Growing up in the U.S., hedgehogs existed solely within the worn pages of Beatrix Potter’s illustrations, and as unfortunate croquet victims of the Queen of Hearts in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. They are not found in the wild in North America and are considered a potential harbinger of disease, salmonella foremost among them. In many states, even owning one is illegal.
Europe, as is often the case, is a different story entirely. Here hedgehogs, believed to be one of the oldest species of mammal still in existence, have long been frequent guests in both life and literature: from the Greek poet Archilochus to Isaiah Berlin’s enduring philosophical question: are you a fox or a hedgehog?
In Germany, these spiked roly-polies enjoy a nearly cult-like — but also endangered — status. My own in situ encounters have been both more prosaic and more existential, although, if we’re being honest, perhaps more for the hedgehog than for me. Twice last autumn, I discovered wild hedgehogs who — oh help and bother! — found themselves lodged in the neighbor’s fence after over-ambitious winter preparations. (Spoiler alert: everyone survived). With so many popular appearances ranging from bar signs to boardgames to haircuts, it should come as no surprise that the hedgehog’s presence extends to the German table as well.
But not like that.
Glad to Have Mett You
Mettigel is Germany’s answer to the American molded potato salad or ham-and-bananas hollandaise. The origins of the party classic can be traced to 1950s Ruhrpott, Germany, the former industrial and coal-mining center. And although the dish’s popularity spread quickly thereafter to its 70s heyday, that’s where the trail (and the plate) runs cold. All we know for certain is that around that time, the hedgehog, known for rolling up to defend itself, started being molded into a different kind of ball, as an adorable, edible pile of Mett, with onion spines and olive eyes.
Mett — or Hackepeter, as it’s called in northern Germany — is minced or ground pork. More specifically, raw pork. As an American, I had always been taught that raw pork carries disease. But the truth is slightly more complicated. When raw meat is minced, its surface area is significantly increased and moisture and nutrients from the muscle fibers are released. This in turn gives bacteria space to breed, meaning that the meat must be handled quickly and carefully. Strict German guidelines and ordinances regulating meat handling, however, lower the dangers of this beloved delicacy.
According to the Verordnung über Hackfleisch, Schabefleisch und anderes zerkleinertes rohes Fleisch (1936), better known by its nickname Hackfleischverordnung*, Mett must be processed in a semi-frozen state, stored at temperatures not to exceed 2 Celsius, and may not contain more than 35% fat. Most importantly, it must be sold (and consumed) on the day of production. Meaning, there is no Mett on Sundays.
Take that Blue Laws.
Mett is typically eaten as a spread, smeared about a finger-width thick on bread. But as with most traditional dishes, regional variations dictate certain immutable truths, and widths, when it comes to the all important Unterlagen, or base. In the Rheinland, Mett is traditionally served on half of a dark double roll called a Röggelchen. The bread dough is made from a minimum of 50% rye flour, and the rolls are baked until they develop a dark, rich-tasting crust.
In other parts of the country, Mett is served on soft pumpernickel, with a caramel, malty flavor. Elsewhere, diners default to the simple Brötchen, or roll. All are fine, because no matter how much bread is a cornerstone of German cuisine, here it is simply a delivery system for the meat masterpiece.
Exploring the Mett-a-verse
Mett is best purchased — as I did for the purposes of this text — from your local butcher, in varying degrees of freshness (and thus flavor and intensity) from pre-packaged to cooled to schlachtwarm, or slaughter fresh. A number of options, add-ins, and spicings are possible depending on your region, your butcher’s friendliness, and your own free time. They could include garlic, parsley, raw eggs, caraway seeds, even nutmeg.
In the north, Mett is considered a typical breakfast sandwich. In the Rheinland, it can often be found in pubs masquerading as comfort food. In other corners, it is simply a hearty midday — or midweek — snack. No matter your address, classic Mett is simply seasoned with salt, pepper and served with a side (or spine) of raw onions. Best enjoyed on Wednesday, otherwise known as Mettwoch.
Sides can range from mustard to cornichons, letting the heat or the vinegar cut through the richness. Drinks primarily tend toward beer, preferably bitter for the same reason. And although there is an inherent linguistic correlation with Mead (Met), the honey wine is uniformly not recommended.
Truth be told, Mett really does come in all shapes and sizes. While there is, of course, the fineness of the grind, the reference here is to the fine art of subtlety: sculpting Mett as one would clay or ice. And thus bringing us to the second half of Mettigel: Igel, or hedgehog. A truly distinctive hedgie “raw art” outfitted in onions, pretzel sticks, or pineapple rings (Mettigel Hawaii).
Although today the Mettigel has been primarily relegated to the dusty high shelf of dated legends, of Hamburger Helper and cheese straws, its true followers remain devout. A quick browse through the Intermett reveals, well, anything from Ker-mett the Frog to Mett Damon, with video tutorials, Facebook groups, a museum, and an Instagram account to feed your wildest dreams — or nightmares.
Mett State of Mind
It’s hard to quantify the full breadth of Mett culture in Germany. It’s more than just an ingredient, a dish or a tradition. Mett is to Germany as bacon is to the U.S. today. Or perhaps what Spam once was to the UK. It makes everything better. It’s a way of life, inspiring a subculture of Mett-based humor, t-shirts, and memes. It is honest and authentic; fatty and coarse. It is the anti-Instagram and photographs poorly. Maybe it appeals to so many of us precisely because it has no Schokoladenseite, as the Germans call it, one’s most photogenic side. It is, in the truest sense of the words, raw.
If ham and onion is German umami, then Zwiebelmett is OG.
And so it came to be that I set out to save the endangered Mettigel on my own. I spent weeks scouring recipes and sites, querying experts, butchers, neighbors and anyone with Mett to grind. Finally I was ready.
The sides of pickles and pretzels were laid out on the counter and ready. Cherry tomatoes were not in any of my sources, but the color contrast was too good to resist. My Mett waited like a new bride, out of sight and in the refrigerator for her cue to walk down the aisle. The vegetarians in the family were given a day off in the kitchen. The moment had come, and the only unresolved issue was the one that fuels most of this magazine’s pages.
What to Drink?
The popular answer, of course, is beer. Whether that meant a light and fruity regional Kölsch, or a slightly crisper, top-fermented Altbier. But my Mett deserved more.
I’d heard advice that a mature Chasselas from Switzerland would be the perfect match: creamy, low in acidity, and presenting few obstacles to the raw onion. Other insiders lobbied for a high-altitude Müller-Thürgau from Alto Adige. I personally believed that a crisp Elbling sekt from the Obermosel might have offered a pleasant respite from the richness of the fat in the mett, as well as stood up to the pepper. Because. Bubbles.
Ultimately, however, it was the opinion of friend and wine writer Sebastian Bordthäuser, whom I consulted based on his recent porcine adventures, that won me over. When asked, he hadn’t even hesitated: “Best pairing?” he said, “A smear of Mett and Schnapps.”
And he was right.
Saving the Endangered Mettigel : A Recipe
500 grams of Mett (ground raw pork)
1 medium white onion
Long pepper (or black olives)
Salt and pepper to taste
Crushed caraway or marjoram (optional)
Parsley or other seasonal greenery
Cherry tomatoes (optional)
Bread, assorted (röggelchen, black, wheat)
- Mettigel is more about assembly than anything else. Unpack the Mett only as you are about to use it and not a minute before. Add 2 tsp of salt and freshly ground (preferably Madagascar) pepper, and knead the Mett together with any other desired seasonings. Put it on a plate and channel your inner toddler as you mold it like Playdoh into a vaguely oblong, mildly tapered hedgehog-like shape.
- Peel and cut the onion. The trick here is finding the proper width for the “spines.” Too thin and they fell over; too long and they lack the correct curvature; too thick and you’ll be asked to leave the party. Ultimately, using a sharp knife I sliced the onion in half, then sliced that half in half again the long way. Next I cut slices just thick enough to stand up on their own. Starting at the back, these slipped perfectly into the fibrous Mett and formed nice straight lines.
- While tradition calls for black olives for the nose and eyes, I had some Indian long pepper crying to cut through the glistening fat coating my hands. One piece broken in half made a perfect pair of eyes, and another shorter one for the nose. Added benefit: when a guest finds it, the discovery process resembles a spicy, savory version of Galettes des Rois. Just, you know, with umlauts and tears.
- Dress the outside with seasonal greenery. I used wild ramps and arugula. Garnish with cherry tomatoes.
- Present preferably atop a bed of ice, with a nice basket of assorted bread or crisp rolls. Using a knife, smear a finger’s width onto the bread, and season liberally. Bite in and enjoy the rich, savory flavor, but avoid posting immediately to Instagram — there will likely be a bit leftover in your teeth.
*The HFIV was repealed on Aug 15, 2007 and replaced by more comprehensive ordinances.