersachsen Tourism Niedersachsen is prime cabbage-fancying territory ©Niedersachsen Tourism

Come the darkest days of January, just after the first frost, the woodlands and heath around cities such as Hannover, Bremen and Oldenburg fill with shadowy cabbage-fanciers, taking it in turns to haul a handcart that clinks suspiciously as it goes over the bumps. Occasionally they will break into song, and some of them may even peel off to bosseln (hurl a ball) into the gloom. Given the normally dour outlook of many northern Germans, these groups are surprisingly cheerful given the time of year, the coldness of the air and the shortness of the day. But then they’re doing a Kohlfahrt, a cabbage walk, and the secret to their conviviality may be the clinking contents of the handcart.

The Kohlfahrt is one of the traditions of a region which, with Schleswig-Holstein, grows the lion’s share of Europe’s cabbage. A lot of this winter vegetable is turned into sauerkraut, but large amounts of kale or Grünkohl are eaten fresh, and celebrated with a long schnapps-assisted walk.

A group activity that everyone can afford, which combines exercise and conviviality at a time of year when the choice of recreation is limited

Cabbage walks can be organized by associations, by families, or for visitors. Many hotels will advertise packages where they provide the handcart, equipped with map, soft drinks, beers, spirits, and hot drinks. The map will be marked with a three-hour route, starting and finishing at the hotel or restaurant, many of which will also provide the Bosseln ball and an explanation of the rules.

Basically, Bosseln is similar to the road-bowling done in Ireland. It involves hurling a specially made (usually hard rubber) ball as far as possible either down a road or across fields and through woods. And although it sounds athletic, few take it terribly seriously, using it instead as an excuse for more refreshment.

The cabbage walk ends with a Grünkohlessen, cabbage dinner, at the hotel or restaurant which provided the handcart. On the menu is Grünkohl and pinkel, a special kind of sausage, along with smoked ham and potatoes. At the end of the meal the diners elect a cabbage king or cabbage couple, either the people who ate the most, or who performed most memorably during the drinking games of the walk. They have the responsibility of organizing the next year’s entertainment.

And despite the good humouredness of the whole proceedings, there’s an element of seriousness to the tradition. The Kohlfahrt is a group activity that everyone can afford, which combines exercise and conviviality at a time of year when the choice of recreation is limited. It sure beats yet another day of mooching around Ikea.

Kohlfahrt enthusiasts’ website (German only).

Getting There: International airports at Bremen, Hamburg, and Hanover. International rail connections into Cologne from Brussels (Thalys), which connect with the Eurostar from London. See our Travel page for airlines, rail and tour operators.

Staying There: our recommended hotels are here for Niedersachsen, here for Bremen, and here for Hamburg. They include a schloss or two.

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