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Alte Schule: Feasting on weeds, wildflowers, grasshoppers and game

Take a trip to this Michelin-starred wonder out in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern for hand-picked shepherd’s purse and braised lamb testicles... Everything’s fair game on Daniel Schmidthaler’s Alte Schule menu.

A mere two-hour drive north of Berlin, Alte Schule was rewarded one Michelin star in 2012. Photo: Alte Schule.

Daniel Schmidthaler is old school. It’s not just the name of his restaurant. It’s also in his roots – traditional Austrian cuisine – but most of all, it’s his work ethic. Schmidthaler uses his skills to get back to basics and that means putting earthy, countryside flavours back into cuisine: flavours that smack of the surroundings which nourished them.

From fleshpots to culinary hot spot

Daniel Schmidthaler learned and practised his trade at home before whetting his appetite in Majorca’s then in-restaurant Tristan. He met his wife, MecklenburgVorpommerin Nicole, when both were working in Kitzbühel. Schmidthaler moved on to Berlin’s Quadriga restaurant, Nicole to the “Kutscher Haus” in Templin, to which he later followed.

In 2010, the couple took over Alte Schule, a restaurant (plus hotel and seminar facilities) in Fürstenhagen, a two-hour drive north of Berlin. In 2012, Schmidthaler’s innovative approach to whole-plus-some cuisine was rewarded with a Michelin star. The restaurant and its chef have been attracting out-of-towners ever since, and that’s pretty much everyone that visits this off-piste corner of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Photo: Alte Schule.

The sweet taste of bitter roots

Turning theory into practice means getting out and getting intimate with weeds and wildflowers. Twenty of the 35 staple herbs in Schmidthaler’s kitchen are forest and garden natives. New life has been breathed into plants long written off as pests. Sleeping beauties that include Vogelmiere (chickweed), Schafgarbe (yarrow), Kapuzinerkresse (nasturtiums) or Hirtentäschel (shepherd’s purse) have been kissed back to life. Schmidthaler explains: “Chickweed ranges in taste from corn to freshly-cut grass. Yarrow is bitter. Nasturtiums are spicy like horseradish. Shepherd’s purse breathes fire into a dish. Herbs activate the stomach and promote digestion.”

Turning theory into practice means getting out and getting intimate with weeds and wildflowers.

There’s no set menu because Schmidthaler works with what the seasons and his regional producers have on offer – no planning, just cooking. Guests can choose between a four-course vegetarian option in the Schulgarten or a pricier, non-veggie seven-course menu in the Klassenzimmer. Schmidthaler slaughters and butchers his own meat and is confident he could survive in the forest “with a cross-bow and arrows. There are plenty of root plants to eat. They’re like carrots,” says Schmidthaler. To be eaten raw, of course. Still, no Robin Hood prices here. The veggie variant clocks in at a respectable €75. Meat-eaters need to double that.

Delight or fright? Schmidthaler is clear that he treads a delicate line between serving challenging feral fare and going too far for his guests’ neutralised taste buds. “I don’t expect guests to eat anything I wouldn’t eat,” he says. “The problem is our food’s become so bland. Chicory used to be bitter. But now it’s tasteless. We’ve lost our sense of taste. I provoke diners with a 50-50 mix of wild delicacies. Some dishes tend to the vinegary alkaline side, others challenge guests with their acidic bitterness.”

Hearts, lungs and brains

Schmidthaler remains defiantly carnivorous, lamenting vegetarianism’s inroads into his wild game and offal specialities. Baked pig’s ears, deer tartar and wild duck eggs put the “powerful gamey” punch into his fearlessly feral fare. Schmidthaler scratched horse meat from his menu due to its “strong aftertaste.” Ditto with tripe because of its stench.

That aside, anything’s possible in the Alte Schule kitchen. Hearts, livers, kidneys, lungs, brains and udders form the backbone of Schmidthaler’s beef and lamb offal delicacies. But they run second best to his pièce de résistance: braised lamb testicles. “We braise them in their own juices. The consistency is like scallops,” says Schmidthaler. Roasted grasshoppers, baked ants and shaved, sun-dried liver grace his salads.

Photo: Alte Schule.

But he draws the line at testing his guests with forest mushrooms. Too many dangerous varieties have risked landing on the supersized plates since his ageing PhD fungi expert retired. Now, Schmidthaler plays it safe: wild porcini (Steinpilze) are his staple.

“My strength is with the aromas, Nicole’s is with the aesthetics of the plate.”

Consistently sustainable at all levels, Schmidthaler sends his scraps to a rabbit breeder. A neighbour’s biogas plant fuels induction stoves with low-cost gas. “Unfortunately from an intensive piggery,” he says, regretfully. Shouting abuse in the kitchen is not on. “As an apprentice, I experienced all the screaming and temper tantrums. They’re counterproductive. They’ve got no place here. Alte Schule guests wander in and out of the kitchen at their pleasure,” says Schmidthaler, who shares the credit for Alte Schule’s success with his wife. “My strength is with the aromas, Nicole’s is with the aesthetics of the plate.”

Schmidthaler’s menu for the coming autumn and winter includes homemade black pudding: “spiced with cinnamon, carnations, turmeric and bay leaves,” he says. His blue eyes light up at the thought of adding goat’s eye soup to his back-to-nature smorgasbord. Laissez-faire, non plus ultra.