Getting lost in the Chameleon Boudoir

That's a-moray!! Actually it's a tiger eel, but I needed an excuse for my favourite joke of all time.
That’s a-moray!! Actually it’s a tiger eel, but I needed an excuse for my favourite joke of all time.

Some weeks ago, I was spending a lot of time in my boss’ Berlin flat. I was doing some work which required a decent internet connection for me to make several large uploads each day, and the internet connection at my workplace was quite distressingly terrible (we would later find out that we had all been sharing a 6 – SIX – kbps connection for weeks without Telekom offering to fix it). I got into a routine where I would spend the morning sorting shizz out, then take an hour to prepare all the files I would need, and then cycle over to the flat in my lunch break to upload all those big monstrous gigabytes and answer erroneous emails. Well, one day I was sitting there in my boss’ kitchen, staring at the ceiling as I listened to my colleague telling me stuff over Skype, having an idle gander about the room. Until I noticed something: the walls looked oddly speckled now, and I didn’t remember them having a stucco finish. I looked more closely.

Maggots. Herds of maggots, scooching along the walls and ceiling. Hundreds of them, everywhere. I imagined them all suddenly falling on me and then a bunch of horrendous Lars Von Trier imagery bursting through the windows. No matter how many times I blinked, though, they were still there. A quick google helped me to identify the particular species of maggot, and thus followed a preposterous few days of trying to balance my usual massive workload with also finding a decent exterminator and overseeing his exterminating. One of my top ten sentences I never thought I’d hear in my professional career? ‘Careful of the maggots when emptying the vacuum cleaner! You might want to do it outside.’ When I did empty the vacuum cleaner, outside and at arm’s length, a huge gulp of maggots flowed out of the dust compartment – followed by a redemptive little black cloud of moths, like a mini version of the bats rising out of Batman’s cave.

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Good eats in the big B

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This little piggy went to market

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berlin: lower your standards to live the high life

This shop is so epic the entire building has a beard worthy of Thor himself

**Click here to like the Guten Morgen Berlin Facebook page!**

When I first told my friends in Berlin of my plans to move back, they made concerned noises. “That’s great, but are you sure you really want to?” they asked. “You know that jobs here are scarce and hard to get hold of, right?” At the time I tossed my head back and laughed in a debonair manner. Jobs were scarce in Berlin? They should try living in the UK, where people print their CVs on taped-together banknotes to try to be in with a chance of it not being immediately thrown in the bin. Where the universal facial expression is glum malaise, and the most popular job seems to be Tracksuit Wearing and Shouting Facilitator.

I haven’t the slightest regret about moving here, but in hindsight I ought to have given their warnings the credence they merited. Jobs are not ten-a-penny over here for darned sure. Added to that, my current almost-offer is messing me around like a cute boy with slicked-back hair, a motorcycle and a leather jacket, and someday soon I’m not going to put up with that anymore. So unemployment it is then; bearing it out until I find something that pays the rent and doesn’t make suicide appealing. 

Happily, the wonderful thing about this city is that living without an income is remarkably easy, and I speak not of the controversial unemployment benefits system – I chose not to open that particular can of worms for myself until I literally am close to starvation. What I mean is the staggering amount of stuff you can acquire for zero euros, cash or cheque, everywhere in this place. Tired of being indoors and tired also of the mysterious noises my neighbour had been making against the wall for the best part of an hour (my best guess is that she was alternating throwing handfuls of marbles and iron filings at the wall for some kind of texturing effect) I got my shizz together, grabbed my overflowing compost bin and whirled out of the door to find some of this free swag.

The German word Verschenken means to give something away for nothing. It’s a lovely word, and a practice heavily embossed into the German psyche. Every so often you will find a cardboard box or little heap of stuff next to a house door with a hand-written sign perched on it saying ‘Zum Verschenken’ – ‘to be verschenkened’ – and you have the carte blanche to rifle through the pile and pick out anything that takes your fancy. In my last stay in Berlin this allowed me to accumulate quite an impressive selection of stuff: a sewing box, some books, a large wooden trunk (man I miss that trunk!), a beaming yellow sarong covered in suns…

Even on an idle walk to the East Side Gallery yesterday I happened upon a free large red leather sofa, a box of videos (which admittedly will probably finally be taken by hipsters who want to convert them into groovy iPod holders) and a completely functional-looking iron. And today, when I set out for my latest adventure, the fates seemed to be smiling upon my venture: there, perched on the bin when I went to chuck away my compost, was an awesome and wonderfully naff Spanish-style ceramic olive bowl in red, orange and green, with a teeny little pot attached for toothpicks and another teeny little pot for the olive pits. At least, I think that’s what it is for, although it may also be a breakfast plate with a normal egg-cup and a quail’s egg-cup…or a planter for three different shapes of cactus…

I nabbed my first prize and set off to the Umsonstladen ‘Systemfehler’ (system error). Meaning ‘Free shop’, an Umsonstladen is a Verschenken-shop where people can dump off stuff they don’t want any more and other people can come and take it at will. This is Berlin so there is of course a heavy political agenda attached; if you cross the threshold of the Umsonstladen you are joining in the fight against capitalism, gentrification, over-production and -purchase of goods, probably also nuclear energy and that kind of thing too. They host music nights and life drawing sessions and all kinds of wonderful community get-togethers in an admirable attempt to prove that life is worth living even if you aren’t constantly in pursuit of new possessions and the money to buy those trinkets. 

Still, I wasn’t there for the politics or the community. I wanted the trinkets. Every ‘customer’ is allowed up to five things per visit. I was particularly hoping to find a new T-shirt to wear to the gym and possibly a decent saucepan for my flat, which currently contains one non-stick frying pan, a wok the size of France and a beautiful collection of vintage enamel pots which I couldn’t possibly actually use. When I walked into the shop, I was impressed. In the corner was a quite beautiful piano in walnut and the room was fenced around with railings of clothes which had been carefully arranged onto hangers by style and size. Granted, there was a lot of crud around and the walls had been decorated in a zany way and a slightly deranged woman threw herself at the piano the moment I arrived, beginning to pound the keys with no attempt at a tune. Then a man walked in with his hair shaved in such a way as to produce a perfect monk-like hemisphere of hair on his scalp, like someone had rested a scooped-out grapefruit half on top of his bald skull. He was wearing a kind of semi-transparent sheet with a neckhole cut out of it like a poncho, decorated with a lurid sky blue and pink pattern. He was telling his friend that he was hoping to make some kind of quilt. 

I practically broke my neck trying to not stare at the two and instead browsed the shelves until I found one thing I was looking for, a T-shirt. The one I picked is a mellow blue shade which someone has painted by hand with a slightly haphazard picture of an awkward-looking kiwi bird in the bottom right corner of the shirt. Above the bird they have painted HUCH in large white letters: “Woops”. Evidently they had hoped to produce a much less disappointing kiwi and so painted their distress at the failure and then gave the T-shirt to the Umsonstladen. I have a feeling this will become one of my treasured possessions.

I also found a huge and woolly hand-knitted sweater for the chilly nights and was then accosted by the crazy piano lady who demanded to know if I was planning a presentation. When I told her no, and asked if that’s what I looked like, she said no and asked if I were a ballet dancer. When I said no again, she asked if I could play piano. No, I answered apologetically, and she then brightened and told me all about how sad she was that she couldn’t even play a single song, not even that one from Amélie. I sympathised. She asked what I was going to do now; was I an artist? No, I said, feeling more and more inadequate not to be any of the cool things she seemed to have taken me for. I said goodbye and on my way out noticed a very fat woman in the corner eating jam from a jar with a spoon. 

God love Berlin. I’ve got all these lovely free presents to play with and I made a friend. And I didn’t have to spend a dime.

How to hack your Zwischenmiete

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

Example number 1: The Hochbett.

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

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

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

Example number 2: The Shower.

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

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

Example number 3: The Pillow.

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

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

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!

Rhinestones on the soles of her shoes

Before
After

Hoo-wee! After hours and hours scratching away at my Wacom tablet, the illustrations are now finished and ready to teach whole cohorts of babies in Berlin. I can leave the desk and the hours of having Cookery School on in the background to keep me sane (it’s a new discovery, a brilliant cooking programme containing all my favourite things: absolutely droolworthy recipes, idiot people getting their cooking wrong, the girl-we-all-love-to-hate Gizzi Erskine and a professional chef who sounds exactly like Dylan Moran, meaning that when I’m not looking at the video I can pretend I’m listening to Bernard from Black Books yelling about coulis). Now that this is all over, I can begin the part of my holiday I have been dearly looking forward to: proper crafting. These grimy, stained grey shoes are terrible and I was going to have to throw them away because it would have been antisocial to wear them in public any more. But good god, are they comfy. And they match everything and make my feet look not enormous, which they in fact are. So I decided to ‘upcycle’ them and give them a new lease of life, using nice densely pigmented acrylics mixed with a fabric medium to make a varied grey leaf pattern on the canvas upper and painting over the now-brown once-white binding trimming the top. Scrubbed the soles with a bit of Jif to whiten them up a little and call me crazy, but I suspect they might just be wearable now. What could be better and more fun than rescuing an old possession and at the same time getting something new and different out of it? 

Upcycling is recycling something to make it better or more useful than it was when you started out. It can be as fancy as reupholstering a vintage piece of furniture you found in a charming junkyard tucked away beside the A329, or it can be something simple like stitching along an old sock just before the kink, cutting off the foot section just under the sewn line and using the little pocket you’ve made as a natty iPod cover. It is brilliant. So much stuff you might throw away suddenly starts to take on a new appearance, as you start to look at it with a view to how you could use it again or what you could make it into. There is even a fantastic organisation in our very own Bracknell that collects people’s old junk they don’t want and repairs it or passes it on so it can all be re-released into the world as something far better than just junk (and I’m going there this week to see what bits of treasure I can scavenge myself, har har)!

  
One of the most fun and rewarding types of upcycling I love is bag fusing. The other day I finally waxed lyrical about my Amazon Kindle enough that my mother bought one on a mad impulse. Covers for the Kindle, however, are so expensive you’d be forgiven for thinking that they are delicately sewn together out of Bengal tiger skin. We decided we’d make her a cover for it, and fused plastic is the perfect material for it; it’s water resistant, strong and most importantly it is very, very groovy. 

All you need is a mountain of old carrier bags. I almost regretted asking my mum for this as she then scurried into the garage and returned with enormous clods of plastic bags in every colour imaginable billowing around her like a rainbow foam; it took three trips to and from the garage to finally assemble the colossal mound of plastic bags that my family have collected over the years (and that didn’t even include the entire van-full of orange Sainbury’s bags that we excavated from behind the fridge in my brother’s student flat in Manchester). Shame and embarrassment aside, this is a good thing as it gives an enormous variety of design options for when you are fusing your plastic sheet, as you can mix and layer up colours and motifs to get something glorious and mad-looking. There are only a few rules to stick to:
1. 6 layers of plastic is the rough minimum needed to get a decent, thick sheet you can sew and fashion into things like bags or anoraks (yes, it can be done).
2. All printing must be inside the layers, otherwise it melts in the heat and you end up with smeary plastic ink glooping all over your iron, hands, ironing board, cat…if you want to keep printed designs as part of the pattern, just make sure the top layer of plastic is a clear bag.
3. Iron the layers together with a two-dot-hot (low to medium heat) iron with a greaseproof paper layer on top and underneath the plastic OR ELSE! Forget the greaseproof paper and all is lost. Well, not all, but your iron. And you will have an armful of melting plastic and hot appliance to deal with. All it takes is a few seconds (8-10, keeping the iron slowly moving) of pressure on the iron on the plastic to melt it together.
After all this, you create a sheet of fantastic pliable soft plastic which can be sewn on the sewing machine, glued, riveted, stapled, deep-fried…

This might all sound a bit Blue Peter, but give me a minute to convince you to give it a try. As I’ve written before, there is nothing more satisfying than making something usable yourself, but upcycling is even better because you can also bask in the warm glow of having saved the whole environment single-handedly by repurposing something that would otherwise have gone into landfill. Beyond that, though, is the simple fact that it is excellent fun – even if you suspect you might not be the kind of person who would enjoy this sort of thing. My mother is an occupational health physician with practically the entire alphabet’s worth of letters after her name and an hour of bag fusing turned her into a giggling, hand-clapping kid. We drank Gewürztraminer and listened to the Tron soundtrack and rearranged the letters cut from bags to make funny words; there was nothing worthy or twee or eco-activist about it, just excellent fun. And that rare kind of fun you can have without a screen in front of you, something to savour on those days where I realise that I have spent vast stretches of time just moving from one LCD display panel to another. It doesn’t cost you anything. Kids love to do it. It is limitless. And if you have something you don’t know what to do with, post it in a comment and I promise I’ll come up with something rad that can be made with it. Go on, I dare ya.

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.