Amazing Italians

Liebig’s meat extract: German food that Germans don’t know about

Liebig's meat extract is the pasta condiment you've never heard of, but should try once.

Justus von Liebig has never won a Nobel prize. Obviously, since it didn’t exist in is life-time. But when for the last time one of his academic grandsons (i.e. a PhD of one of his own PhDs) won a Nobel prize, he was already the 42nd grandson (or, I guess, at time like something like the grand-grandson). To that date, Liebig’s academic family accounted for more than two thirds of all Nobel prizes in chemistry. German academics honor him highly. His academic hometown Gießen named its university after him. Imagine that… to honor your work, your employer takes your name.

It is natural that the heroes of one country mean less in another. Some global fame for Goethe and Einstein aside, already Schiller and certainly Lessing for instance will have less worldwide recognition. Very recently, however, I stumbled into something that gave me a very different perspective on this phenomenon. One were a hero is very well-known for one thing in one country, and still very well-known abroad, just for a very different thing. Justus von Liebig abroad… that’s Liebig’s meat extract.

The girl bought it as a pasta condiment. Preparation is simple. Boil pasta. Preferably spaghetti. Put it in a plate. Mix it with half a teaspoon of Liebig’s meat extract. The extract is gluey and will stick to the spoon, but it will melt with the heat, so keep mixing. Serve. Eat.

I love it. The taste is funky, and the entire packaging comes along in the shape of one of these miracle medicines from the 19th century. And that’s exactly what it is. Liebig developed it as a way to serve meat to people who suffered from heavy diseases in stomach and intestines (and thus were unable to meat actual meat). Later, the extract evolved into nutritious and flavorful food for the poor who could not afford real meat.

Apparently, this thing was the basis of stock cubes as we know them today. It’s still an entirely different piece of meat. But it failed to catch on early. Because… well, if you want to extract something from meat, because meat is too expensive, you still need to use meat to extract from, which is still expensive. Success only came with industrialization through the benefits of economies of scale.

Herein I also found the reason that it’s not that well-known in Germany. Even though it carries Liebig’s name, and it’s Liebig’s invention, it was actually not brought to the market by Liebig’s company, but by a British company in a licensing agreement. That company in itself was also not really British, but British only by choice of the headquarter. Instead, it was the brainchild of a Belgian guy who happened to be a railway engineer. In agreement with Liebig, he had set up a large scale factory in Uruguay, doing some sort of 19th century outsourcing. Liebig also became an active member of that company, so they could market it as the real Liebig meat extract. Since, at that time, the name already had gotten as generic for the category as Kleenex got for tissues.

Great descriptions of the content can be found elsewhere, and I don’t fancy just rewriting existing pieces of text. Instead, I want to advertise (to Germans) the amazing opportunity it offers for a simple yet flavorful pasta “sauce”. Only pasta with pesto might be as easy in preparation – if you buy the pesto, obviously. It’s a great pasta for all seasons. The meat extract is not heavy, which works great in Summer, but it’s rough in taste, which still works great in Winter if combined with some butter as well. It doesn’t work as good with short pasta, because the knots in which spaghetti typically fall help to catch the gluey extract and to distribute it. Due to its density, it works great with a beer.

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