Bamberg might be getting a lot of things right, but vegetarian food isn't necessarily one of them. Actually, that’s not really true – finding good veggie fare in Bamberg was no problem at all when I visited, but the traditional dishes you’ll find served in the brewery taverns are as carnivorous as they come. I begrudge nobody their mountains of gravy-soaked pork, you understand, and was particularly envious of those getting to sample a speciality of the Schlenkerla pub, the Bamberg Onion. As it turns out, Bamberg is notorious for its onions as well as its beer, and in this dish an onion is stuffed with lots and lots of smoky meat and served with a gravy made from rauchbier and the drippings – the recipe can be found here. Quite understandably, a vegetarian version did not appear on the menu, so I started to think about how I could create such a thing at home.
How does one go about constructing a meat-free equivalent of a dish that revolves around pork, smoked pork, and a little smoked bacon for good measure? The answer was to fall back on the old vegetarian staples of mushrooms and cheese. Mushrooms bring a vaguely meaty depth of flavour, and cheese is, you know, delicious. In order to replicate the smokiness, I opted for smoked applewood, and decided to cook the mushrooms in Schlenkerla rauchbier. I sautéed them at a high heat until they took on a caramel colour and their liquids started to evaporate, then threw in around 100ml of beer, a teaspoon of smoked garlic powder and some smoked sea salt and cooked briskly until the liquid had mostly reduced. These mushrooms, even on their own, were a bit of a revelation, and something I’ll be cooking again. Leftovers made a sublime grilled cheese sandwich the next day.
I didn't have a genuine Bamberg onion at hand, of course, so went for the biggest Spanish one I could find. Spooning the middle section out was no fun at all. If I had to do it again, I’d seriously considering donning swimming goggles for this stage. I chopped these parts finely and fried them off, then added them to the mushrooms, before stuffing this mixture alternatively with grated cheese until the onion was bulging. I roasted this for about 45 minutes, occasionally topping up the water in the bottom of the dish whilst making a quick sauce out of vegetable stock and beer, thickened with a little flour and simmered in a frying pan. The sauce was simple but tasty, and the dish didn't need much anyway. The final touch was a smoked applewood crisp, tucked between the onion 'lid' and the main body where normally a slice of smoked bacon would rest.
I served it with mashed potato and some steamed veg, washed down with the remaining beer. It was delicious. That onion is no mere vessel – all of its sweetness is revealed, but it retains some texture and bite at the same time, and the filling was full of smoky umami flavour. It may insult Franconian tradition. It may sound unappealing to meat eaters drawn to the deeply porky original. It may have taken all afternoon. I don’t care. It’s my Bamberg onion and it made me happy.