Sticky summer evenings – time for Tzatziki Tzalad!

Three seconds after this photo was taken, the entire bowl spontaneously burst into flames.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s hot. Sad-dogs-lying-on-the-pavement hot. People-eating-ice-cream-at-10-am hot. Invasion-of-psychotic-fruit-flies-everywhere hot. After months and months and months of perpetual greyness, Europe is being rewarded for its patience with an intense burst of all its missed summers delivered in one portion. People don’t know whether to be overjoyed or to succumb to the misery of being so very, very sweaty. Children have started quietly dissolving into tears on the S-Bahn, confused and upset that they are simply so uncomfortable and why the hell can’t mum do anything about it like she usually does?

But the worst thing about dealing with the heat in Berlin is that it’s a constant toss-up between two very different, very potent and very annoying evil forces. On the one hand, you have the hot summer, damply packed into every room like wads of cotton wool. The unmoving air which makes the excel spreadsheet swim in front of your eyes until you feel like hurling the Macbook against the wall and running away, laughing maniacally. That humid heaviness on your skin, like someone’s warm hand pressed against your face.

But on the other hand there’s the bloody godawful NOISE of the place. This city is a cacophony, so obnoxiously loud that you sometimes wonder whether things aren’t being deliberately amplified just to make this effect as overwhelming as possible. You cannot imagine the noise; it’s like putting your head inside a metal bucket and having someone beat the outside of it with a massive frying pan. The eternal dilemma is whether or not to have the window open. In the office, it’s an impossible decision. Directly outside our windows – I mean directly, insofar as I could pat one of the builders on the head without even stretching – there is a colossal building works happening on the side of the neighbouring block. 


The loudness verges on being comical. The builders use a lift to go up and down which makes a noise like seven pneumatic drills switched on and thrown into an empty petrol tanker. They chuck large pieces of equipment about, vigorously hammer everything in sight, and – which is probably the worst part – raucously wolf-whistle and banter, probably roused by the beer which all German builders are for some reason allowed to drink while on the job.

At home, the situation is not much better. I live on an astoundingly loud street, where people regularly have fights below my bedroom window and where the local homeless man has a nightly mantra which sounds a little like this: “BAAAAAAAA! AAAAADABABAAAAAA! MNPHNMAAAAAAA! GRRRRAAAAA!” (repeat until dawn) Last night was something special. Despite it being a narrow and rather short little street, it sounded like they were replaying every film in the Fast and Furious series directly under my window. From what I heard, I am certain that at least three trucks did donuts in the middle of the road, then some guys came with low-riders and did drag-racing up and down the street, and then everyone had a big gangsta fight while their hos revved the engines to provide atmosphere. And, as usual, just as I was finally able to blissfully slip into a prayed-for sleep, some men in overalls came with a giant van and started throwing large bins full of glass into the back of it. Cheers guys, thanks for keeping our city green, even if it is 6.30 in the morning.

But to the point: the heat isn’t making things easy. Cooking in particular is pretty much out of the question at the moment in this flat; with a gas hob and an oven whose door droops open like an idiot’s mouth, any attempt to actually cook raises the temperature in the flat to centre-of-a-volcano levels. At times like this, all you can do is make something cool, crunchy and with as little gas involved as possible. And then follow it up with a giant slice of chilled watermelon and a therapeutic session of screaming back at the local homeless man.

***Chilled Tzatziki Tzalad*** 

This is such a perfect summer-night dinner, and I really recommend making it half an hour before you need it so you can stick it back in the fridge and let the flavours broaden a bit while everything gets nice and cold (did you know that cold temperatures increase the tongue’s ability to experience flavour, making tastes seem more intense?). Serves 1, so just multiply as required.

1/2 large red pepper
1/2 cucumber
1 stick celery
1/4 red onion (optional, but I like my quasi-Greek food stinky!)
3-4 generous tablespoons Greek yogurt/quark
1/2 garlic clove
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp mint leaves, chopped
Very generous pinch of salt (don’t skimp, this needs to be well-seasoned)
A few grinds of black pepper
*I made this with a bit of chicken I had kicking about in the fridge, but it’s just as good with some chickpeas or white beans instead.

1. (optional) Slice the chicken into chunks, season with salt and pepper, and lightly sauté until cooked through and golden. Put aside to cool, it cannot be used hot.
2. Chop the pepper, celery, cucumber and onion into bite-sized chunks.
3. Mince the garlic. TIP: this is super easy if you lay some clingfilm over the rasp part of your grater and rub the garlic over the top – you can then just peel off the clingfilm with the garlic and scrape it off without getting most of the garlic eternally stuck in your grater.
4. Mix the garlic, yogurt/quark, salt, pepper, mint and lemon juice in a large bowl.
5. Throw in the veg and chicken/chickpeas, then stir everything together well.
6. Pile into the serving dish and chill for 30 mins before serving. Eat with flatbread/pita.

Feelin’ the buuuuuuurn

Sadly this isn’t my gym. This is evidently the branch of Superfit where Tron was filmed.

Exercising in general doesn’t really work out well for me. When I arrived in Berlin, I had no choice but to go running – in public – which was fine, apart from two serious issues: the first being the unbelievable complaints and funny looks I get when I have to do that bouncy-joggy-boingy thing at pedestrian crossings, and the second being the horrendous shinsplints that jogging on uneven surfaces seems to give me. Ow.

I missed the gym. I missed the cross-trainer, and the terrible music, and the fact that treadmills have a nice lectern you can put your things on so you don’t have to shove your keys inside your bra. And I realised that, as someone who is likely to be unemployed for a considerably long time, I would need something to keep me going and stop me from aimlessly drifting until I lost my mind. After a lot of careful research and the inevitable moment of ‘Oh hell I’ll just pick one at random because for god’s sake!’ I marched over to my local Superfit and signed on.

The moment I walked through the unspeakably shiny glass door, I knew this was a totally different ball game to my old creaky gym in Berkshire. In my old gym, the ‘technology’ was limited to one ancient CRT-display computer (you know, the really old ones that for some reason were always a pale beige colour) which never registered my age so kept me on a child’s membership for my entire time there until my cancellation last month. Here, the beefy chap at the counter who looked like Morpheus ushered me to a round, black table littered with pristine iPads, into which I tapped in all my details using a foam-tipped silver wand. “Hello,” thought I, “This is a bit swish, innit!”

At the time I left my old gym, it had developed even more character since my last related post. The walls had cracked and leaked enough that they finally brought a painter in, and I watched as he spent the morning covering over all the cracks in an unfortunate shade of ‘Winter Magnolia’ which did not quite match the current shade of ‘Sicilian Apricot’. With the walls now looking like a tie-die of pus, they brought in new cross-trainers which required you to do a kind of awkward forward-shuffle with your legs, like how dads put on their slippers in the morning. The card reader for the door had fallen off the wall and been duct-taped back on. It was a gym you had to love for its homely charm alone, and it cost about £35 a month for an adult membership.

I am in love with my new gym. It costs me €18,95 a month, and for that I get not just a workout but an adventure. Seriously, exercising in my gym is like exercising in the future; it’s like a fitness center in a spaceship. When you enter, there are drinks dispensers on the check-in desk which swirl luminous green and orange liquids around like cocktails in the Death Star’s nightclub. To the left of all the machines is the classes studio, which is a shiny black-dark space walled off with tinted glass and illuminated with strobing multicoloured lights which fade in and out like the heartbeat of a flux capacitor. The only classes they had at my old gym were spin classes, which were simply a lesson in the stages of human agony performed directly in front of the machine-users to torment us as we jogged. In my Berlin gym, the classes are amazing, choreographed sessions led by beautiful smiling androids; the class I always seem to coincide with is some kind of combat-punching-aerobics class which is mesmerising; it genuinely looks like hundreds of Tekken characters practising their moves in perfect synchronicity. 

Every machine is its own unit of futuristic science and magic. Each one has its own little air-vent so you can choose your own level of cooling breeze, and each one has a big computer screen on which you can watch telly, control your iPod, or simply watch your progress on a strange graph which seems to represent a hill and effort and time and energy expended and other things all at once in a series of orange and red shapes. Even the lockers have a robotic lock that closes automatically and flashes blue when you hold your card against it. Everything you use feels cool and high-tech; I like to run while listening to action-movie soundtracks and pretending I’m a starship warrior training for future battles. 

Another element of entertainment comes from the fact that half of the machines are lined up along the broad, shining glass wall of the gym which cuts it off from the shopping center that houses it. This means that as you exercise you can observe the kinds of people who come all the way to the top floor to go to the hairdressers and the toy shop. Oddly, large numbers of people seem to ride the escalator all the way to the top simply to turn around and immediately ride back down again, which tells me something about human nature, although I’m not quite sure what. Is is heartwarming to watch kids with back-turned baseball caps and enormous schoolbags strut into SpieleMax and come out with Pokemon cards (yes!! They’re still alive!), and I love the way that they look at us through the window, a bemused stare which reminds us that we’re all essentially mental: running on the spot on a machine in a hermetically-sealed room in our own free time.

But that’s the one thing I do miss from my old gym. I miss the crazies. The German gym-goers are just so serious, so good at what they do, so athletic and so considerate (they always wipe the machinery clean with forensic precision once they’ve finished). I miss my old Berkshire cohorts; the insane old woman who looked like André 3000 in her rainbow windbreaker and sunglasses, half-heartedly pushing the weights, and the enormous bodybuilder whose varicose veins had bloomed into a purple-blue impressionistic vista all up and down his legs. The people who talk, or roar, as they exercise, and the people who don’t understand how the machines work and end up flailing helplessly on the treadmill as they pound the controls in desperation. We don’t have them in my new gym. I guess in the future, such people will simply be rounded up and destroyed.

Native species of the Gymnasia highlands

Who goes to the gym in platform flip-flops?

Ever since I was old enough to realise that my physique resembled a blancmange in high winds, I have been a regular visitor of my local gym. The humiliation of exercising publicly is too much for me; I don’t want old people on park benches regarding me with sardonic dismay, I would much rather seedily sweat away on a contraption among other light-shy cockroaches like myself. I am fond of my gym like one might be fond of an old but slightly smelly family dog. It’s the cheapest gym around, which means that the machines tend to make interesting noises and all the televisions are playing Jeremy Kyle and the mirrors are sellotaped together, having been smashed long ago by an errant dumbbell. It means that directly opposite the exit, like a nightclub opposite a rehab clinic, sits a Burger King. It also means that rather than being full of aspirational young businessmen drinking Evian and blonde Scandinavian types, the place teems with a strange mix of people, few of whom seem to really belong in this low-budget robot room with its high-volume dance music and brick-headed personal trainers. 

I am a mid-morning gymgoer and have had the opportunity to observe and become familiar with the kinds of species that tend to roam the gym floor when the sun is out and other, perhaps more predatory creatures, are nesting in their habitats of paid employment. But in my occasional evening visits it is interesting to see that there is an entirely new range of species which come out into the synthetic light of the fitness studio once the sun has set. These creatures are equally fascinating to observe not only in themselves, but also in the ways that they differ from the daytime gymmers in both their behaviours and appearances. 

Diurnal Species

Overly friendly and chatty people who don’t seem to realise both of you are trying to exercise
Entering the gym this morning, my heart sank as I saw a familiar face. I had met this man once before: the crazily-smiling middle-aged dude who was next to me on the cross trainer a while back during the holiday before my last term of university. I was whirring away whilst trying desperately to read through Moll Flanders on my Kindle, propped up on the crosstrainer dashboard, as a ridiculous attempt to combine two of my most hated things – exercise and revision – in one agonising fell swoop. Cue complete stranger who takes this demeanour of total fury and concentration as an invitation to have a nice old chat:
“Hello, what’s your name?”
Oh god, please don’t be doing this, I have ten minutes left of this to do – “Urr…puff…Rosie…”
“That is a beautiful name.” 
Ah. He’s that kind of crazily-smiling, middle-aged dude.
He asked me what I was studying, and what I was doing for my holidays. I mustered the last filament of friendliness I had left in me to ask him what he did. He was a businessman, who liked to go boating. 
“I have many boats.”
“…Lucky you…”
“So I suppose you are fluent in German?”
“…Yes…” 
“Err…Wo wohnst du?” 
So many people, on finding out that I speak German, instantly wheel out the three questions they remember from secondary school German; I can never tell whether they’re trying to catch me out and prove that I’m a fraud, or whether they want me to clap my hands with delight and give them a gold star. Needless to say, I cut my workout short. 
These creatures are predatory, despite their friendly appearance. They hone in on the figure who is most out of breath and least enjoying themselves to make an attack. It’s like the awkward conversationalists at bus stops, except at this bus stop you are simultaneously trying to give birth while they ask you about your weekend.


Retired men ‘staying in shape’
These silver foxes are determined that they will die before their killer abs do. There is a sixty-year-old who wears a red lycra short bodysuit and does thousands of crunches until his thick head of hair bristles with the effort. They jog along beside you on the treadmill and occasionally but regularly cough violently sideways in your direction. They are devotees of the weights machines but only spend about half of their time using the weights and the other half sitting at the machines having a long fisherman’s chat with the other retired men ‘doing weights’ around them, making sure no-one else can use the equipment and disturb their jovial bonding ritual. 

The unnervingly omnipresent tiny bodybuilders
The other part of the gym’s male population is the tiny bodybuilders. These are oddly short, oddly delicate men who stay at the gym for hours pounding away at their bodies, presumably in an attempt to grow lush fields of rolling muscles where there are merely gentle hillocks. One almost suspects they believe that if they pump enough iron they will grow a few inches in height. These men work out in strange and foreign ways; they strap parts of their bodies to bits of the weights machines which usually accommodate other bits of the body and use them to carry out strange, convulsive new exercises which I’ve never seen before. One man, who I like to call Gino because he looks like a fifteen-year-old Italian pizza-boy, is short enough that he can stand on the seat of the shoulder press, velcro his wrists to the hand grips and use it as a surreal squatting device. Another boy, who is undoubtedly starting puberty, flings himself about on the weights so they smash about with unbelievable volume and tries to do his reps so quickly that he repeatedly hurts himself and emits yelps of pain. It’s like watching Daffy Duck trying to do a Rocky montage. If these men all simply shrugged their shoulders and accepted their slight builds, they could join together and form an indie band.

Scary android-women
Full-body Adidas spandex. Worrying tattoos. Mahogany-tanned, aging skin. Pulse meters, pedometers, calorie calculators and other useless exercise tamagotchis strapped around their limbs. These women are training to be the next Terminator. They can whip you with their ponytail so hard your neck will snap. 

Teen Girl Squad
Teen Girls come to the gym in packs. They work out in twos or threes, wearing tank tops with “Yeah!” or “Miami Beach Party” printed on them. Their favourite machine is the exercise bike, because they can sit at them for the whole hour, pedalling at the kind of trundling speed even an infant on a trike would find laughable. They exercise in Primark leggings. They chat about stuff and things and swap iPods as they work out and text people called ‘Shaz’ or ‘Jaya’. I am old.

That one lady who doesn’t use the exercise bike
There is a lady who comes to the gym and sits on the exercise bike. She wears a skirt suit and spends her time talking to people on two mobile phones simultaneously, one at each ear. I am not sure what she is doing.

Me
I don’t know what these other people all see me as. Possibly a Teen Girl – I have after all been paying the child’s rate for membership for about eight years now – although I suspect I am more regarded as a misanthropic anomaly, or a young woman who has to exercise in order to hold off the effects of a terminal disease.

Nocturnal Species

Post-work work-outers
These are the most common gymgoers of them all, but only begin to emerge mid-afternoon as temperatures start to decline and 5.30pm has passed. The gym is their final weary port of call before home and dinner and booze, and they just want to get it over with. They keep it short and sweet and are too fagged out by the whole situation to bother with real gym outfits, opting instead for jogging bottoms from Tesco and any pair of trainers they had knocking about from taking the dog out over the weekend. I want to embrace these people and hand them a giant, delicious steak-and-kidney pie on their way out, and wish them a lovely evening’s rest. They look like they need both of those things.

Indoor walkers
Mostly middle-aged ladies with curly hair, these people enjoy the gym because it is a relaxed and low-key affair. All they have to do is walk gently on the treadmill for a while and see their friends. They look overjoyed to be there and have a whale of a time talking to each other and watching the early-evening telly. No-one knows if this is actually exercise or why they pay a huge amount of money just to walk slowly on the spot for a short while; this species is still under research.

The Spin-class swarms
In the centre of the gym floor is a forest of tangled yellow standing bikes. As soon as the sun has set, wiry women and driven-looking men mount these bikes and suddenly the speakers in the gym begin playing club anthems at an eardrum-tearing volume. The spin instructor bellows his commands like an apoplectic army major and the spinners themselves cascade fountains of sweat from every surface of pulsing red skin. These are highly aggressive, combative periods, and the other creatures in the gym stare constantly at these people with narrowed eyes and blackened stares, hating them for bringing their cacophany and masochistic athleticism into our world of futilely optimistic effort.

Me and my mum
Our gym outfits are stained and older than some of the other people in the gym. We have a specific type of clairvoyant communication where we can, in a single moment of eye contact, say to each other, “Can we go yet?” I read my Kindle and my mother props a bit of the paper on the machinery. I love the cardio and mill my stubby legs about on the treadmill at a slightly inappropriate speed until my mp3 player falls onto the conveyor belt and is whipped with a tremendous smack against the back wall; my mother loves the weights and is gradually trying to build enormous and slightly incongruous biceps on her slender arms. I don’t know what species we belong to, but it’s too hilarious for me to care.

Summer days in Pleasantville (population: mowers)

Apologies for the unseasonal photograph; just imagine it’s marshmallows, not snow.

I grew up in a mansion. This is true.

My first house in conscious memory was a poky little box on an infamously cat-pulverising road, but I was only there for a couple of years before we moved to my official childhood home. And yes, it was the building above. To clarify, we didn’t live in the whole building – we lived in the largest segment of it, the bit denoted by the glowing front door and all the windows to the right of the black dormers. (To clarify further, the crouching figure in the doorway is my brother adjusting his salopettes, and don’t ask.) It was an ancient house with draughty halls and a real stuffed deer’s head hung in front of the main staircase which spanned the three floors. We had a five-acre garden, which had an enormous square lawn and pond and was surrounded by acres of mostly untended woodland, full of deer, rabbits and the occasional creepy stranger who would sneak onto the grounds and nose about the place. Our neighbours were mostly quivering geriatrics who used to largely leave my bother and myself alone in favour of bothering my poor father on a constant basis to ask him whether the gutters/windows/roof/boiler/plumbing needed cleaning/replacing/repairing; however there were a few kids our age around, mostly boys with whom we crashed about the place on our miniscooters and constructed complex settlements in the woods complete with a financial infrastructure and class system. 

As you can imagine, it was a dream location to spend your formative years. The old bricks were porous enough that in times of high wind the carpets would inflate until each room resembled a bouncy castle. The enormous staircases allowed for excellent flight practice, and the sofas we inherited with the house provided a fantastic landing pad after my mother had finally tired of their hideous ugliness and taken an axe to them, leaving us with the huge foam chunks from their padding. The eternal driveway was smooth and had the perfect gradient for one to soar down it on one’s miniscooter at a speed close to terrifying. It also meant that we got used to a lot of things: isolation, for one. The house was on a hill in the middle of nowhere; there was little traffic noise, wildlife roamed free in the fields surrounding us and the only bus to anywhere was infrequent, unreliable and manned by surly old men with mustaches and a vehement hatred of children. We got used to an environment of gentle but ever suspicious surveillance; the aged neighbours would watch us out of their windows or regard us with dismay from their gardens, which faced directly onto ours. My dad stopped coming home from work for his lunch hour because one ancient lady would watch all morning for his car to arrive, wait two minutes from him entering the front door and then, without fail, phone him to complain about the gutters and windows and roof and boiler and plumbing. This treasure of a woman was ironically named Joy.

We absolutely had to leave. Over time, our quaint old creaky castle seemed to become a crumbling, hostile crypt. The entertainingly draughty walls also meant that room temperature in winter was always perishingly cold; you could see your own breath and I used to wear my ski jacket indoors every day from November until March. The neighbours gradually wore my father down to a shred of a man. We weren’t allowed to build or change anything because the place was protected for historical posterity. While I was in Germany, trying to find a place to live, my family finally upped sticks and found a new place to live. 

The second house was similar, a smaller, boxy sort of terrapin quite literally in the middle of a working farm, complete with electric security gate. It was even more isolated than the last. We were eons away from everything and our windows looked out onto nothing but fields and garrulous-looking crows fighting with each other. There was an unused boathouse in the garden edging onto a stretch of river and a scrap of woodland inexplicably full of junk – we found a hammock, thousands of plant pots, bits of discarded metal, odd handfuls of some kind of shredded plastic wool that looked like afro clippings and hundreds of pieces of ugly and decaying flotsam. Again, we were surrounded by nothing but silence and birdsong and blood-sucking insects.

But now, finally, for the first time in my life, we are in the suburbs, and this is the longest stretch of time I have ever been living in this, our new house. It is brand new. It is one of lots of nice, appropriate houses facing onto an appropriately leafy and child-friendly street, appropriately close to a corner shop and a bus stop and a playground and a pub. It’s the kind of place where the vast majority of Brits spend their lives and yet to me it is utterly foreign. The novelties of suburban life are strange and charming, as if I were an ex-marine living with an indigenous tribe in the Bornean rainforest for a TV documentary.

For starters, the sheer noise rattles me like a cockatoo with people kicking its cage. Every morning I am woken up by the sound of a different but yet equally loud piece of heavy machinery; no one knows why one might want to take a chainsaw to one’s front hedge at 7.45am on a Tuesday, but it seems to be a popular hobby, when the street cleaners or bin men or Bastard Leafblower Man aren’t out with a vengeance just after sunrise. There are also a couple of anonymous testosteronis around who plough their ridiculously souped-up engines down the road just after breakfast, as well as the sweet and naive adolescents that loiter about in front of each others’ houses right outside my bedroom window shrieking tipsy nothings at each other. Living on a road also means roadworks, and they have been treating me to diggers and pneumatic drills every morning like the atrocious opposite of breakfast in bed. Once all that industrial hard labour is out of the way and the dawn chorus has been appropriately extinguished under the bellows of grinding machinery, the second phase of suburban living begins. Mowing. There is never a day, nor time of day, nor season of the year that does not require at least one person to be mowing their lawn at any one time. It is as if no-one in this area is at all employed, because the mowers’ burring can begin or end at any time from any of the neat gardens surrounding us regardless of whether that house contains a young family with children or a retired couple with a black labrador. 

Suburban living is also a very vulnerable state, it seems. You have to lock windows and doors quite frequently, I am told, when going out, because there are people called thieves that come in and nick your stuff. Because your house is so close to civilisation that people actually know it exists. As a reminder of that fact, the garden fills up with tennis balls, footballs and those holey golf balls tragically lost by neighbouring children. (Not knowing which garden they came from, I try to just evenly distribute the wealth by throwing a few back over each fence.) Because we are now surrounded by real people rather than scrubby wilderness, our vegetables are finally safe from deer and rabbits so that the deserving slugs can have a crack at erasing them all from the earth. The real-life Jehova’s Witnesses even came round once, which made me so happy I was unshakeable for the rest of the day, even though they did ask me if my mummy and daddy were in.

The main thing, however, which I love about these new surroundings is feeling a part of everything. Now finally joined on to our garden rather than separated from it by a long pathway, we can move from street to house to garden without thinking about it, like a glorious and peaceful human osmosis. There are people around enjoying themselves and making noise and walking their dogs, making you feel like you’re not some ostracised Boo Radley figure up in ‘that weird-lookin’ place up the hill’. I can cycle to the gym and back and thus escape that much-loved ironic remark that you leave your bike at home to drive to the gym where you ride the bike. I feel like I am a real member of the world now, and am overjoyed to find that not all convenience is a homogenous symptom of consumer culture but that it’s perfectly usual and harmless to enjoy the ease of taking your lunch onto the patio or walking to town. But goddamn, are the suburbs a loud place. Oh god, there goes another chainsaw.

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.


Coda

“Parker, I need some kinda sentimental-type picture for the front cover by noon, you know, kittens or kites or that kinda crap. Get on it kid!” *repositions giant cigar between teeth*

It’s been a week since I came back to my family home after ten months in Germany. I can honestly say that a week is all it has taken to wish I was back there. Of course I miss the people I have found there and the place tremendously; odds are, there are some of you reading this and if you are one of those I was lucky enough to properly kennenlernen during my time there I really, truly, wish you were here. Or I was there, I’m not picky. Besides the standard pining and reminiscing however I can’t escape the persistent certainty that I’ve just finished – left – the best thing I will ever do with myself, for quite some time at least. My year abroad was not all hunky dory; I considered jacking it in so many times I feel like I now merit a Disney song about ‘going the distance’, ‘never giving up’ and ‘remembering who you are’. But every miserable day was worth it, every single move to every new flat, every early morning wading through snow or late afternoon falling asleep on the train, every horrible class or unfortunate mishap (2 broken cafetières! 4 lost pairs of gloves! Countless lost items of jewellery! Two permanent physical scars!). I spent ten months roaming the streets of the most strange, overwhelming and ever-developing cities in the world and now I’m sitting in my old bedroom surrounded by craft supplies typing a blog entry while looking out of the window onto a golden field of wheat, while a buzzard flies menacingly overhead and my two cats lie fatly in the hot sunbeams. 


 So what’s it like to be back in the British countryside after all this time? How do I feel to suddenly have been ripped out of a place and shoved unceremoniously into its exact opposite?

It’s…odd. Like being born, backwards. Being sucked from a world of noises and grown-ups and words you don’t understand and new sensations and people smacking you on the buttocks back into a snuggly, quiet womb, where mother provides the food and the restful chatter of the day and even while awake one is somehow asleep. It’s traditional, and sweet, and cozy here; yesterday saw my first and oh-so-welcome Sunday roast since Christmas, which was an epic affair and for anyone who knows UK traditions is rather like eating a huge delicious steaming portion of pure, savoury Britishness. The world outside is so quiet and peaceful compared to the screaming, partying, fornicating Berliner neighbours who spiced up every nighttime with their sound effects. After days of rain and the kind of grey skies that make you wonder if the sun has set forever, suddenly summer has re-descended on the countryside and the only sound that drifts through my open window is the noise of rustling foliage. I sit outside after lunch and read my books with a cup of tea . I turn on my radio to be soothed by the sultry sound of John Humphrys rather than the brisk bark of InfoRadio. This is the kind of rural idyll that divides Berliners into two groups: the group that heave a wistful sigh at the idea of a country retreat and dream of long walks through fields and distant cows, and the group that instantly begin to panic and choke at the thought that they might ever have to spend more than a few hours trapped in a world of quiet and plants and farmyards, where the only bus comes every hour and only takes you to a nearby town where everything is made of wicker. 

Being knee-deep in the countryside does have endless downsides, obviously. The fact that the nearest supermarket – hell, the nearest anything – is a good car or bus journey away is deeply unsettling for someone who is used to reaching out of her front door directly into the dairy section of Lidl for some emergency milk while putting the kettle on with her other hand. This environment is also tremendously soporific; I am finding myself constantly slipping into micro-sleeps, whether outside reading or on the sofa or upstairs fiddling with my bead collection. It’s frustratingly unproductive but hardly my fault given that this world is just so unspeakably soft – the carpets are cushiony where Berlin floors are hard and dusty, the mattresses are marshmallowy where mine was solid with a large canyon where many arses before mine have engraved a deep hollow in the stuffing, and the relative coldness of here compared to Berlin’s scorching summer heat means that one is constantly swaddled in a fluffy array of slippers and jumpers and brand new socks. Mmmmm…life here is squishy.

God I miss the fun of Berlin. The live music, the weird and gimmicky bars, the funny little caffs. Everything was nearby and the streets dripped with colour and invention. But this is rehab, a chance to lower my blood pressure and catch up on must-see series (there’s this odd little one I’m having a look at called “Mad Men”, do you know of it perchance?) and take the time to properly exfoliate from time to time. The question is how many weeks of this it will take before I am chewing the duvet, frothing at the mouth to be back somewhere, anywhere, where stuff happens.

This is my 98th post, and my 100th post will be my last here before I let this blog just quietly stand here like an old ruin, so that I can refer to it if needs be. My 99th post is going to be an odds-and-ends post to clear up anything left unclear or anything I haven’t addressed over the last ten months. Thus, everybody gird your loins because it’s time for some audience participation! Please leave in the comments below or in a message any topics or questions you want me to write about in my ‘mop-up’ penultimate post and I will  – I promise – do each and every one. You don’t have to sign up or anything to leave a comment, so go to town and join in without fear of identity theft.