Goethe’s Faust meets Saxon comfort
If I didn’t know any better, I’d think I was giving away my soul for a good warm Saxon meal.
In the city of Leipzig, Germany, the name and influence of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe doesn’t stray far from conversation. Three more words are at the tip of the tongue: Faust. Pact. Devil.
Near the city’s central square at Markt, the Mädler-Passage beckons with bright lights and the promises of goods and riches within the shopping arcade. At the arcade’s north entrance, all are greeted by statues representing figures from “Faust”, the most famous published work by Goethe.
Signs to Auerbach’s Cellar lead downstairs on either side of the main passage. One thought remains as I walk into the basement. Am I sealing my own deal with the devil, setting foot in the Cellar’s chambers to sign away my freedom for some food, drink, and hospitality?
I’m sure the evening won’t be that dramatic. But the moment I walk in the door, I’m in the midst of culinary and literary tradition spanning many centuries.
Dr. Heinrich Stromer von Auerbach began to sell wine secretly to students from the cellar of his home in 1525. Leipzig University professor, doctor, and philosopher, Dr. Stromer was known in the city as “Doctor Auerbach” for his origins from the town of Auerbach in the Oberpfalz (northeast of Nürnberg). Between 1530 and 1538, he gathered enough funds to begin construction of his new home, Auerbach’s Hof, which housed a much larger basement for a tavern. Paintings included the legend of Faust riding out of the cellar on a wine cask:
Doctor Faustus zu dieser Frist
Aus Auerbachs Keller geritten ist,
Auf einem Fass mit Wein geschwind,
Welches gesehen viel Mutter Kind.
Solches durch seine subtilne Kunst hat gethan,
Und des Teufels Lohn empfangen davon. (1525)
Doctor Faustus at this tide
Out of Auerbach’s cellar did ride;
Upon a wine-cask up sped he,
As many a mother’s son did see.
This by his subtle art he did,
And the Devil’s wages got for it.
– “Faust: A Tragedy”, by J. W. von Goethe (Translated 1880)
As a student of Leipzig University, Goethe began visiting the cellar in the middle of the 18th-century and seeing the 16th-century paintings of the barrel ride in the tavern inspired him to write his version of “Faust” based on the life and times of late 15th- to early-16th century German magician Dr. Georg Faust (Faustus). Goethe included a scene within Auerbach’s Cellar, memorializing the tavern for posterity.
In 1911, merchant Anton Mädler purchased the entire Auerbachs Hof building to construct his own functional building for the trade fair. His original plans to demolish the historic building were met with worldwide outrage and protest; he compromised by retaining and enlarging Auerbachs Keller. The present-day shopping arcade bears the name of Mädler-Passage.
“Grosser Keller: Sächsisch köstlich”
Translated directly, “Sächsisch köstlich” is “Saxon delicious”, but the phrase sounds much better in German with the hard consonants and rhyming syllables. The online description of the Grosser Keller is:
Built in 1912/14 together with the Mädler-Passage, meals served within the “Großer Keller”are primarily simple dishes & Saxon specialities, as well as dishes accompanied by beer.
I’m very happy to see that the traditional tavern – pub – restaurant tonight is busy but not rowdy. Inside the front door, I announce my arrival, and soon Mr. Rothenberger arrives to greet me, welcoming me to their restaurant. He leads me towards a table at the back of the restaurant. While I’m seated for the next ninety minutes, Mr. Rothenberger is on the floor tonight for the first part of the dinner hour, greeting the evening’s guests and escorting them to their tables. Mr. Rothenberger and his wife have operated Auerbachs Keller Leipzig Rothenberger Betriebs GmbH since 2006.
I’m suddenly hungry, once I’m enveloped by the warmth of the underground restaurant. The many choices on the menu paralyze me with indecision. Conscious deliberation leads to decision, and a server responsible for my area arrives to take my order.
Thirsty & Cold: Beer & Soup, But Not At Once Because That’s Wrong
A short time later, the server returns with a tall glass of cold Ur-Krostitzer Schwarzbier dark beer. There’s a chill in the air tonight, but truth is, I really like dark beer. (The Krostitzer brewery is located 20 km north of Leipzig.)
But it is a cold evening, and I’ve been craving soup while I’ve been wandering the streets of Leipzig’s Old Town over the last couple of hours. From the description, I’m confident the mushroom soup will be a dark creamy mix.
Arrival of a white porcelain bowl confirms my educated guess.
Rich, creamy, earthy and chunky with a generous portion of mushrooms and fresh herbs, I make quick work of the soup. The soup deserves a portion of bread, although bread and butter are clearly listed as an extra. That’s too bad, because I think soup this good should come with a good chunk of bread.
I take a big quaff of my Schwarzbier to clean my palate. Down down the dark liquid goes, and a third of my beer is gone. Aaaaaah, refreshing.
Main (entrée): Chicken & Noodles, Just What I Needed
The soup has filled and warmed my belly, and the beer’s giving me a good small buzz. Something hearty must be followed by something equally filling …
The chicken breast is lightly breaded, but I find the breading oversalted, even though I’m very familiar with how much salt fits the German palate. Fortunately, the thin crispy crust gives way to tender and juicy white meat within. The vegetable ragout and noodles provide a “lighter” counterpoint to the meat. The breading, ragout, and herb cream sauce could also do with more black pepper, but that’s not traditionally German. I had expected this main dish or entrée to be too “heavy”, but a typical “meat and starch” done up Saxon-style with my plate of “chicken and noodles” does its job well.
“Typische Sächsische Gemütlichkeit” (Typical Saxon Coziness)
There’s crowd noise but it’s not obnoxiously loud. People seated in adjacent tables are clearly having meaningful conversations without having to bellow at the top of their lungs. Behind me are round tables surrounded by many in lively yet hushed conversations, accompanied by the sounds of glass mugs “klinking” and “klunking” against wood tables. I ask my server about these people, and he confirms my hunch. One last sip of my beer summons up a bit of courage. I stand up, walk over to one of the tables, and I ask in passable German whether these tables are reserved for long-time regulars (“Stammtisch”).
A woman in her sixties kindly answers some have been coming for years, others over decades. We chat for a little and when she asks about me, I tell her about my first time in both Leipzig and the Keller. With a smile, she wishes me well, and that she hopes I find my way back to Leipzig sometime soon. “I’d like that very much” is my parting reply.
At the front door, I tell the night manager the evening has been an excellent experience: “leckeres Essen aber etwa zu salzig, bequem und gemütich, gute Stimmung.” (“good food though a little too salty, comfortable and cozy, great mood”). The night manager nods and smiles, and hopes I return to the Keller soon.
The Final Word
Back up the stairs, I stop by the statue to give the shiny brass shoe a rub for good luck. As I exit the building for the lively streets of the “Weihnachtsmarkt”, I feel a gust of wind at the back of my neck, a short whisper, but a quick turn reveals there’s no one behind me.
“Komm ma’ wieder zurück (come back again) …”
“Wer nach Leipzig zur Messe gereist, ohne auf Auerbachs Hof zu gehen, der schweige still, denn das beweist: er hat Leipzig nicht gesehen.”
“Whoever goes to the trade fair in Leipzig without visiting Auerbach’s Cellar should remain silent, because this only proves they haven’t seen Leipzig at all.”
I’ve generally traveled alone over the last twenty years with pursuits reaching far-flung places under the guise of astronomical research and personal writing. Although a few reasons have changed and evolved naturally, I’ve come to terms with how and why I travel. Fact is, I’m “always” coming back home to Germany. And now, I’m already thinking about coming back to Leipzig, even if I have to make a pact and give up my soul in the process.
Auerbachs Keller is roughly in the middle of Leipzig’s Old Town, near Old City Hall, S-Bahn Markt station, and Augustusplatz. The place is divided into three main areas. On the ground floor is the coffee and cocktail bar, Mephisto Café. In the basement are the Great Cellar (Große Keller) and the Historical Wine Bar Restaurant (Historische Weinstuben). The latter consists of separate rooms: the Cask Cellar (Fasskeller), the Goethe Cellar (Goethe-Keller), the Luther Room (Lutherstübchen), and the Old Leipzig (Alt-Leipzig).