Show me the green

They look like happy, fat monsters. Where did I put my googly eyes…

Whoever first had the idea to sell small bunches of herbs in the supermarket was a wily genius. Portioned herbs have got to have the highest profit margin of all the world’s commodities; sure, gold is expensive per gram, but presumably less expensive than the 1.60€ one is expected to pay for three small leaves held together by the world’s smallest elastic band. Plus, gold doesn’t then wilt into inedible sinews just hours after it has been taken home from the shop. German and English supermarkets share this one depressing attribute: all herbs are sold at a heart-stoppingly high markup, packaged in an oversized plastic sarcophagus. It does seem especially cruel in Germany, though, because these are a people who truly love and respect the art of the noble herb.

Herbs play a huge part in the cuisine and the culture over here. From herbal tea (mmm, ok) to herbal remedies (hmm…) they are given the credence they deserve, and anyone with a balcony is essentially a social pariah unless they festoon said balcony with huge bushes of aromatic foliage. Along with bakeries and ‘apothecaries’, there are equally astounding numbers of florists’ scattered along every street, and in every one, amidst the bouquets and the decorative bamboo and the slightly strange wreaths made out of spraypainted lichen, there are always herb plants – interesting and nice herb plants – ready to be taken home and goaded along the rails of a balcony somewhere. It is a joy.

A cup of German herbal tea is nothing like the green-tea-bitterness that one usually encounters in the UK. It is actual real herbs steeped in hot water, and at the best cafés that means a hearty bunch of sage, rosemary, thyme, mint and all sorts in a big hot fragrant vat. It can be quite disarming if you have grown up in a household with English roast dinners; while it certainly tastes healthful and fresh, it is also inescapably like drinking a cup of very bland gravy. 


Of course, if you know the right times and the right places, your access to herbs is joyful and unfettered. In summer, at the start of gherkin season (don’t be ridiculous, of course there’s a gherkin season, you philistine) supermarkets sell vast bunches of dill – for the picklin’ – even including the big yellow polleny flowerheads. The view alone of such a vibrant and pert crop in amongst the usual fruit and veg is something wonderful and exciting, and something you just don’t get in the UK. Nor are the enormous sheaths of herbs you can buy at the Turkish markets, where you will find a bundle of coriander the size of a newborn baby for fifty cents and a cheeky wink. And at the Potsdam Castle there is even a whole planted border where glossy bushes of basil form the central foliage in a bed that margins the front of one of the most spectacular custard-coloured buildings (although naturally one is discouraged from picking the bedding plants and making a quick pesto). 

Anyhew, this all comes around to two recipes which evolved out of a pack of sage I bought last week. Unfortunately I was forced to go to Real to buy it – a supermarket which prides itself on stocking everything you could ever possibly need and which surgically extracts painful wads of cash out of your wallet for the privilege. Having invested in my tiny coffin of priceless leaves, I used a few to make a fancy dinner for my neighbours, and the couple of sprigs I had left over just seemed far too valuable, and simply had to become the centrepiece of all my cooking for the days to come until I had savoured every last cell of their tasty foliage. Strongly herbed, piping and toasty; this is perfect winter fodder. And boy, do we need it over here; it’s hovered around -11ºC for long enough that this morning a quick walk to my workmate’s house became an interesting voyage of discovery where I learnt that one’s gums and eyelids can go perceptibly numb in strong cold winds. I hope you make both of these comforting treats this week and enjoy them with my favourite winter remedy of all: a giant glass of lip-smacking red wine.

Herby stuffed red onions

Vegetarians suffer under the constant tyranny of stuffed vegetables. If it isn’t goat’s cheese or spinach and ricotta, the one thing any vegetarian will invariably be presented with at a restaurant or dinner party is a stuffed something. Not a bad thing, but gets a little old. This is a slightly more unusual variant, though, and the shiny purple skins of the onions makes it a bit of a showstopper too.In short: yummy.

Makes enough for one tasty dinner; multiply quantities depending on how many mouths there are to feed, you popular rascal, you.

2 medium-sized red onions
6 leaves of sage, finely snipped
2 tbsp couscous
4 mushrooms
1 clove garlic
2 tbsp grated parmesan (be generous, the more the better!)
2 tsp dried thyme (or 1tsp fresh)
freshly ground black pepper
olive oil/butter

1. Slice a small amount off the bottom of the onions so they will stand up on a baking sheet without rolling all over the place. Cut a substantial ‘lid’ off the top of the onions. Leave the skin on.
2. With the aid of a small knife and a sharp teaspoon, dig away at the interior of the onions until you have a substantial hole inside each one, with about 2-3 layers of onion making the thickness of the walls. Drizzle a bit of olly oil into each onion and pop into the oven for 10 minutes.
3. Chop up the onion you have excavated along with the mushrooms and the garlic, then sauté in a little butter or oil in a small pan for 5 minutes until the mushrooms have softened and the onion is cooked through. Add the couscous, herbs, papper and parmesan and stir to combine.
4. Take the par-cooked onions out of the oven and fill with the stuffing, then pop the lids on top and bake for 25-30 minutes. (You can pop the leftover stuffing back on the hob in the saucepan and add water, bit by bit, until the couscous is soft, and then serve the onions on a bed of this extra deliciousness).
5. Take the onions out of the oven and serve with veg and a baked potato. Remember, don’t eat the skins!

Velvety ‘lush’room soup – serves 2

This soup is one of the best things I have ever done with an hour of my life. It is stonkingly delicious and good for you. Yes, you really do need the cream. No, you won’t regret it.

1 punnet of mushrooms
1/4 of a head of celeriac
1 medium carrot
2 cloves garlic
2 medium onions
1 small handful dried mushrooms (pricey, I know – your best bet for cheap ones are the Asian supermarkets. Still, if you are waiting for payday (or if you are simply a velociraptor) you won’t go far wrong with a couple of rashers of smoked bacon instead)
8 sage leaves
500ml chicken/vegetable stock
75ml whipping/double cream
1 tbsp white flour
salt and pepper
no potatoes. Seriously, no potatoes. They have no place in any good soup.

1. Chop the mushrooms, onions, celeriac and carrot into small dice, and finely chop the garlic. Sweat everything but the mushrooms in olive oil over a low heat.
2. Add the mushrooms (and the bacon if you are using it) and sprinkle the flour over the top. Continue to stir and cook over low heat until the mushrooms are softened.
3. Add the dried mushrooms, sage leaves (whole) and stock. Simmer very gently for a further 15 minutes until the celeriac and carrot are thoroughly cooked through. 
4. Stir in the cream (add more if you need – it should have a soft, velvety feel to the broth but shouldn’t be over-rich) and add salt and pepper to taste. Make sure the soup is piping hot and serve. If you are a winner, you will have remembered an old lump of baguette in the cupboard and made garlicky croutons. I didn’t have any baguette but it was still good with crackers and cheese.
 
 

  
 

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!

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.   

Recipe: Roast-pepper frittata boats (Paprika-Frittatabootchen), and utter amour

The one on the right even looks like a heart! Ignore the fact that it’s full of cholesterol…

*Recipe after the jump, and the rant*

My word, I love this city. I love it in a goofy, greedy way. I find myself spontaneously grinning as I walk down the street, marvelling at the place I have unexpectedly been allowed to live in. My stomach feels a little trembly, like the few days after the moment when you meet someone extraordinary and you can’t stop thinking, “Oof – I think I might dangerously fancy that person…”

Part of the reason why – and why this feeling wasn’t there the first time I moved here – is that this time I feel loved back; I feel as if I’ve been scooped back into the city like a mum scooping her baby out of the bath when it’s gone cold. The generosity of people is astonishing. In little over a fortnight, I have been treated with embarrassing amounts of kindness: I have been cooked delicious dinners and taken to special occasions, I have been invited to gatherings in people’s homes and been allowed to read stories to their beautiful little kids, and in no more than 21 days I have been given countless helpful donations including a toaster, a waffle maker and even a bike. Granted, the bike is almost as tall as I am, but I am determined to figure out a way I can ride it.

This is all a sign of how lucky I am to know the people I do here, but it is also a symptom of Berliners. They appear gruff and vaguely annoyed with you, but most of the time when it comes to the crunch they would rather do something nice to or for you than something nasty. Most days I experience a friendly word or gesture that just seems to go slightly further than the standard British approach of ‘you must be old, an adorable infant or the local vicar to qualify for my niceness’. Today I was browsing in a second-hand clothes shop, and the two women manning the store decided to have a coffee together – and even though I was the only customer, and was leafing through the cardigans at the other end of the room, they called over to me, “Would you like a coffee too?” I turned them down gratefully, and then idiotically managed to ask to buy the only jacket in the store that was the shop-owners own jacket that she’d just propped up on a chair. They then asked if I wanted to sit down with them and at least have a glass of water or something

Another exciting present that has been given to me is the flats. In my current flat, and the one I am about to move into, I have been entrusted with a person’s home and all of their special things. I – me, a person who could easily accidentally set someone’s cushions on fire with nothing but a cup of tea and a rice cracker – have been allowed to treat these places like my own. 

In the UK there is no such thing as a ‘Zwischenmiete’, where you can rent a person’s whole flat while they go abroad or work in another city or something for a while, and I suspect this comes partly down to the general vague suspicion the Brits tend to harbour. What if the person looks at your Important Documents? What if they rifle around in your drawers and touch your knickers? What if they have a big party, and invite lots of immigrants with drugs and extramarital children? Also, in the UK, we are scared and worried in a small amount of our consciousness for a large amount of time. We would be concerned about the safety of the idea, and we would worry that something would go appallingly wrong. The final nail in the coffin is our love of real, fortress-like privacy; someone living in your place while you’re not there is like a stranger looking in your handbag, it feels like an invasion and a violation of something sacred to only you. But these laid-back and trusting people have allowed me to use their duvet and loo roll and olive oil as much as I like. And most excitingly and dangerously of all, I have been given my own kitchen to play with for the first time in my life. 

Waffle maker and toaster aside, my kitchen is a little less well-equipped as I would like. My tea-cozy is currently a massive piece of wadding that I had left over from making a tea-cozy for someone else (don’t ask), folded over and pinned into a big square envelope. I have one saucepan just large enough to heat up two tablespoons of beans in it, and one pan so large you could boil a sheep’s head in it. And when I needed to make a cake for a very important birthday, I had to whittle together a set of scales using two yogurt pots, some string and a coat hanger. 

This recipe requires very few tools, which makes it perfect for now. I want to share this recipe with you because it is a Guten Morgen Berlin special, an original recipe, which I have previously only shared with close friends. I am going to feature more recipes because I want to be more Berlin and give things without being asked. This one is one of my favourites, partly because it’s healthy and delicious, but mostly because it comes in a boat.

*** Roast-pepper frittata boats *** (preheat oven to 180C)

Ingredients (multiply each by the number of people being served):
1 red or yellow bell pepper
1/2 a small onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 large egg
A splash of milk
I tbsp herb or spice of your choice, or pesto
1 handful of any veg you like, chopped finely (this was a spring onion and mushroom affair – also good are courgette, leek, kale, sweetcorn, peas…)
1 small handful of grated cheese or smoked bacon
large pinch of salt and pepper
oil

1. Slice the pepper in half and cut out the seed head while leaving the stalk section intact. Rub with oil and pop into the oven for 10 minutes to soften, then remove (you can do step 2 while they’re in there). A muffin tin is a great help here, as it keeps the peppers stable so they won’t leak or fall over later.
2. In a pan over medium heat, cook the onion and garlic in a glug of oil until they are soft and translucent.
3. Add the other veg and bacon if using, and continue to cook everything until it is all soft and cooked through. Take the pan off the heat.
4. Beat the egg and mix in the herbs, salt and pepper and cheese if using.
5. Add the milk into the cooked veg and scrape the pan to get all the delicious glaze off the bottom, then pour this mixture into the egg. Divide this between the pepper boats and top with cheese if you like.
6. Return the pepper-boats to the oven for 30 mins, until the middle is set and the tops look golden. Serve with jacket potatoes, crisp salad and ideally to people you like a huge amount.


 

 

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 crash-test-dummy chef

Who cares if it tastes good when it’s this shiny?

Cooking as a student can tend to be as perfunctory as the kitchen you are given. With a couple of hobs (typically caked in grease, dried bits of spaghetti and unidentifiable burnt clag), an oven of unreliable temperature and about fifteen centimetres squared of fridge space to put to your disposal, generally one is hard pressed to find the capacity and the energy to be creative within such an arena. This has always been tragic for me, because I am the kind of cook who loves to experiment with their cooking and try out things that wiser, more forward-looking people might consider foolhardy. I am known, for example, for my endless quest to try to bake every foodstuff imaginable into some kind of vegetable ‘boat’ (aubergines, peppers, courgettes and other canoe-like things seem to work best so far, but I think a butternut squash viking longboat could very well be feasible with the right approach). If I don’t have a recipe for something, I won’t just look up one recipe but will look up ten and try to amalgamate them all into what I like to think is the ‘ultimate’ version of said idea, often with similar consequences to those you might achieve if you did the same thing with genetic manipulation. More and more my cooking is veering towards the technical and the queer: pickling things, making praline from scratch, seeing what should and should not be made into a flavour of soup…the next on my list at the moment is home-fermented sauerkraut, although I fear I may be banned from having a jar of fermenting cabbage nestling frothily in a cupboard in the house.

But this is one of the joys of having my own kitchen back. I don’t have to worry about who I might offend or freak out by my experimentations, and finally I have the means to go as wild as I always dream to. In my student kitchen, I had one of each Important Thing: one mixing bowl, one saucepan, one stockpot, one chopping knife…here, thanks to a rather gourmet family, I have access to ginger graters, woks, every spice and herb under the sun, working scales…hell, I have even been reunited with my beloved-but-too-embarrassing-to-take-to-university melon baller. Our kitchen is incredible. We have a wok hob, an enormous gas burner specifically designed for woks and enabling yesterday night’s delicious teriyaki salmon stir-fry. We have two ovens, a wide one for roasts and a tall thin one for pizzas. We have a fridge with a tiny cupboard built into the door just to keep the milk in. Here I am in my element.

Simply put, where is the fun if you’re not playing about in the kitchen? It seems unsurprising that so many people find cooking a chore when they haven’t yet realised how exciting it is to never do the same thing twice, but to always be experimenting. Of course, you have a cast of a few recipes you’ll make regularly because they’re familiar and failsafe, but even these recipes are fun if you have a go at tweaking them every time, coming up with endless variations on an identical idea. There is definitely a point in seeing the same Shakespeare play performed by two different theatre companies. If you catch my pretentious drift.

Every time I eat out, then, I am looking for things I can be having a go at or doing differently myself. Recently my dad bid for a table at the River Cottage Canteen in an auction and we gourmets made the three-and-a-half-hour pilgrimage all the way there to the Temple of Hugh (my idol. Oh Hugh.) simply for the love of seeing what expert cooking can be. 

  The fish and butter bean stew was eye-rollingly delicious and the yoghurt pannacotta equally so, but in a way I most love that it was here that I learnt to chuck a handful of raw chopped spring onions into a fresh bowl of soup right before serving. Thank you, Hugh: my green soups now have a crunchy, crispity, oniony bite like a gluten-free crouton, and I stole the idea from you. 

Having the freedom and the curiosity (coupled with a complete lack of fear of things going wrong; this is usually even more entertaining than if they go right) to muck about in the kitchen is the most brilliant thing about cooking. It is seeing if you can make one recipe work in a totally different way (could you do eggy bread with a crumpet?), or making your own version of something you buy in a packet (home-made custard creams are on the list) or recreating something you once had but for which there is no recipe to be found. And this is what I’ll leave you with today, a real summer-holiday-project of a recipe. It’s time consuming, complicated, but so much fun to make and very very pretty when it’s done. The kind of recipe you joyfully spend a whole afternoon of your weekend making, just to see if you can. I made up the recipe based on a cake I once shared with my mother on the top floor of the Galeria Kaufhof in Berlin Alexanderplatz. Hence the name. Enjoy.

Krazy Kaufhof Kake

This cake is made of three layers: a fruit jelly, a crème patissière (a light vanilla tart custard) and a gateau sponge. I know there are kiwis in the jelly layer but I would advise against them in hindsight; they have an enzyme in them which prevents jellies from setting fully, which might be why there may have been a slight degree of…disintegration…during processing.


Jelly layer
lots of seasonal fruit (Berries-yes. Mango-oh yes. But not fresh pineapple or kiwi as they have jelly-destroying enzymes)
1 pint clear fruit juice or dilute cordial (I used white grape)
1 sachet gelatine


Crème Patissière
2 egg yolks
50g sugar
175ml milk
splash of vanilla essence
15g plain flour

Cake base
2 eggs
65g caster sugar 
65g plain flour
2 tbsp warm mater
splash of vanilla essence

1. Make the jelly: warm up about a fifth of the juice in the microwave, then add the gelatine and and stir until it is completely dissolved. Add the rest of the juice and stir together. Line a springform tin with clingfilm and arrange the fruit in the tin. Pour the jelly over the fruit and leave to set in the fridge for 4-5 hours.

2. Make the cake: Whisk the eggs and the sugar with an electric whisk until they are light and frothy. Stir in the vanilla and warm water, then sift and fold in the flour bit by bit. Pour into a lined, greased and floured springform (the same size as the one for the jelly, or just pop the jelly out once it’s set and use the same tin) and bake at 180C for 12-15 mins until golden and springy on top. Cool for 5 mins, then remove from tin and let cool completely.

3. Make the custard: Whisk egg yolks and sugar together until light and thickened, than add the flour and mix together. Heat the milk in a pan until simmering and pour onto the eggy mixture, whisking furiously. Return the mix back to the saucepan and heat, whicking constantly, until it’s thick and creamy. Stir in vanilla and let cool.


ASSEMBLE! Spread the custard onto the cake base and chill for about 10 minutes in the fridge to firm it up. Then, carefully but swiftly turn the base over onto the top of the jelly. Wiggle slightly if they’re not quite in line, then put a plate on the cake base and turn the whole thing upside down to make it right-side-up (yes, that does make sense). Gingerly remove the plate which is now on top to reveal a glistening jelly vision of wonderment. Devour with whipped cream and lots of booze.


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…

The high life

If I were a Times reporter I’d make a joke about royal wedding hats right now.

I know, I’ve not been around for a while and I’m sorry. Last week was a frenzy of activity as I completed entirely unvoluntary voluntary work, went to a bizarre exhibition (more on that in the next post) and saw my friends for the last time before the main event of the week: my grandparents came to Berlin to see my new turf for the first time. Unlike friends or parents, grandparents have a kind of dignity and connoisseurial eye that means that you are driven by self-inflicted terror to find not just good things to show them and do with them but to find the perfect things; the sights they will regard with their experience and knowledge and find worth the effort. It’s not an easy task in this city because my grandparents are, you might say, gourmet tourists. They have been to almost every country in the world, they have certainly been to every continent and they have seen enough walls, cathedrals and museums to know that the ones you might take them to in this city are going to have to work very hard to compete. Being so refined, they are also unlikely to enjoy the kinds of ‘rrrreal, grrrritty Berlin’ things that younger friends or my thrill-seeking mother might like, things like the Kunsthaus Tacheles or the Zielona Gora squat. With all this in mind I have been putting most of my energy and tour-guide zeal into assembling a weekend of the best Berlin has to offer for the distinguished tourist. And where did we begin? With lunch in the revolving restaurant at the top of the one and only Fernsehturm (TV tower).

You can go up the TV tower without going to the restaurant, of course, and this is fun and exciting and interesting but with a couple of downsides: you have to revolve yourself, and you have to wait so long to get up there that you might just mistake the eventual ride up in the lift as your final ascension to heaven. If you book a table at the restaurant, you can jump the queue, and…well, that’s where the benefits end. We arrived at the tower to be made to buy our tickets for the lift up, as if they weren’t going to squeeze us dry enough with the ludicrously expensive food, which I thought quite unfair; if we were unwilling to pay an extra fee on top of our lunch and the premium put on it for the location we could hardly stand outside, open our coats and hope a gust of wind would carry us up instead. We had also arrived early so that we could wander around the gallery and look at the view before taking our table, but the woman at the counter gave us a specific time at which we were permitted to arrive and NOT A MINUTE SOONER, meaning my poor grandfather was forced to shuffle behind us as we looked at handbags in the Galeria Kaufhof for 20 minutes to kill unexpected extra time. Finally the moment came and we took the lift to the main gallery.

The TV tower features a large round gallery of windows overlooking the city from the most incredible height. The view is spectacular; you can see the incredible straightness of Unter den Linden, the remarkable hugeness of Tierpark and the strange incongruity of the Reichstag dome with almost birds-eye perspective. Helpfully there are also keys under the windows to explain what it is you are actually looking at, the history behind it, and whether what you are looking at is actually a thing or is just a drab building which you have overconfidently assumed is the headquarters of the East German Secret Police. It’s good fun, and interesting, and for 11 euros a ticket it ought to be; you can also enjoy watching people frustratedly trying to take photos without reflections of themselves in the picture thanks to the way the light works on the windows and if you feel decadent even splash out on a TV-tower-shaped lolly or bottle of schnapps. 

But of course that’s for the plebs. Those of us who were reserved into the restaurant were allowed access to an even (slightly) higher floor, a revolving donut of restaurant with a stationary kitchen in the middle and tables lining the windowed circumference, turning at a leisurely pace over the sunlit city. Cream tablecloths and soft smarm-jazz music assert the fact that this is a Nice Place. This illusion, however, did not last long. Our waiter came to the table after a half-hour wait while we sat, read the menu from cover to cover and eventually wrote a good long chapter of our memoirs. With arrogant charm that did not seem to correspond to the fact that his face was covered with some kind of odd yellow crusty ooze he took our order and then disappeared, not to be seen again for another eternity during which time we tried using various methods to calculate how many revolutions per hour the restaurant does. Eventually my grandparents’ antipasti plates came, huge black glass sheets dotted with a sad-looking row of wrinkled marinaded vegetables and a couple of mottled handkerchiefs of proscuitto, followed by my salad, which they had got wrong, so they took it away, evidently grew all-new salad leaves from seed, and brought a new one, which was also wrong, so they took that one away too and replaced it by which time we were ready to eat each other. The bread we had also asked for eventually materialised too. Foolishly we ordered coffee which arrived sometime around sundown and I believe they finally came to let us settle the bill just before the apocalypse. The jovial and infection-y waiter joked around with my grandparents and told me in discreet German that my grandfather is a ‘charming old man’ as if to make amends, and we finally were released back into the wild to make our way to the botanical gardens. Which are spectacular. And at the moment the Titan Arum is flowering. It is an incredible plant, the largest flower in the world, and when it flowers it smells of rotting meat. It was definitely a highlight.