Tit for Zutat (Zutat means ‘ingredient’ in German, it’s a pun, ok?)

Thank god you can at least get Heinz ketchup here. What would be the point of living without Heinz ketchup?

Living in Germany has upsides and downsides; culture shocks and culture clashes; pleasant surprises and painful realisations. But these all pale into insignificance when you finally have to come to terms with the most disturbing fact of all: it’s quite difficult to find baked beans in Berlin.


Not just baked beans, neither. Golden syrup, my beloved precious liquor, the only thing worth putting on your porridge   (though in my case the porridge is more of a garnish). Digestive biscuits. Decent toothpaste. And tea, beautiful fragrant tea, English tea that fills you with peace and tranquil contentment. When you really start to notice it, it’s amazing how many basic products and ingredients aren’t freely available just a quick plane flight from home: Ribena (my guilty pleasure), self-raising flour, celery salt, biological washing powder, lined notebooks – ok, the last one is relatively easy to find, but for some reason it seems that the German majority prefer things squarey.

Mostly this is not a bother; even with my manic temperament I find it hard to get excited about biological washing powder, and frankly I couldn’t care less if I never see another square of dairy milk ever again (Ritter Sport: it’s hip to be square). But sometimes you find yourself standing in the centre of Lidl wondering to yourself how on earth you are going to make your famous recipe for [EXAMPLE] without that one special ingredient that the Deutsche don’t even realise exist. What to do? Sub. Sub and improvise like a boss.

Take my chocolate fridge cake, for example. A classic from a cookbook for children which I was given when I was twelve and could easily rival Gordon ‘Furrow-Face’ Ramsay for the terrific recipes it modestly suggests. This cake is so good it makes nuns tapdance. And that is all partly down to a generous glug of golden syrup. In Germany this can’t be found for love nor money (well, you can get it from specialist stores for a lot of money, but there are limits as to how much of one’s savings should be spent on what is essentially just liquid sucrose). Golden syrup is also essential in flapjacks, crucial for chewy cookies, and – somewhat ironically – my secret ingredient in my famous secret recipe for Nürnberger Lebkuchen. Honey is too strongly flavoured and doesn’t give the same toasty flavour; molasses is too ferocious and black, like a demon hound’s blood; and agave nectar can’t be used for baking because it’s too busy doing Bikram yoga and talking about mindfulness. How to replace this unique amber goo?


 

The best substitute for Golden Syrup in Germany is Zuckerrübensirup, sugar beet syrup. This is an interesting substance. It’s a dark, dark, treacly stuff, either pure or as ‘ÜberRübe’, a sugar-beet and glucose-fructose-syrup hybrid, which makes up for its impurity with its hilarious name. It does the job texture-wise and baking-wise, but has an interesting flavour on its own: a rich and caramelly taste which finishes with the kind of nutty, tannic dryness you get from raw beetroot. Most importantly, it is the stickiest substance known to mankind. While making this fridge cake, I was able to glue the lid to my elbow, my spatula to the lid, a piece of garbage to the floor…you cannot contain it. It coats the entire kitchen in a viscous layer of adhesive tar, and after you have cooked with it, every step you tread across the kitchen floor makes that squeaky ‘unpeeling sticker’ noise. It’s delicious stuff though, and I can imagine a spoonful would make a tremendous addition to a tomato stew or a pot of Greek yogurt. 


As for the chocolate digestives, you have an array of different biscuits of the ‘generic brown’ variety to choose from. Most supermarkets do their own brand of ‘Hafercookies’, oat cookies, which are very nice but can sometimes break your teeth. Another option is Hobbits, a Hobnob-copy with a lurid orange packet that looks like it was designed on Microsoft Paint. You might like to use Butterkeks, which are more like Rich Teas in flavour and appearance, but unlike Rich Teas Butterkeks do not make you wonder what you are doing with your life to be subjecting yourself to such a lamentable excuse for a biscuit. I opted for the Hafercookies in a tribute gesture to the beloved digestives of my homeland, but decided to shake it up by adding in some Spekulatius biscuits, spiced little windmill-shaped things from the Netherlands which appear in Christmas and are sold in enormous packages as heavy as a house brick.

Self-raising flour is a tricky one. Normally you would add baking powder to plain flour, but the internet is full of roughly fifteen million different suggestions for what the proportions ought to be. I use 1 tsp to 100g of flour, as a rule of thumb. However, German baking powder seems to be particularly flimsy – perhaps that’s why German cake tends to be a yeasted, hefty thing you could use to prop a door open – so I tend to add one more teaspoon ‘for the pot’, so to speak.

Other ingredients are interesting because while widely available, they’re also just different enough to behave in a funny way. Whipping cream, for example, has about 7-10% less fat in it than good old British heart-attack whipping cream, so although it does whip up nicely it takes fifteen sweaty minutes of frantic whisking to get there. For this reason the Germans have invited ‘Sahnesteif’, a kind of whipping catalyst, but I refuse to use it on principle; if I wanted weird additives in my cake I wouldn’t bother baking it myself in the first place, and what better way is there to show your love than a big mound of cream whipped with dediated elbow grease alone. Kidney beans are another weird one – and I certainly don’t advocate mixing them with whipped cream wherever the heck you are. Kidney beans in Germany have sugar added to the canning liquid; not enough to make them a delicious pudding, but just enough that they taste disarmingly sickly. Perhaps this is a plus point if you want to puree them and make them into a Vietnamese bean cake, but otherwise it’s a strange and unwelcome addition to something that has its place in wholesome, chunky winter stews et al. Since living in Berlin I have learnt to always rinse my beans (which, incidentally, I hope will one day become a widespread euphemism for something hilarious: “Don’t just stand there rinsing yer beans, get a bloody move on!”).

It’s an adventure in my little Berlin kitchen, and usually the results aren’t too unpleasant; the chocolate fridge cake, with the substitutes of Zuckerrübensirup, Spekulatius and Hafercookies, a generous heap of quality German chocolate and topped off with some Gummibärchen (does that count as fusion cookery?) disappeared effortlessly down people’s gullets, and I can still make a mean Chili sin Carne. Whipping the occasional pot of cream now counts as exercise, which is keeping me trim, and my cakes do rise obediently for me despite the lack of proper SR flour. You just have to know how and what to sub. And maybe in the end give up and go and buy a cake from Lidl instead.

***Super-chocolate-fridge-cake (Schoko-Keks-Kühlschrank-Kuchen)***

200g plain chocolate
100g butter
5 tbsp golden syrup/light Zuckerrübensirup
225g of your favourite biscuits
4 tbsp mixed dried fruits (try to throw in at least a few glacé cherries if you can – candied ginger is also a winner here)
4 tbsp of your favourite nuts
A hefty pinch of salt
Gummibärchen to taste

1. Melt the chocolate, butter and syrup in 20-second bursts in the microwave, stirring in between, and then give them another quick burst once melted to fudgify them.
2. Pound the biscuits into crumbs and rubble of different sizes, and stir in the fruits and nuts.
3. Mix in the chocolate gloriousness, and stir until thoroughly combined. 
4. Pour into a baking tray lined with parchment and press the mix down with a cold metal spoon so that it is nicely compacted.
5. Arrange gummy bears (or other confectionery) on top according to your personal aesthetic taste.
6. ‘Bake’ in the fridge for 2 hours or so to firm up, then cut into smallish chunks – warning, this is outrageously rich.

Guten Appetit!

Good eats in the big B

Found in the Kaufhof groceries section: a Limquat!! A lime the size of a walnut! GENIUS.

This weekend was the big moment; my new flat had to meet the parents. I’m too much of a compulsive hostess to let them stay in a hotel, so they bunked in my big Berlin bed and I had an excuse to buy a kickass lilo. This was the first time ever that my dad had seen Berlin, having never had any holiday time even in my first stint in the Vaterland. It was my one chance to prove that moving over here and haemorrhaging money by furnishing an empty flat and starting a frantic job was all worth it. How was I going to convince my dad that this city really is awesome enough to never want to leave?

Firstly, by getting a bunch of old-fashioned bikes and pelting around the Tempelhof abandoned airport for a happy hour. He’s an obsessive photo-fiend, and a big wide open airfield full of people flying kites at sunset was a gift from the patron saint of picturesqueness. Plus, boys like bikes and planes. Win-win.

Secondly, by taking him to the Reichstag so that he could have a wander around that amazing dome, a huge glass bowl containing two interweaving helices (seems like a poncy way to pluralise ‘helix’ but have it your way, spellcheck) which make a kind of optical illusion as you walk up and then realise that you are walking down again along a different path which you thought was the same path as the one before. This wasn’t such a resounding success, mainly because Berlin decided to welcome my beloved parents by being as freaking grey and rainy as is possible within the boundaries of Earth physics. We skittered around the dome only briefly, pausing to look at the city from above in all its moist splendour before simply giving up and going to get cake.

And yup, that’s the third thing. The best thing to convince my dad – hell, the best thing to convince any visitor that Berlin is the city to be in right now, is to feed them, and feed them good. There are so many fantastic places in this city and joyfully they are all their own sweet little independent racket because essentially there is no such thing as chain restaurants or cafés over here (let’s not acknowledge the one exception which rhymes with ‘tar ducks’). And maybe you need some recommendations or maybe you need a reason to come here or maybe you just like lists, but either way, sit down and let me tell ya about some of my favourite places.

1. The Galeria Kaufhof, Alexanderplatz
Ok, so the food court of a mid-range department store is probably one of the lamest places to hang out. And yes, the average crowd there is less hipster and more hip replacement. But good god, people, the salad bar. There are rows of counters piled high with glittering ice and stacked up with plates filled with the most delicious, often outrageously strange salads, and you just take a plate and load on up. Bowls of seeds and croutons and dressings and bits of this and that and delicious nubbliness are scattered about to supplement your mound of tasty swag. There’s a handsome guy wearing a black bandanna making fresh stir-fries to order with crisp, rainbow ingredients. There’s another bank of ice chilling freshly pressed juices of unexpected fruits like kiwi or blueberry. There is a thing called a ‘vegetable buffet’ which I’m not sure I understand but I like it, a vast selection of fresh and delicious stews and soups, and most importantly: an entire wall lined with your options for cake and strudels. 

 

 2. Knofi, Mehringdamm
This one is a little confusing as there are actually two parts of this restaurant, one opposite the other on different sides of the same road. One is more casual and laissez-faire, a nice place for a comfy lunch with friends (or in my case in my first visit, with a sort-of-friend who was ten years my senior, made a pass at me and then a while later ran away to join a cult) – the other is more mature and seductive and does more dinner-ish options like a killer meze and magical aubergine creations. The latter is superb, but the former, on the north side of the street, is my favourite for the incredible soups and the best ‘Gössis’ – a pancake filled with spiced meat or spinach, Turkish sheep’s cheese and sometimes a bit of potato, cooked up lightning fast and served with a spectrum of dips – in Berlin. The decor is completely nuts, like a room decorated based on the fragmented memories of a feverish childhood dream you once had about an expedition around Turkey having only ever seen a postcard of the place. The service is terrible, the tables are cramped, the chairs are all different heights, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

3. Gugelhof, Kollwitzplatz
This is an Alsatian restaurant with the sweetest, smiliest, sometimes winkingest waiters and waitresses in the world. From the minute you enter, you feel like Franco-German royalty, and they instantly magic a huge basket of gorgeous bread with herbed cream cheese in front of you so you have something to chew on while you read the impressively creative menu. Wild boar with pumpkin mash? Winter stew with a roof made of bread? An entire trout poached in Riesling? Yes please, very yes. The breakfasts here are also delicious and always presented like a work of art – these guys really know their way around a garnish.

4. Café Nö, Mitte
The best Flammkuchen in Berlin and such good wines you’ll want a whole carafe to yourself. A Flammkuchen is a Germanic pizza, a whisper-thin base of crispy dough topped with a thin layer of sour cream, usually some sautéd onions, and then a topping of your choice, then toasted in a hot stone oven. It means ‘FLAME CAKE’ which is simply kickass, but the ones at Café Nö would be ridiculously tasty even if they were called something unappetising like ‘Schleimplatte’ (‘mucus board’). I mainly mention this place, however, because the atmosphere is terrific; cosy, friendly and beautifully decorated, while the music in the background is rat-pack covers of 90s classics (Frank Sinatra singing ‘Champagne Supernova’ is a tour de force) and there is a projector screening slides of old-time photos of ski slopes, Berlin streets and cheerful alpine lumberjacks. You can always banter with the staff; when I brought my parents there the waitress, a tiny blonde woman whose twitchy nose and hyperactive running around made her seem more squirrel than human, gave me a stone-cold look and said ‘You won’t get a table for at least an hour and a half, you might as well go.’ I gave her my saddest eyes and told her that my parents had come especially from England (never the UK, always England for best effect; it reminds Germans of the Queen) and I had been dying to show them this restaurant. She shook her head, repeated her previous statement, and within ten minutes had cleared a table for us and presented us with the novel-long wine list. Victory. And a delicious victory it was, too.

5. The Fliegender Tisch, Friedrichshain
The Fliegender Tisch (‘Flying Table’) is probably always going to be my favourite restaurant in Berlin. First and foremost, this is because anyone visiting for the first time will inevitably feel that sinking feeling; ‘Uh oh…’ one thinks, perusing the menu which has been meticulously pasted together in Microsoft Publisher 1998. ‘Ooo-err…’ one mutters when one notices that the mood lighting is a lamp with masking tape wrapped around the opening. ‘Oh dear…’ one then thinks when one sees some of the insane things on the menu: beef stew with cheese, potatoes and oysters is one of my favourites, as are the recent specials of brussels sprout omelette or salad with walnut-stuffed sprouts fried in a beer-honey batter. Hmm. And yet, the guy – the Fliegender Tisch guy, the smiliest man on the face of the planet – comes to your table, and you order something that sounds a little more palatable, and soon arrives a dish of fresh and sublime eats which is always handed to you with no less than a beaming grin. Their salads are super delicious, the pasta is tremendous as is the gnocci, and they do the best Kaiserschmarrn I have ever eaten – even better than in the Austrian alps, where it really ought to be the best of the best of the best. Plus, to ensure that the restaurant name isn’t completely meaningless, they’ve suspended a table from the ceiling so that it hangs skewiff over your head and gives you an instant icebreaker. What more could you possibly want?

Frankly, there are so many great places to feast over here I could write a book. Possibly even an ode. But I’ll leave that to other, future posts. For now, go forth Berliners, and get some gourmet grub this weekend!

How to furnish your flat for the price of a cup of tea (ok, maybe two cups. And a croissant)

Is there a human being alive on the plant who doesn’t have an Ikea LACK coffee table?

My colleagues and friends have been joking a lot recently that all I seem to be doing these days is dragging about heavy furniture. They find this hilarious because I am five feet tall with the athletic build of a baby chipmunk, and it is true, in the last few weeks thanks to a simultaneous office move and house move I have been spending a great deal of my time hoicking massive great desks, beds etc around the city. All those facts aside, it has been worth it because a mere three weeks after moving, with nothing more than a toaster and a sack of underwear to my name, I have filled an empty flat with everything it needs to be my Home. As a resourceful, dogmatic and rabidly opportunistic person, I knew I could do this on little more than a wing and a prayer. Here’s how you can fill your Berlin flat, save money, save the world by recycling old stuff and generally accumulate clobber with a few cheeky winks and very little tearful begging.

1. Downsize your office. If you’re not the CEO of your company, this probably won’t be your choice to make. If you are the CEO of your company, congratulations! But why are you wasting your time reading this bollocks when you should be out doing executive things? I’m not the CEO of my company, but our downsize coincided very nicely with the move and we ended up with stacks of old stuff which couldn’t possibly fit in our new half of our once whole office. It was only logical that that stuff should therefore go to a loving home, especially one whose main resident didn’t particularly mind spending 24 hours a day living and working in two places with almost identical interior design. It was also useful that I am just deranged enough to not mind the fact that this furniture, in honour of the company brand colour, came in an array of wild shades of red.

Thanks to a rocky financial climate and the instability of the tourist trade in low season, this little bounty came to two large tables, three chairs, a set of obnoxiously red curtains, and a set of metal shelves which are slightly less sturdy than a sheet of aluminium foil and lean sideways so much they look like they’re trying really hard to hear a whispered conversation on the other side of the room. Maybe if we downsize even more I’ll be able to nab a receptionist for my new pad too.


2. Go to fleamarkets, and barter your arse off. Don’t bother bartering at the Mauerpark flea market, where the sellers are so hardened and savvy that even a faint attempt at bartering will garner you nothing more than a withering look that would make a bunch of flowers shrivel. Plus, the ‘bargains’ at the Mauerpark flea market are overpriced to take advantage of gullible American tourists, so don’t be surprised if you are asked for four euros for that half-broken mug with a doll’s arm melted to it. The Boxhagener Platz flea market is where it’s at for the bargains. Not only do they sell interesting and unique items like this GENUINE HUMAN MOTHERFREAKING SKULL – 

Yeah, it’s wearing shades. I don’t even need to make a joke here.


but it’s also where you’ll find the vendors who are happy with every sale they make and tend to be up for a good-natured matey haggle. There are a number of tactics to getting your way and snapping up something for a ridiculous price. The old-school tartan wool blanket was mine after I asked to pay four euros, the seller demanded eight, and I just started pointedly walking away shaking my head in disappointment. A very cool vintage emerald-green Adidas sports bag was won by pointing out the fact that the zipper was broken (to the casual observer – but I deduced that it could be fixed with about two seconds of fiddling) and declaring that it simply wasn’t worth it for any more than five euros. Added bonus – I later discovered a trolley token and a half-full pack of tissues in the side pocket, so double win! Another good tactic is to simply appeal to the vendor’s common sense; I found a brilliant old, chipped plate that I wanted for a euro. He wanted three. I simply responded with: “But look at it, mate. It’s gross.” He couldn’t say anything in reply other than, “Fair enough. A euro it is, love.”

Of course, the best times are when you don’t have to barter at all because you happen upon a vendor who is just a brilliant human being. A man with dreadlocks and a nice red chest of drawers, to be precise. I asked for it for thirty smackers, he immediately agreed and offered to take it over to my new place and carry it up the stairs for me for free. He’s there every week, and apparently his schtick is to buy and renovate furniture from auctions that happen after someone dies or there is a massive building fire. So it’s probably a ghostly cabinet of lost souls that I bought, but whatever. Bargain.

3. Ebay Kleinanzeigen. No, I didn’t actually do this one. Ebay Kleinanzeigen has been recommended a lot, but take more than a cursory glance at it and all you find are thousands of ads of people selling appalling, half-broken rubbish (usually photographed in that charming way that makes the whole scene look urine-yellow) for double what it’s worth. No I don’t want a stained, visibly damp mattress for 150 Groschen. And the worst part is that you always have to go to some creepy, no-good alleyway in south Steglitz to pick the darn thing up yourself.

4. Just offering to take all of the previous tenant’s stuff. Let’s face it. They’re tired and lazy and can’t be bothered to spend the five minutes it would take to write the Ebay Kleinanzeige and take a yellowy photo of their old sofa. If you offer to take it off them for the cost of a pair of socks, they’ll be delighted. My haul: a sofa, three sets of shelves, a washing machine, a hifi, a kettle, a stick blender, a magnetic knife strip, a bathroom mat and a pink lampshade that makes my hallway look like a prostitute’s boudoir. Result.

5. Verschenkened stuff off the street. Ok, so there is clearly a risk that you will end up seeming like a dirty tramp if you pick things up off the pavement all the time. I did recently have a moment where I was walking home carrying some good stuff I’d found and I realised I was also wearing a jumper and a belt that had been verschenkened on the street not long before, and a top that was from Oxfam; I was a walking pile of cast-offs. But if you cultivate a sharp eye and know how to sift out the good, clean stuff from the discarded junk, you can find a smorgasbord of terrific new possessions for absolutely free! So far I have managed to snag two saucepans, nearly new; two cardigans, a jumper and two belts; brand-new chopsticks, still in the packaging; an excellent map of the world including a set of pins with flags on them for easy world-domination planning; a spice pot; and finally, my crowning moment, an insane geometric shelf/table/cat-scratching post thing which is now what I like to call my ‘chili podium’:

As fate would have it, the chili podium also comes in a funky shade of corporate red.

 Have you ever seen an item of furniture so brilliantly strange? Why does it exist? Why was someone getting rid of it? How come the more I tighten the screws on it, the more wonky it gets? So many mysteries.

So ok, it might seem a bit trampish to furnish your place with hand-me-downs and second-hand bargains. But is it? Or is it a way to make yourself an instant home, full of furniture with that comfortable air of having been already used and loved and lived with, where each piece has a history and a funny story to go with it? An Ikea show-home, or a place where you feel instantly at home? I’ll take the latter. The more skulls and surreal sculptural doodads the better.

Discoveries of an unhinged chef

Ahh, aubergine. Probably the most delicious sponge you’ll ever eat.

I’ve always cooked like Frankenstein (“It’s Franken-STEEN!!”). I stitch recipes together, shove mystery things into boiling liquids, do unexpected things to unexpected vegetables, and all with the express determination to eat whatever the heck I create, no matter how strange or indigestible it might be. Sometimes, this does not end well – particularly now that I am living on my own and therefore have free reign in the kitchen to cook as insanely as I want. However, my years of dedicated experimentation is all carried out with the ultimate goal of making recipes better, difficult techniques easier and good food…well, good-er. I want to dispel stupid cooking myths and make exciting discoveries; I want to make tofu taste incredible and find a way to cook kohlrabi without it smelling like farts (still no success); I want to find at least ONE HUNDRED different uses for my melon baller which I got one year for Christmas. Yes yes oh yes

In honour of the current GMBerlin kitchen, which has seen me through some rough times (and caused a good few of those rough times plus I may have set fire to my hair once or twice) I thought it was time to publish a few of my most proud discoveries so that you, too, can cook like a crazed Berliner, tinkering away at the stove, cooking up joy with her hair ablaze.

1. Aubergines. If you fry them, you end up using half a bottle of oil which all gets soaked up and turns this healthy vegetable into a sweaty, oily slab. If you stew them, they disintegrate entirely. Roasting them is awesome, but if your oven door hangs open like the messiah’s tomb, you may want to forego this technique. BUT there is a magic secret way! Cut the aubergine into 1cm thick slices and let the slices cook on the surface of a hot DRY pan until they start to brown on one side and get damp on the other. Then flip the slices and brown/almost blacken them on the other side. This sweats out their moisture so you can then finish off the cooking with a brief sauté in a splash of oil, a flip in a wok with the rest of your stirfry, or simply longer spent browning on each side so you get that charred, barbeque effect in the photo above. The flavour intensifies and sweetens, and the flesh gets a bit more meaty rather than soggy in texture.

2.i. Mushrooms. Are a bit like aubergines. Also tend to be soggy or greasy and rarely nicely browned. Mushrooms are also perfect for the above technique: dry-fry them, chopped, until they stop releasing any liquid and stop making that weird squeaking noise. Then fry them briefly with some oil to produce the most mushroomy, intense, delicious pile of breakfast wonderment – also good on pasta. Or anything.


2.ii. Mushrooms always taste better when they have a generous splosh of soy sauce added. It doesn’t make them taste ‘asian-y’, it just makes them taste…well, it’s the difference between a plate of pleasant grey fungus and a plate of savoury joy. I now do this step whenever I cook with mushrooms, even if they’re being added to something like a frittata or a stew.

3. Tofu’s weird. I bought some because I was dead impressed about some friends of mine who were upping their protein intake with all kinds of spacey vegetarian voodoo like tofu, seitan, tempeh, and faifoomh. The last one is made up and I bet you didn’t even realise. I experimented with the tofu and found that it’s good and very nutty but somehow a bit plasticky in aftertaste, like when you used to sometimes suck your toys when you were little. The answer? Spread marmite on your dry tofu before cooking it. Sounds insane; looks insane; tastes goddamn great.

4. Always have cream cheese in your fridge. Although it seems like a rather one-trick pony – spread on toast, with or without salmon…err, that’s it – it is one of the most useful things you can have on hand and makes a thousand different dinners. You can stir a blob of it into soups or pasta sauces to make them creamy and rounded in flavour; you can mix it with puréed vegetables and parmesan to make your own creative pesto; you can mash it into mashed potatoes with garlic and black pepper for days when you are tired of life, and mix it with crumbled goats’ cheese for a much better goaty version of ricotta, which everyone knows tastes of cold nothing anyway.

5. Respect the French and their Mirepoix. Mirepoix is supposed to be the base of every recipe and it’s essentially a diced onion, a diced carrot and a diced stick of celery gently sweated in the pot before the rest of the recipe kicks in. It makes your cooking taste wonderfully rounded and aromatic, and yes it also helps you to get your five a day yawn yawn yawn. Seeing as celery costs as much as a liver transplant in Germany I’ve had to forego that part of the magic trilogy, but I still find that a grated carrot cooked with my diced onion at the start of a recipe adds a lot of flavour and texture – and health smugness.

6. Fry your tomato puree. This sounds moronic, but if you add the tommy-P to the pot at the very beginning with a glug of oil and cook it for a minute or two until its colour changes it tastes much less metallic-raw and starts to go mellow, sweet and intense. 

7. Don’t peel butternut squash. The peel is good for you and really delicious, with a chewy toothsome texture. Also, kiwis are totally fine eaten skin-on without peeling – I promise it doesn’t feel like eating a man’s hairy leg, even if you think it might like I once did.

8. And finally – avoid painful accidents. Be very careful tasting penne for doneness in case it machine-guns a spurt of boiling water onto your vulnerable tongue. Don’t leave a wooden spoon in the flame of your gas hob, especially not for a good few minutes until you smell smoke. Don’t think it will be fine to remove corn-on-the-cob from boiling water with a spaghetti spoon. Don’t let pickled gherkin juice squirt into your eye somehow. And when squeezing your tomato puree out of the tube, be careful that the tube doesn’t suddenly and unexpectedly bend backwards and ejaculate a stream of red hell all over your clothes and legs. Hypothetically speaking, of course.   

This little piggy went to market

I know what you’re thinking: damn, that’s a cool umbrella.

What do Berliners hate the most? Tourists. What do tourists hate the most? Tourists also. Tourists come to Berlin for one of two reasons: either to see the splendour of German modernity directly parallel to the horror of remnants of a tortured past, or to be, like, totally alternative and underground and do non-touristy awesome gritty Berlin stuff. To be fair, the latter is what most Berliners are trying to do anyway. And all of this is relatively moot, because the few real born-and-bred* Berliners are just middle-aged guys trying to enjoy a coffee and a Brötchen while doing their best to ignore the idiot hipsters sashaying down the street in trucker caps.

Anyone looking for a less obvious and ‘ooh-take-a-picture’-y activity in Berlin would be hard pressed to find anything better than one of the excellent markets sprawled all over the streets of this patchwork city. When the Christmas markets aren’t filling the air with the intoxicating, thick aroma of Glühwein, there are all kinds of other terrific specimens up for grabs, tiny to enormous, cruddy to overtly pretentious, and everything in between. And as they are often the only thing happening on the otherwise DEAD waste of 24 hours which the Germans call ‘Sonntag’, I’ve been to a lot of them lately.

First the big guns: Mauerpark. The Mauerpark flea market (photo above courtesy of one fine vendor) is probably the most colossal market in the entire city. If you were to stop and look at every single stand you could easily spent a good seven hours there and you’d probably end up accidentally buying a jar of flavoured honey, an old pocket-watch and a Turkish pancake just out of sheer overwhelmed confusion. It’s also host to the famous weekly Bearpit karaoke which I mentioned decades ago in this excellently written sample of bloggery

*N.B. if you are the person who I recently found spelling it ‘born and bread’, shame on you. What do you think ‘born and bread’ even means? Blood is not thicker than pita.



As with all flea markets in Berlin, you really have to either go with a sharp eye ready or not bother going at all (if you plan on buying anything, that is). There is such a sea of detritus awaiting you that anyone of a weak constitution will not know what to do with themselves. Full cardboard boxes brimming with broken mugs and sculptures of Jesus and the lid of a bread-maker (which, presumably, will one day be bought by someone). On first glance it looks like a hopeless cause, but there is actually a lot to be extracted from the offerings. There is a man who sells his own home-grown salad leaves, and if you give him a euro and ask him to ‘freestyle’ he will just pick out a big mixture for you based on what he thinks you’ll enjoy. There are Vietnamese people selling incredibly cheap and cool sewing stuff, and guys with giant biceps hand-pressing fresh orange juice at unbelievable speed. A sweet old lady there sells herbs that she grows herself from seed, and when I bought a tiny little oregano seedling from her she wrapped it prettily in newspaper and said, “People think I’m fifty – I’m actually SEVENTY-EIGHT! Gardening keeps you young!! It’s the key to good life!!!” She’s right.

But the Mauerpark flea market is as notorious as it is enormous, and people throng there in such masses that it’s probably the first topic that’s ever required me to use the verb ‘throng’. And yes, for that reason you get the tourists and the expats (cough cough) fighting over vintage bags and saying things like, ‘Oh may Gahd, they’ve got hemp candles scented with basil’ (pronounced ‘bay-zil’, because American English is wrong). This week I wanted to go somewhere a little more…little, and I had the Crellestraße Turkish market in mind since I now have to work whenever the Maybachufer market is on (that’s another post).

 The Maybachufer market is a Turkish market whose size rivals the Mauerpark and is as mental as it is huge. It’s incredible, it’s loud, but most importantly it has some of the most gorgeous and cheap fabrics you can buy in this city; as the proud new owner of a kick-ass military-grade sewing machine, I was looking for some fodder to test out this bad boy properly. Squid skirts don’t count. And when the Turkish vendors aren’t at the Maybachufer, they are dispersed around Berlin at mini-markets like this one.

The Crellestraße market (near Yorckstraße S-Bhf) is an awesome last resort for anyone who’s missed the big Turkish market or just wants to go to a market that is small, a bit more normal and doesn’t contain even one pesky tourist. The fruit and veg on offer is astounding: not just beautiful flat peaches and mangos and chilis but more off-kielter stuff like these Asian aubergines, globe courgettes and baby okra, which I have never even seen before. 

Because it’s a smaller and more intimate market you also get more of an opportunity to chat with the sellers and have a bit more fun. The sweet aubergines and baby okra were being sold by a guy whose stall stood out because it seemed so hilariously mediocre. Compared to the other grocers at the market, whose stalls were practically collapsing with mountains of produce, he had a few lame little cardboard boxes scattered about, each barely half-full with dull-looking little nothings. I love an underdog, so I had to see what this was all about, and I realised that although he wasn’t selling much, the dull-looking nothings were in fact small amounts of really exciting and exotic stuff that you really won’t find anywhere else even in this crazy city. East-Asian varieties of uncommon herbs, weird new varieties of chilis, the aforementioned tiny-weeny okra… I didn’t even know what I would do with any of it but I did need ginger, and when I grabbed a bulb he simply decided through personal joie-de-vivre that it would cost me fifty cents. I complimented him on his insane array of produce and he said, “I’m Egyptian! It’s all from Egypt! That’s why it’s all so great!” I believed him. 

I love the big markets, but for good banter you can’t beat the smaller ones. So when I took the above photo for you lovely readers, the seller waved his arms and shouted, “Hey, hey, HEY! Those are copyrighted!”, before giving me a toothy grin. 

And yes, I did find some fabric. It’s got yellow flowers and intricate Japanese vases printed on it, and it was two bucks a metre.

How to hack your Zwischenmiete

Now if only there was a way to hack the extreme temperature fluctuations between ‘molten lava’ and ‘ice-water’.

For the unemployed graduate looking to drift around a German city for an aimless while, the right ‘Zwischenmiete’ is a crucial tool in your belt. ‘Zwischenmiete’ essentially means ‘between-rent’, which is what happens when a person in Berlin pops off to another country or a work thing in another city or something and rents their flat – plus furnishings and all the trimmings – to a happy-go-lucky travellin’ type.

It’s a perfect arrangement. Internet, washing machine, mattress and everything come included in the bundle without any effort on your part and no profit being made on the part of the flat-owner. Not only that, you are usually able to use the little things that would be really irritating to have to buy otherwise: salt, cleaning spray, dishtowels, a ruler… I am infinitely thankful that these are not souvenirs I have had to invest in and cart around the streets of Friedrichshain on my arrival, yes ma’am. 

But a Zwischenmiete is also simply an opportunity for fun and adventure. Every new flat is like trying out a new lifestyle, like being plugged into a different pre-made home on The Sims and seeing what happens to you and your wizard-hat-wearing brother (why did they ever include that in the ‘heads’ selection?) this time. I have, as you know, experienced a delirious array of different temporary residences in this city, including all sorts of exciting little accents which made them memorable: psychopathic cats, psychopathic flatmates,
minuscule kitchens, suspicious elderly neighbours, mattress-on-the-floor beds, mattress-in-the-air beds, fifth-floor, fourth-floor and first-floor rooms…

The only difficulty – the one niggling little issue that occurs in every flat I occupy – is the fact that you can’t change anything, even the things that drive you up the wall. And so, in my time living around and about, I have become an expert in Flat Hacking.

 


You see, these people have entrusted their beloved home to you, and have even given you, a complete stranger, the freedom to use their bed and kitchen and rifle through their shelves and stroke their curtains or whatever creepy things you might do. And so it is your duty to respect that trust, and to not do the creepy things. To leave their shelves alone, and to use the toilet cleaner responsibly rather than emptying it out the window in a drunken frenzy. And most importantly, you may not doll up the flat to make it the way you want it to be in any way you can’t put back the way it was. 

This is tricky when you come up against parts of the flat which don’t quite mesh with the way you like to live. In moments like these, you have two options: you can grin and bear it, and complain to your friends about it until they stop agreeing to meet you for coffee, or you can come up with an ingenious short-term (ideally cheap) and completely reversible solution. And here is where I come in.

Example number 1: The Hochbett.

Ahh, the Hochbett. If a German bedroom is considered a bit small, or if it’s a huge room but the person just wants a more jaunty feel to the space, you can be certain they’ll stick a big ole Hochbett in there. A Hochbett is a bunk-bed for adult people. A mattress on a climbing-frame, so you can shove your futon or elliptical trainer underneath and still have space for your Ikea generics. For me, a guarantee that I will at some point within the next three months break my leg falling from the bed when getting up at night for a pee. 

Don’t get me wrong, it is really, really fun sleeping on a Hochbett. You can pretend you are seven again, plus there is something inherently cool and pirate-like about climbing a ladder to go to sleep. But the crucial problem is that if you are a person who enjoys reading in bed, a weekend-morning cup of tea and having a radio alarm clock, it is difficult to source a bedside table that is three metres tall. We can’t drill into the wall and put in a bedside shelf because this is someone else’s flat. We have tried balancing a lamp and a mug on the edge of the mattress but had foreboding visions of spill-related electrocutions. 

The hack: two bricks and a plank, all found within the flat. The plank is propped between the bed and my clothes shelf, and although the cables for the lamp and my pride-and-joy radio are stretching precariously to the socket below, this means I can now read in bed to the sultry sounds of Berlin InfoRadio (or Radio 4 on weekends, for a treat). Total cost: zero euros. Total reward: untold comfort and luxury.

Example number 2: The Shower.

Why do Germans have a penchant for showers which are essentially a bath with a shower attachment on the tap? There is no practical way to clean oneself in a shower like this. My first attempt in the new flat was an agonised experience of trying to hold the thingy with one hand while smearing shampoo on my head and into my eyes with the other, then desperately trying to rinse it off like they do in a hairdresser’s before then nearly dislocating my shoulder figuring out how to soap and scrub my armpits and other…areas. This would be acceptable if the shower didn’t also veer madly from fiery, murderously hot to arse-freezingly cold every few seconds, meaning that my elbow was simultaneously employed pushing the tap knob around in an attempt to regulate the heat. No. This was not acceptable. Man should not have to shower like it’s a game in Crystal Maze.

The hack: two suction hooks and a strong hair-bobble. The suction hooks clamp neatly onto the tiles and have the added bonus of being a sassy lime-green colour, and then the shower head is simply twanged on by the bobble between the hooks. It looks a bit haphazard and I fully expect it to suddenly fall on my scalp one morning, but it serves a useful purpose for the time being. Total cost: 1 euro 60 cents for the hooks, the hair bobble was courtesy of my enormous mane. Total reward: less pain, more hygiene.

Example number 3: The Pillow.

In every single flat I have ever had in this city, the pillow has always been the same. (Maybe it’s the same one pillow coming back to haunt me?) For some reason, German pillows are not nice, wide, plump things roughly the width of a human head and neck and the length of a satisfied turn from one side to the other as the sun comes up. No; German pillows are oddly large and perfectly square, huge enough to raise your entire torso off the mattress and awkward enough that you have to lie very low down in the bed to feel comfortable, leaving a disarming chasm between your scalp and the wall. Not only that, but they only ever contain about six fibres of stuffing, so they deflate to a pointless envelope the moment you actually sink your tired head onto them. These pillows do not like to be folded to make them thicker, however; that causes them to slither about rebelliously once you are asleep so that you wake up with the whole thing somewhere under your ribcage, halfway out of its cover. Not good for sleeps.

The hack: stuffing all the other cushions you can find into the pillowcase with the actual pillow. Total reward: ok, this one is a bit rubbish and actually just creates a huge lumpy bag like a sackful of dead sheep. But it is still more comfortable to sleep on than a regular Kopfkissen. And I’m blowed if I’m spending my hard-earned euros on a new pillow. 

Whistle while you gherk

Possibly my proudest achievement of my life so far

Ok, so perhaps my ‘heimatsickness’ for Germany is going a little too far these days, but when I was shopping in my local LIDL a few months ago I spied a little packet of gherkin seeds for a meagre 50p and just couldn’t resist it. Suddenly I had an opportunity to   combine two of my greatest loves: growing veg, and Gewürzgürken (pickled gherkins). The cute little things grew lovely, lime-green shoots by my kitchen windows, then perked up in the polytunnel to ridiculous spiny triffids which were soon completely festooned with tiny, black-sprigged gherkins that looked like fat little hairy caterpillars. Unlike every other plant in the garden, which in this squelchy damp weather have been savaged by marauding armies of slugs as BIG AS YOUR THIGH (RIP cavolo nero, purple sprouts, pak choi, mint, chinese radishes, fennel, pattipan squash, cucumbers, runner beans…) the gherkins seem to be repulsive to those undulating bastards, presumably because their leaves feel horrendous: they are covered in a stubbly five o’ clock shadow of minuscule spines and feel very raspy indeed. We fed them and watered them and loved them like our children. 

Then, one day, I opened the polytunnel to discover pendulous, bloated sea-cucumber-like things hanging from every branch and realised that if I didn’t do something with these babies soon they would probably grow and thicken even more and snap their branches, rolling down the hill and crushing myself and the house like the Indiana Jones boulder. It was time for another one of my favourite experiments/hobbies: pickling.

I’ve been jamming (bop shoo wah wah wah) since I was quite young, as we used to have a colossal blackcurrant tree which would yield great bushels of rich indigo berries which made enough jam to coat entire acres of toast. But as I get older and my hair goes – well, not grey, but certainly more yeti-like – I have developed a crazy, insatiable obsession with pickled and sour things like gherkins, onions, picallili, sauerkraut, all kinds of erroneous veg as long as they are soaked in delicious vinegary juices. Now my family simply have to sigh and put up with it when instead of filling the house with sweet fruity aromas the entire place suddenly clouds with mists of choking boiling acid. It is very, very worth it.

There are three methods for pickling: hot, cold and fermented. Fermented pickles, like sauerkraut or kosher dill pickles or kimchee (did someone say kimchee?! Quick, get me my neon wayfarers and retro pullover!) need  to be left in a warm place in a brine, so that all the ‘good’ microbes can process the food and create the vinegar solution as part of their growth process. The reason why I avoid this method like the plague is that it is exactly as gross as it sounds. Huge frothing jars of warm, gently rotting produce, people. They can get carried away and explode or overflow into your clean, linen-smelling airing cupboard, or you might have an exciting batch that develops toxins! Frankly, leaving questionable and marshy-looking tubs of fermenting organic material around the house is my grandmother’s job and she does it very well without even trying, so I leave it to her.

Cold pickles on the other hand are how things like pickled onions are made and I don’t tend to use this technique either, because you simply drown the stuff in your vinegar mix and then wait for MILENNIA while the flavours infuse and mellow. Now, no offense, but no small sour onion is worth three months of waiting; I could easily die before I ever get to try the darn things. So hot pickles is the one for me: you just have to pour your hot infusion over the produce, which partially blanches it, and then they’re ready in two weeks. Yes, it involves boiling a vat of hot salted vinegar which sizzles into your eyes, nose, ears and any other vulnerable mucous membrane, but it is quick and most importantly creates delicious and crunchy pickled goodies. Mmmmm…

 

What could be more satisfying than growing, picking, processing and finally eating something from the very beginning of the flowchart? I urge you all to try jamming or pickling, making your own chutneys or ketchups – it is so easy and there is nothing better than garnishing your dinners with condiments that you know have never even seen a factory. It’s like living in the stone age, man!! It is sustainable living on a tiny scale, but you have to start small to get bigger, and these gherkins are like a sour, pungent symbol of the dawning of a new age – of that I am certain. They came out deliciously; sweet, tangy, spicy and ultra-crisp. Hoorah! Have a go at my recipes and get your own specimens going!

To prepare your jars for pickling, you need to sterilise them by putting them in an oven and heating it to about 140C – but don’t put them straight into a hot oven as the quick temperature change will make them shatter.

Basic delicious balsamic pickle (good for sliced red onions, shallots, peppers, or any crunchy veg) – makes 2-3 large jars, so you need enough veg to fill them
500ml white wine vinegar
100ml balsamic vinegar
1/2 tbsp salt
70g white sugar
1 tsp black peppercorns
350ml decent-tasting water

1. Bring the ingredients to a boil in a saucepan, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
2. Let bubble gently for 5 mins – meanwhile, chop your veg into chunks about 1cm thick.
3. Take a hot jar out of the oven and wrap in a towel or teacozy to prevent it getting cold. Quickly pack in the veg, then pour over the hot juice until everything is covered. 
4. Repeat this with more jars until you’ve used up all your produce. Let any air bubbles come to the surface, then screw the lids on before the jars get cold.

Dill pickled gherkins/cucumber (makes 3 large jars)
6 medium gherkins or 1 1/2 regular cucumbers, quartered lengthways and sliced into 2-inch-long sticks
1 large white onion, thinly sliced 
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tbsp black peppercorns
2 tsp mixed pickling spices or spice of your choice
2 tbsp salt 
750ml cider vinegar
500ml decent-tasting water
big bunch of fresh dill
200g granulated sugar
1 tsp fennel seeds

1. Sprinkle some salt on the gherkin sticks and leave in a colander to drain a bit.
2. Bring all the ingredients except the gherkins, onion, garlic and dill to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. 
3. Let bubble for 5 mins.
4. Arrange the gherkins, a few slices of onion, about 1/3 of the dill and a clove of garlic in a hot jar, and pour over the hot juice. Repeat with all the jars.
5. Same as above; leave to settle, and then lid up. 

I hope to smell your vinegary gases on the horizon, loyal reader. Enjoy your pickles in exactly a fortnight from now!

The Noble Art of Chucking Things Away

Sadly, not everything can simply be got rid of in the recycling.

What’s the first thing I did on the first day of 24 hours of freedom? I threw things away. And it was glorious.

A wad of flashcards as thick as an Oxford dictionary, endless rain-softened folders, reams of posters of declensions and gender rules and plural endings, collected up, divested of blutack and chucked into a crate. Arbitrarily symbolical, now dead flowers mouldering in the bin. Entire notebooks tossed with lascivious joy into the recycling pile. Replaced with strings of flowers, posters of shapes and colours, or sheer empty space in which I can now start keeping things that are useful to me rather than detrimental to my mental stability. And as a souvenir of this monolith of work, now completely behind me, I have kept a single poster: a hand-drawn picture of a nude man with his various body parts labelled and coloured in blue, green or purple according to gender (his hair is orange – plural). 

This may sound heartless but let’s face it, it wasn’t a part of my life I feel a huge deal of affection or nostalgia for. Of course university has been a huge catalogue of memories I adore and relish, but they aren’t the memories that will be rekindled by an accidental glance at ‘Shakesp. Practice qu.’ It’s not like old schoolwork either – I can’t imagine myself reading back through an Inchbald essay and thinking “D’awwww, gosh I used to be precious.” It’s dull, dull, dull and too often a reminder of times I was simply stupid; not a patch on things I have kept from primary school which include a long and fascinating story about a flea who lives in a mouse hole and becomes infuriated when someone puts a cactus right in front of his ‘front door’. No – throwing it all away was simply the most fantastic few hours of cathartic life-purgation. Colonic irrigation for the soul.

   Hundreds of people hate to throw anything from the past away, though. It all contains too much emotional value, too many memories. This makes a lot of sense; it’s not an easy thought to consider lightly tossing hours and hours of your dedicated work into a bin already full of crushed cereal boxes and empty jars. Harder still are the ‘souvenirs’ and keepsakes you accumulate through life, millions of tiny fragments of things that contain meaning: the lollipop from that German bop where people thought you were Princess Leia (no, that’s how Bavarians wear their hair), the tiny plastic hippo you found in the covered market inexplicably abandoned on a windowsill, the hideous old-fashioned mirror with a handle you bought as a prop for the play you had to furnish on a budget of about forty pence. Isn’t it brilliant how we infuse everything with meaning? I honestly think it’s one of the redeeming features of western humanity that we invest each object with the moment and the sense of the moment in which it was needed and used, until we end up surrounded by the living we’ve already done. 

YET. Throwing things away is also one of the most brilliant, fun and mind-clearing things you can do, and if you are one of those who treasures everything too much, I beg you to try it. For a start, when does something stop being a perfect symbol of a memory and simply become a knick-knack? I finally threw away a huge selection of volcanic rocks from my trip to the Grecian islands when it occurred to me that these rocks don’t give a particularly good summary of the power of the volcanic landscape and taken out of context are just ugly grey lumps simply good for the dry feet on the bottom of your skin. I find myself in the middle of a swirling accumulation of …just stuff…that is now part of my space in the world without ever being used or touched apart from when it is being moved aside so I can get to something I really need. And I think this is why it is so glorious to throw things away and free yourself up; you can get all that clutter-cholesterol out of your bunged-up system and feel more…clean.

This doesn’t mean you have to be a cold-hearted destroyer of all your treasured keepsakes, though. It simply means being critical and aware of yourself: I like to ask myself questions like “Is the memory this thing is related to really so special that I won’t remember it without this thing?” Generally the answer is yes, and then giving the thing to Oxfam doesn’t hurt at all because you realise that the best memories you have don’t need a chunk of plastic as a monument. It also means being practical; size is important, as you can keep a plastic hippo, say, with a lot less annoyance than a huge scented candle an old squeeze of yours once gave you. Chuck things away, I say! Remove the drifts of bits and scraps from your life! Occasionally it can be as enlightening as a religious realisation, like when I came to see that I could avoid the irritation of sweeping all my knick-knacks onto the floor every time I closed the curtains if I simply swept them all into the garbage instead. There is so much fun to be had in looking through your clothes and realising that you always felt blobby in that top anyway and you can only wear it with one specific cardigan so it will look much better soaring through the air towards the bin-bag full of charity-shop offerings. It is so relieving to stop yourself constantly accidentally treading on the sharp thing if you realise the sharp thing is just a floating bit of sentimental paraphernalia. And it is tremendous to hurl away huge rafts of degree work visualising the sheer cubic-metreage of space that is now becoming available to you to move in, redecorate and not stub your toe on. 

And let’s face it, a worrying majority of domestic misfortunes happen because trinkets get in the most annoying places. The Bauhaus is a German design movement which revolutionised product design by suggesting that something ought to be designed to work and be useful before the prettiness and knick-knack-quality was considered. Without them Ikea simply wouldn’t exist, and their fundamental propaganda video is a hilarious silent staging of the contemporary household beset by things and bits and stuff. The wife comes to make the breakfast but can’t get anything together with ease because every object is breakable and has fancy handles or spouts which look nice but ultimately spout the milk onto her lap. She tries to do the laundry but it tumbles everywhere and sweeps stupid hanging ducks and ceramic flowers off the wall on her way down the stairs. The boss comes over for coffee, but the coffee-pot’s pretty lid falls off, he receives scalding coffee in his crotch and knocks a porcelain cherub onto his head in his agonised frenzy. The Bauhaus knew the hell of too many knick-knacks. Each scene is interspersed with a black screen and a sardonic bit of commentary: “Unlucky again, Herr Schroeder! It’s a shame the chair is so easily stained, too!”

The best things are things you can keep and at the same time reuse or repurpose so they’ll be there with you forever: favourite mugs broken and converted into jewellery holders, old theme-park pressed pennies drilled and made into a chain, beach rocks gathered into an old glass vase to keep the flowers upright. You don’t have to keep the whole T-shirt if you can just cut out the motif and sew it onto a canvas bag, a pillow or even a new T-shirt that actually fits. And my favourite thing of all is my ‘special box’. It’s a dark wooden box that for whatever reason is broken enough to require a special 36-degree upwards-eastwards pushing-pulling motion to open it, and it contains all the priceless stuff that you couldn’t make me chuck for love nor money. It has the plastic tiara my friends crowned me with on my last night in Berlin and my wristband from my first ever May Ball, and a lot of other tiny and private things. That’s why it’s so fantastic to throw things away: because then you get the pleasure of picking the few tiny and precious bits that make it into the box.

The Chef Not-So-Special: Kitchen Hacks

Come on. Admit it. You’ve never used those things on the grater either.

There are more cooking sites on the internet than there are feckless youths like me to actually try out all the recipes. I am completely addicted to all of them. But it’s not the recipes that hook me, or the photos (food porn is exploitative and presents an unrealistic ideal of food to impressionable people), nor is it the bloggers’ jocular little anecdotes (incidentally, is it the law to get pregnant if you write a cooking blog?). No, it’s the weird little things you pick up, the strange little tips and new ways of using utensils and X that you can substitute for Y if you want to make your Z more like a Q. I don’t think I’m really an amateur chef, more like a professional kid-making-mud-pies-with-a-tadpole-garnish. It’s the experimentation that makes cooking fun, exciting and often hilarious, and now that I’ve been doing it for a few years I’ve accumulated a veritable wealth of useless kitchen advice which doesn’t really count as ‘recipes’ or ‘tips’ or even ‘guidelines’ but more along the lines of things which make you go “huh”. 

I was inspired to write this post a couple of weeks ago, in fact, when a friend of mine and her boyfriend were cooking curry and making a shamefully delicious side dish of caramelised courgettes tossed in yoghurt with paprika. Poor Boyfriend was laboriously slicing the courgette into the required thin rounds when I handed him my incredibly party-hat grater (above; and yes, there ain’t no party like a coleslaw party) and suggested he just do it on the mandoline slits. Chucka-chucking a courgette through those funny little smile-shaped slots sliced the courgette in about two minutes and Boyfriend was irate that the world had not yet taught him such a useful courgette technique. Actually, it doesn’t seem like many people even know what those big wide mouths on the side of the grater are for except for maybe thinking you put a belt-strap through them to wear your grater like a celtic warrior’s sash. That would be formidable, come to think of it…But not even I knew until I was taught myself a couple of years earlier and expressed the same amazement. These little kitchen hacks, Ray Mears-style survival tricks for the domestic, save time and money and effort and sometimes are just delightful and satisfying in themselves. And thus, without further ado, I now share my wisdom with all of my dearest online friends.

1. Yes, the slots on the grater are for slicing thin rounds of things, and it works very well indeed. You want to push the thing down against the slot so it’s at a 45 degree angle to the table surface and shove it up and down in a nice robotic rhythm. Good for: courgette, cucumber, carrot, radishes, beetroot. Not good for: fibrous things like leeks, or human fingers.

2. That other bit on the grater? The rough pointy bit that you really hope you never have to rub against your face? It has no uses, and yet endless uses. Use it to mince anything like ginger, garlic, galangal etc – and if you do, pop a double-layer of clingfilm over the top of the spikes before you get started. Rub the chunk round and round in mini circles until it’s all pulped up, then you can just peel off the clingfilm and scrape it right into the pan without having to spend four hours scrubbing the damn grater with a toothbrush to get all the tiny reeking garlic fibres out of those claw-like barbed holes. You can also scrub a piece of toast or very stale bread against it to get breadcrumbs, use it to grate nutmeg, or rough up the sides of apples so that the toffee sticks to them properly when you’re making toffee apples for halloween!

3. You can sharpen a blunt knife on a mug. I KNOW. As long as you have a ceramic mug with a rough, unglazed base, all you have to do is invert the mug and scrape the knife blade along the rough surface with the blade at a 45 degree angle to the rough surface. And never sharpen a wet knife. Don’t ask me why, The Guild would throw me out.

4. You know toasters? Oh, they are far more than their name suggests, my friend. Not only can you toast slices of bread in them, but you can crisp and warm up bread rolls on top of them (thank you Berlin Flatmate!), prop cold falafel over the slots to get it hot and crunchy, cook frozen potato waffles in them, and I have even discovered that on their side they will make you cheese on toast. The toaster is humankind’s greatest ally and my university comrades will attest that I am the toaster’s most devoted harlot. Use yours well.

5. Oh maaaan, it’s so boring cutting a perfect circle of greaseproof paper to fit your cake tin! So do it the tissue-paper-flower-maker way: get a piece of greaseproof paper bigger than your tin, fold it in half again and again and again until it’s a triangle of eighths, hold it over your tin so the point of the triangle is roughly in the middle of the tin, pinch the edge of the paper where it meets the side of the tin and tear off the end. Open out the paper and you will have an octagon which fits your tin and you didn’t have to go and get a pencil and some scissors and suddenly take a break from baking for a brief arts and crafts session. This tip was taught to me by a Mexican lady who was making margarita cake at the time, so you know it’s a good one.

6. Caramelising onions is a con. You don’t need to cook them gently in a fist-sized knob of butter for an hour while singing French chansons. You can do it in fifteen minutes if you chop ’em up against the grain (the slices fall apart and melt more easily that way), cook them gently in a bit of oil in a non-non-stick pan, and keep a glass of water beside you. The caramelisation flavour comes from all that lovely brown caramelised crustiness that accumulates on the bottom of the pan, and all you need to do is add about a tablespoon of water to the pan every time it gets to a nice toffee colour to ‘deglaze’ the pan and return all those caramelised sugars back onto the surface of the onions. Repeat this about 5-10 times and you will have soft, sweet, gloopy onions that oh god are so delicious whizzed into homemade hummus. 

7. If fancy people get garlic smell on their hands, they get out a silly little metal egg-thing and rinse their hands with it under the tap. It is upper-middle-class voodoo. Except it isn’t, it is simply the fact that stainless steel removes garlic smells from skin, and if you rinse your hands with a teaspoon or a fork or a dentist’s gum-checker the smell goes away. It’s true! And yet there are people in the world making money selling magic metal garlic eggs.

8. This one’s all over the internet, but it’s a goody: bananice cream. Chop banana. Freeze chunks. Pulp chunks to puree in blender. Put back in freezer for 20 minutes. Soft-scoop natural smooth banana healthy ice-cream. Done. Oh yes, you can blend in peanut butter or chocolate or honey or nutella if you like. But then you might feel lees virtuous when you scoop a huge ball into an ice-cream cone and wander around flagrantly having ice cream for breakfast.

9. Don’t put avocados or tomatoes in the fridge. It kills enzymes in them which prevent the avocado from ripening ever (although if it is à point then putting it in the fridge will of course stop it going over) and which deaden the flavour of tomatoes and stop them getting fruitier and more intense. 

I have millions more and would write a tenth if that weren’t so darned predictable, so that’s that for now. I hope to write about my cooking experiments from time to time here, mainly in the hope that I’ll get featured on FoodGawker and finally get a few hits! It makes me feel special.  But I would love to answer questions about all these things so if you have a ‘wondering’, just post a comment. If not, go and cook something fun. If you don’t want to do that either, well, what do you want from me? Get out of the kitchen or I’ll burn you with a hot spoon.

BONUS PRIZE! Whoever identifies the sitcom allusion in the last line of this post gets a pack of custard creams.

Doing the Deutsch

Hi, can I get a Quorn Bratwurst in a quinoa tortilla please?” “Bugger off.”

This is Bratman. (Dunnanunnanunnanunnanunnanunnanunnanunna…) He is the new Bratwurst seller on Cornmarket Street. The only Bratwurst seller on Cornmarket Street. I think probably the only one in the country. This is jarring to those of us who are used to seeing five or ten of these guys on every street corner even at 7am, filling the morning air with the warm, damp, porky mists of the morning Brat. I first encountered Bratman when I was meeting with my German tandem partner who immediately made a beeline for him as if he were selling kittens made of gold. His Bratwursts are made to a real German recipe and even the Brötchen (bread rolls) are the real Schrippen of my year abroad, made to a German recipe! (A Schrippe is a small and stiff snow-white roll that costs about fifteen cents at most and therefore seems to contain only ground newspapers and bleach, with the nutritional value of a plastic model of a ricecake.) One can only hope that Bratman represents the foetal stage of a nationwide revolution in open-air sausage consumption.

One of the few things that keeps me going here in Oxford and prevents my nonetheless inevitable plummet into mania is that the city contains a small, quiet, but persistent German underground who doggedly keep German values alive even within the dreamy British spires. There are quite a lot of them drifting around, if you know what to look and listen for; I can pick up the intonation of Germans chatting from a good few metres away and usually have to restrain the impulse to skip over to them and beamingly demand “Wie geht’s???” because for some reason when you know someone else’s language you suddenly feel like you have an unspoken kinship with them. It’s probably the same phenomenon as when you assume you know someone like a brother the minute you find out their birthday is two days after yours. There aren’t many of us here who have done the German thing and have come back to what should by rights be nothing but wall-to-wall tweed, but for those of us that have, it’s a pleasure to know that there are still a few places to get your fix of Germaction.

For a start there’s the Oxford Uni German society. Granted, the members of the German society are almost exclusively vaguely disconcerting business/law students from Germany who are here to find the quickest, directest and most ferocious route to riches and a glossy glass-clad executive office. I distinctly remember the one German I spent the entirety of the first meeting ‘chatting’ to: a very tall, gangly young man who looked like a young Jim Carrey and thought it was devastatingly hilarious conversation simply to force me to try to guess his name and age for about sixteen hours. Because of the target demographic, the events tend to err towards pleasing the masses and so they generally tend to be speeches from politicians, lawyers and generic business sharks, like Jack Donaghy without the knee-weakening voice. Sometimes, however, they really pull one out of the bag; a talk from the chief editor of Bild, Germany’s version of our shameful Sun newsrag, was deliciously brilliant. He oozed forth rhetoric like an ancient Greek, claiming that Bild was not only not reprehensible but also contributed to the educational and cultural foundation of Germany oh and by the way we would never do phone-hacking you philistines. Things like that – or the excuse to make a pair of Lederhosen out of Primark tat and wind my hair into plaited buns for a German-themed bop (“Alle meiner Entchen!!”) – make the membership fee worthwhile.

There is also the German Baker Man, a guy with a truck who comes to Oxford every Friday at an unjustly early hour to sell real German bread to people who appreciate that a real loaf is not a squashy cuboid of carbo-foam but should be dark mahogany, the size of a house brick and weigh two kilos. I haven’t been yet because Finals, but the first thing I’m going to do on that Friday after exams are over is run there and buy a real, soft, German pretzel. Oh god pretzels. Ihr fehlt mir so.

A brilliant ‘Typ’ called Golo (which is incidentally going to be the name of my firstborn child) has been organising a Stammtisch for the past year for all of us who want to speak in a more crispy language for an evening, and I have been one of its most devoted attendees. It’s great language practice, but more than that being at the Stammtisch is a bit like sitting cross-legged in the middle of your bedroom and getting out all your old cuddly toys just to squish them and look at them. It’s comforting and wonderful to be surrounded by a language I miss so much, to still be learning new and fantastic words and reminisce about things we share like missing Mehrkornbrot, lamenting how expensive booze is here and discussing weird things we’ve noticed about German television. I feel that in some way I can make a contribution in return, namely by informing them that Lidl does sell real black forest ham and reiterating how much I adore their country no matter how embarrassed or modest they might be about it.  

Germany is missing to me so much that I find ever more tiny ways to inject a little German-juice back into my days. The Co-Op did a sale on pickled gherkins lately and I am ashamed to say I did not hold back; I listen to Berlin radio every morning (“InfoRadio mit Irina Barbovsky – WOO!! WOO!! MONTAGSALARM!! – und jetzt das Wetter…”); I wrap my teabag around the spoon like they do, hell I even have my Kaiser’s trolley token still hanging on my keychain. My long-suffering college friend gets texted a German Word of the Day every day depending on what I’m revising whether she likes it or not. And now, of course, we also have Bratman. The Germans underground is gradually spreading overground, Oxford, and there’s nothing you can do to stop us…