Monday, 29 June 2009

Remembrance of food past

Toward the final pages of Taste: the story of Britain through it’s cooking by Kate Colquhoun, the author raises the idea of memory and food.

Idea? Her argument is that, in the UK, memory and food is generally barely even as substantial as a spectre.

Which set me thinking: what food-related memories are there from my own life?

Back here, I wrote about my grandfather: food was involved in the memories – going down to that harbour in the Isle of Man with him to buy fresh herrings off the boats, and podding peas for supper on those far-away holidays.

I don’t remember ever eating the fish at all – the peas I remember: great piles of them, served just with butter and salt (possibly bread too, but I don’t remember that).

So I’ve been trying to think; to reach back and find more.

Holidays do seem to feature quite regularly, for some reason or other.

Not just the Isle of Man, but later too, on ‘holidays’ in such exotic sports as Todmorden and Ravenglass, where I went shopping on my own when my father was drugged up and aggressive, or where we harvested vegetables from the vast garden.

We holidayed in Cornwall a couple of times: I vaguely recall a hotel in Falmouth where we ate in every evening. I only remember my sister, who was three years younger than me, not wanting to eat something, and the rest of us having to sit there while, through tears, she was made to eat it.

I have vague ideas of similar experiences myself, with oxtail and/or neck of lamb. Although these really are all but lost in the mists of time.

There was also a self-catering holiday in Bournemouth that was a nightmare because we lost hours of holiday time while my mother shopped for food, dragging us all in her wake.

And like any self-respecting English family, we had a picnic hamper at one time. It wasn’t used often, but it was there. Like that self-catering holiday in Bournemouth, however, getting a picnic ready would always be a Herculean task for my mother. She could never simply throw a few things into a bag. And for much the same reason, we never really had friends around – she wanted to be fully forewarned and given at least a fortnight to prepare.

There were other trips too: swimming classes, for instance. We’d go on a bus from primary school in Mossley to the baths in Stalybridge on Friday mornings, and we were expected to have something to eat on the journey back after our exertions – I seem to remember a ‘sandwich’ of Ryvita with some Dairylea spreadable cheese between halved crispbreads, plus a custard cream. And on school trips to exotic places like Chester Zoo, packed lunches would always include a hardboiled egg, with a little bit of salt and pepper in a twist of kitchen foil.

Then, of course, there were school meals themselves. My mother tried to avoid this for some years – indeed, one school report had a teacher asking me to be allowed to have school meals in order to have the opportunity to mix with my fellow pupils.

I got a clip around the ear from the headmaster at primary school in Mossley – for talking during grace. Since I was innocent of the charge, the sense of injustice was huge. And the meals themselves? I remember finnan and haddock, which I hated. Mashed potato and over-boiled cabbage. Then sago (‘frogs’ spawn’) or semolina for pudding, usually served with a dollop of strawberry jam in the middle, which for some unknown reason, you weren’t supposed to whirl it into the rest of the dish.

And little bottles of milk, before Margaret Thatcher snatched it.

There were also occasional family trips to Blackpool, where I’d indulge in the sophisticated delights of scampi before we went to see the legendary clown, Charlie Cairoli, at the circus.

There’d be other occasional treats too – a glass of pop, once every Preston Guild. A man used to deliver large bottles of Tango: my mother used to have some, but we rarely had it. I don’t think I tried Coke until well into my teens – quite late, if memory serves.

And fish and chips sometimes too, when my father would drive down to the chippy on a Saturday lunchtime and return with the real stuff, in the days when chip shop chips were still handcut and the mushy peas were really mushy. And if you were really, really lucky, there’d be ‘scraps’ – bags of the dredged bits and pieces of batter from the fish frying; drained and drenched in salt and vinegar and sold for a copper or two.

And at football on freezing Pennine Saturdays, oxtail or tomato soup, served in a polystyrene cup, that burnt your mouth – but it was welcome because it reminded you that you were still alive.

And so to home cooking. It’s part of the whole food and memory thing, isn’t it, that your mother’s cooking was always the best?

The more I think about it, the more I realise that, by and large, my mother’s culinary efforts accorded with her mantra of: “We don’t live to eat – we eat to live,” her warning against sensual pleasure.

Most of what she cooked was what could be described as ‘plain cooking’. Not that that’s a slight. She worked hard to provide us with nutritious, reasonably balanced meals.

I fondly remember her sausage pie – skinned sausages in mashed potato with tomatoes in it. Pork pie – very finely chopped pork with some rehydrated dried onion (she’d never have the real thing in the house), baked in a short crust and served with crusty bread. I tried to reproduced that some years ago and it was incredibly dry.

She’d do steak and kidney occasionally – never skimping on the kidney, thankfully: she’d never make it as a pie, but cook the meat in a dish and then serve it with a piece of rolled-out and cooked pastry on your plate.

There’d be eggs and chips on Monday evenings – washing day. Or sometimes I remember she’d get individual pork pies from a very good little local baker – uninventively called Cakebread, if I remember correctly – warm them through and serve them with baked beans and crusty bread.

She’d make fruit salads and salads, but the ingredients were basic and unchanging.

And there was her kidneys turbigo, which (as I understand it) she’d got from her own mother. This involved kidneys and sausages in a really quite rich and utterly scrummy dish. A few years ago, I found it in a French cookery book – it’s named for a battle site in Lombardy, Italy, where Napoleon III’s troops routed the Austrians in 1859 during the Austro-Sardinian War.

It’s not quite the same – the ‘real’ one includes whole button onions or shallots, plus button mushrooms, but the essence was there. I now do it a few times each winter (giving the offal-disliking Other Half more sausage and no kidney).

You start by browning sausages and kidneys, then the whole onions/shallots, in oil and butter. Remove them to a plate.

Mix approximately equal amounts of plain flour and sherry together, then add some beef stock and a generous squeeze of tomato purée. Stick it in your pan and use the boozy mix to deglaze (add more stock if it gets too thick – but you want this to be pretty thick), then return the meat and the onions and mushrooms to the pan, bring to the boil, stir, pop a lid on and reduce the heat, and leave until cooked (around 20 minutes). Garnish with a sprinkling of chopped flat-leaf parsley.

The sauce is the proverbial bees’ knees. I still do what my mother did and serve it with plain boiled rice – you want something to soak up that gorgeousness.

So, one dish of quite sophisticated provenance. But for all my mother’s inclinations to an almost puritanical simplicity (and like others of her generation, being a child in the war hadn’t helped), she wasn’t immune to food fashions of the era – or even the merest hint (albeit watered down) of Elizabeth David’s influence.

We’d have had a big Sunday dinner after my father got back from wherever he’d have been preaching (as a slight point of interest, I can recall no memories of roasts). And before he went out to take an evening service, my mother would make ‘tea’. Usually taken in front of the television – in summer, watching the cricket, accompanied by the dulcet tones of the wonderful John Arlott.

Sometimes, there’d be vol-au-vents, those small cases of puff pastry (bought ready made) and stuffed with assorted fillings: I particularly remember a creamy mushroom mix. There would also sometimes be neatly squared pieces of toast with either scrambled egg or tinned sardines on – the latter being just a hint of the Med and another thing that I still occasionally do for myself.

Later, she did find a version of sweet and sour pork in a book that she’d make occasionally, but anything any spicier was a step far too far.

It’s funny now, looking back like this, to realise just how meat-centred and simple it all was. I don’t really remember her cooking fish much – possibly fish cakes (with tinned salmon), although I do know there was a fish stall at the weekly market and that she used to go there. She cooked bacon in a small, enamelled dish, under the grill. Once it was cooked, you might get to wipe up the juices with a piece of bread. And sometimes cheese, melted under the grill on milky bread.

My mother didn’t bake much. Cakes occasionally, including the traditional fruit cake at Christmas (plus her mother’s recipe for Christmas pudding). Christmas itself would be an agony for her: it had to be roast turkey, stuffing balls and chipolatas, with roast potatoes, sprouts and carrot on the side, plus gravy. How often she, my sister and I would be left sitting around, waiting for dinner, while my father failed to turn up from taking a second Christmas morning service.

I used to love the left-over stuffing balls and sausages – and to be honest, I preferred the turkey sandwiches, made later that day – particularly if I got the dark meat. I remember – I was possibly around 13 – being allowed to stay up late on Christmas night, sitting in a new dressing gown and slippers, eating turkey sandwiches and watching my first ever Humphrey Bogart film in BBC2’s Christmas night classic movie slot. It was The Big Sleep and my childhood crush on John Wayne was blown into dust.

At around the same time, visiting my mother’s widowed mother in the autumn, we’d collect crab apples from her garden, which my mother would make into a lovely jelly to serve with sausages. It’s pretty much impossible to find crab apples any more. Which is a very great pity.

We didn’t really get to cook with her – she gave us chores in the kitchen (not ‘fun’) such as scraping new potatoes (although I can actually enjoy that), podding peas, cleaning sprouts, stirring gravy and drying the dishes. She stopped me doing ‘domestic science’ at school quite quickly, viewing it a waste of time and money. I’m never sure where she imagined people learnt any basic kitchen skills. Perhaps she pretty much viewed it as being something you’d ‘pick up’ when you needed it.

But the memories are running dry and, reading back, most seem to have little to do with linked events. There are different memories from adulthood – but for these, looking at them, laying them down, the blandness seems to be the dominant theme; the unthreatening, unstimulating blandness of it all.

My mother cooks differently now. She’ll even eat peppers if she’s eating out. She’s still never had a proper onion in the kitchen, though, ad you won’t find a trace of garlic (she can smell it on me when I visit, even if it’s a couple of days since I last ate any). She relies a lot on M&S for ready meals. And if not, she slaves away in her poky kitchen for two hours to make something that, for the life of me, I cannot work out how it could take much more than 30 minutes.

But that, it seems, is what you get when you assert that: “We don’t live to eat – we eat to live.” And it’s really rather a shame.

Monday, 22 June 2009

When you can't win for trying

You could be forgiven for thinking that, if you announced to someone that you had just bought something rather special as a treat for that night’s dinner, there’d be some sign of approval.

Or perhaps that was my naive mistake: believing that, on arrival back from the market on Saturday, the news that I had purchased a piece of turbot – the ‘king of fish’ and a sort of once-a-year treat – would be likely to raise a hint of enthusiasm rather than an ambivalent shrug, a slight curl of the lip and the comment: “it’s not my favourite.”

In a demented fear of there being fuss later in the day, I dived into a sea of books: Leith’s Fish Bible, Larousse Gastronomique, Rick Stein’s English Seafood … reducing myself to a state of salivating mush, mentally grazing on recipes that I couldn’t even contemplate in reality since The Other Half absolutely wouldn’t countenance eating some ingredient or other.

Eventually, I found a Gordon Ramsay concoction that brought forth another: “Umm.” Only this one sort of rose at the end, which I took to being less ambivalent and more optimistic than the previous one.

So, because I’m still stupidly desperate to please and because I do actually make efforts to cater for the faddy eater, I then spent a great deal of time running around as though someone had lit a fire up my arse, in order to cook something far more complicated than I had intended.

It had been a case of seeing no sole (which had been in my mind) on the stall, but seeing turbot and thinking: “This would be a nice treat. I’ll cook and serve it simply with fresh, seasonal vegetables.”

Theoretically at least, he likes white fish.

Now I am aware that, last summer, we had a slight contretemps after I’d dared to serve a dish of plaice, grilled with butter, only to be told in no uncertain terms that it was “bland” and therefore, apparently inedible. So inedible that it went, uneaten, into the bin. The accompanying sulk did not, unfortunately, go with it into the trash.

So my initial thoughts had dutifully taken into account that turbot is not like eating a mouthful of birdseye chillies (not that The Other Half likes very much of anything as strong tasting as chilli), but most certainly could not be accused of lacking in flavour.

It's worth noting here that I really try to work around the faddiness; to cook interesting, varied food that is not overcomplicated but is also, generally speaking, healthy. Fish is usually a Saturday standard because I can get it pretty fresh and because it's healthy and a change. At maximum, we'll have fish twice in a week.

Menus are not based predominantly around my tastes – far from it. There's a great deal of food that I love that he wouldn't touch with the proverbial bargepole. I frequently ask if he has any requests: 99.5 times out of 100, a shrug is the nearest thing to any sort of an idea.

I raced back to the market and queued for around 20 minutes to get fish remains from Vicki, who did a double take on seeing me at the stall for a second time. Then there was tagliatelle and a load of stock and sauce-making ingredients. Back home, the fish carcasses (including heads), plus bouquet garni, a bottle of white wine, white peppercorns, chopped celery, garlic, onion, fennel and leek went into my biggest pot to make stock. Cook for around 25-30 minutes (no more or it can get bitter) and then allow to cool right down. I strained it was through a muslin-lined colander, and decanted and froze three pots after setting aside what I needed for the evening.

Empty the kitchen bin and take it around to the communal bins at the back, because I don't want all the fish remains stinking up the flat. Frequent washing of assorted utensils – and my own hands – with occasional applications of hand cream as the skin chaps.

Later, I cooked chopped shallot and asparagus in a little oil, before adding some of the stock and then wilting baby spinach in it. Then it was all puréed and pressed through a sieve.

The fish, which I had bought with skin on and un-filleted, since I was going to grill it, now required skinning and filleting. Which I managed, even though my best knife broke when sharpening, leaving me even more pissed off than before. Then a little oil was heated in a sauté pan and the fish pieces were cooked on each side for a round a minute, before more stock was added.

Spears of asparagus were cooked briefly. The pasta was cooked. A little cream was added to the sauce, which was heated gently.

To serve, the pasta was drained and plated, topped by the fish, with the sauce and asparagus spears around.

No complaints.

No thanks, either, mind. No positive comments. I had to nearly physically restrain myself from actually asking whether it was okay – almost begging for affirmation – even though I knew that it was a perfectly good dish, with good ingredients, cooked to a decent standard. I had to fight too, to concentrate on eating and enjoying my own meal and not fretting about his reaction or lack of.

And quite frankly, when I then managed to roast a piece of pork loin and produce cracking crackling on Sunday – and still received no comment for my troubles – not even a basic ‘thanks’ (although he did open a paperback at the same time as starting to eat) – it crossed my mind that no judge would ever convict.

I’m going to check the membership data and have a vote amongst this union of one – because I’m bloody sorely tempted to go on strike.

In essence, I cook because I enjoy it – not in order to win plaudits. But sometimes at least, a minimum of very basic good manners and appreciation would go a long way.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Brighton days and nights

Back in The Smoke from sunny Brighton, it's time to relax a little after a frenetic few days.

Goodness knows why some people imagine that conferences are a perk of the job – most of our team were knackered by 9pm. And indeed, I was in bed at the ridiculously early time of 10pm every night I was there.

Still, there are obvious compensations – when the weather's on song, you can amble along the seafront at lunchtime or even, as I managed on Tuesday, first thing in the morning. Then there's hardly a soul around, the light is beautiful, the sky a clear blue, and the only sounds are the water, lanyards tap tap tapping against boat masts and the shrieking of the gulls, which glide above, seemingly for the sheer pleasure of it.

The food was okay: the biggest surprise was a bar meal of scampi and chips in the hotel itself, where the chips were actually hand cut. I can't remember the last time I had chips that weren't out of the freezer. And scampi, I admit, is an old food love.

When I was a child, occasionally the family would go to Blackpool for the day. And if we ate out, I thought that nothing in the world was finer, or more exotic, than scampi and chips. So in a fit of nostalgia, I still indulge now and again.

Indeed, I had the same dish at the Regency fish restaurant on the prom the next night. Everything in Brighton seems to be called 'Regency'. There's the restaurant, the Regency Amusement Arcade, the Regency pub and the Regency goodness knows what else.

But back to food. The very non-Regency Alfresco sits in the old municipal ice cream parlour on the seafront. And directly opposite the hotel we were in. On Monday night – my last evening in town – we went for a meal.

Situ is great – it'd be hard to imagine much better: we had a table right at one end and, with windows all around, it offered a lovely view of the English Channel and the seafront itself.

So to the food. Large portion syndrome is at play at Alfresco.

I had a starter of crisp Soignon goat’s cheese on fine green beans with a pepperonata sauce (an Italian stew of onions and peppers). Very tasty it was indeed – and the cheese was huge.

I followed up with linguine with crab, chilli and parsley, finished with Sardinian bottarga. The bottarga is mullet roe. I didn't notice any of that – but then again, I didn't notice much chilli either. Plenty of linguine, though. Okay, it wasn't bad, but I'm bound to say that a very similar dish that I do myself occasionally is tastier. There's some chilli in it, for starters, which acts as a lovely counterbalance to the sweet crab meat. That and some lemon juice stop it being bland.

A lot of the pasta went uneaten. And after a suitable gap, I had a little vanilla ice cream to finish. We had a bottle of Verdicchio, which was pretty good, but nothing I'd particularly look for again.

Why do restaurants serve such vast amounts of food? I hate leaving food, but on such occasions, I've no choice. The cheese in the starter was very nice, but it could have been smaller. And there really was far too much pasta with the main course.

Anyhow, that was the food.

I got through three days of listening to conference debates and speeches, dashing back to the 'media centre' (a large, windowless room in a smart hotel nearby) and writing it all up. Then repeat.

And Tuesday offered a real West Wing sort of moment, reporting the general secretary's speech to conference. A bravura performance from Dave Prentis – he's not a rabble-rousing, tub-thumping speaker. But this had some very clever nuances and got the delegates on side quickly. Always useful at the start of conference.

It was a wrench to leave Brighton after that – I wanted to stay around and chew the fat with others. It felt like leaving a party early.

I feel sorry for people like Dave: a loyal Labour Party member for years, he's watched as the party that is supposed to represent working people has simply turned its back and betrayed their aspirations. I can't claim to be disillusioned myself – quite simply because I never had any illusions about Blair et al. I'll admit that I did, for the briefest of moments, entertain a slight hope that when Gordon Brown became prime minister, there might be some positive change, but such optimism didn't last long.

Tuesday's speech was much more shackles off: not just the careful warnings of the last few years.

But one is left with the next question: if traditional Labourites no longer feel that they can vote for Labour – a party that has simply carried on and extended the Thatcherite economic agenda, including privatisation – who can they vote for?

Arthur Scargill's vanity party? Bob Crow and his coalition of anti-EU fellow believers? Respect, that front for the Socialist Workers' Party and George Galloway's posing, which changes its policies depending on how many Muslim voters it thinks it can win?

Who knows. Perhaps the Labour Party can be rescued. But Parliamentary politics is a one-sided mess at present and no obvious and decent alternative is on the horizon, leaving disillusioned people to vote for fascists.

Interesting times we live in.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside

Ever the jetsetter, I'm gadding off to Brighton tomorrow.

Okay, it's not by jet but by train, and it's strictly for work. But I hardly seem to have got back from Berlin, and Paris is on the horizon, so it all seems rather a whirl at present, with barely the time to get my clothes washed and ironed.

But the English seaside is a joy all of its own.

My current employer operates an annual exercise in democracy by having a conference of the organisation's membership every year. There are so many elected delegates that there are only two conference venues in Britain that are big enough to hold such an event – Bournemouth and Brighton, but on England's south coast.

We alternate and this year's it's Brighton's turn. Thankfully.

My first such conference was three years ago and came warmly on the heels of a first trip to France and Spain. Having really appreciated the food on that holiday, one of the things that I particularly looked forward to was eating out in Bournemouth.

My hopes were rapidly dashed with a series of meals that decreasingly hit the heights – and the bar had been set depressingly low to start with. Not only that, but it was far more expensive eating in Bournemouth than in Barcelona or Paris.

Still, Brighton the following year was better. There is, if nothing else, a very decent fish and chip restaurant on the seafront, just between the conference centre and the hotel I'll be ensconced in. And a decent modern Italian just over the road too – although from memory, their portion sizes are excessive. Why can't British restaurants give you the chance to ask for a small portion? I hate wasting food, but can rarely pack down a whole British two courses – never mind three.

Doubtless work will be busy. There'll be impassioned debate, plus the usual sort of: 'TUC get off your knees – strike now!' rhetoric.

But there's much to do and I hope to survive. And maybe I'll be able to find enough time to visit the Brighton Pavilion with camera in hand too.

Oh, how I do like to be beside the seaside.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Great questions of our time #1

Will the football writers of the world now unite to accuse Real Madrid of wrecking football with their £80 million signing of Ronaldo from Manchester United?

Or will condemnation of big transfer fees be kept for the sport's nouveau riche?

Bitter? No honestly I'm not!

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Summer with the City

It’s the summer. No, really it is. The rain is entirely predictable given that we are now less than a fortnight from Wimbledon – and even if the centre court has a new retractable roof (thus saving us from the chance of singalongs with Sir Cliff) precipitation is as key an ingredient of an English summer as strawberries and cream.

One of the other key ingredients is football gossip and transfer speculation. There are usually even a few actual transfers.

As a long-suffering fan of a club that has spent much of the last 30 years yo-yoing between divisions (I have actually lost track of how many times I’ve seen them relegated), and becoming a laughing stock on and off the pitch, this time of the year has not usually held much attraction – apart from a respite from watching us lose.

“Us”. That’s Manchester City for the uninitiated. The Citizens. The Blues. Citeh. The last one is a send-up of how Mancunians apparently pronounce ‘City’.

I can’t claim to be a Mancunian myself, but the longest period in my childhood and youth spent in any one place was just outside the city, so it’s as near to having a place where I feel rooted as anywhere else.

I don’t know why I opted for City as a team – I was already in love with football by the age of seven – but it happened at some point and hasn’t changed since.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been days when I’ve wanted to change it. But those usually occur in the following manner after yet one more disastrous City event.

‘That’s it. I’ve had enough. I’m not supporting them any more.’


‘Hurrumph. So who shall I support now?’

Another pause.

‘Arsenal? Nah. They always beat us. Aston Villa? No chance – they beat us the first time I saw us play.’

You notice that little “us”? It always gets in the way of my being able to hop on the bandwagon of some other team. Somehow, I now have blue blood. I can’t shake it off.

But summers have been getting much more interesting of late.

It all started two years ago when the club was bought by former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who installed Sven-Göran Eriksson as the new coach and gave him a nice big transfer pot to play with.

The mighty Swede took us to tenth in the league, playing some of the best football we’ve seen in years – and most importantly, beating Man United, home and away, for the first time since 1969-70. But it wasn’t good enough for Thaksin, who sacked him and employed Mark ‘Sparky’ Hughes in the post – before selling the club to the Abu Dhabi United Group and disappearing.

Now Abu Dhabi United Group have even more financial muscle that Thaksin ever had – and showed it with the signing of Brazilian star Robinho, to be followed by an up-and-down season that did see us reach the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup.

And now we can realistically contemplate more quality players arriving at the club before the new season starts in August.

But when Thaksin took over, I realised something with a short time. It was like learning to dream again.

Finally, we might actually achieve something – the only question will then be: will it still feel like my club? But I tell you what – I’m prepared to find out!

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

The taste of Berlin

As I posted before we left for Berlin, I was “looking forward to enjoying a cuisine that is often overlooked when people discuss European food.” And sure enough, I managed to taste vast amounts of it.

Maximillians and Gendarmerie were both so good that we visited twice.

In the case of the former, our second visit saw me opt for a lighter meal, of Brotzeit – a platter of cold meats and sausages, with raddishes, pickles, excellent bread and cheese. I actually thought that there were two sorts of cheese on the board that it was all served on – one cubed and a second grated. I was wrong though: it was grated horseradish, as I found out when I forked a generous load into my mouth.

I took considerably greater care with the next mouthful of it – powerful stuff.

Our return to Gendarmerie on our final night in the city produced another excellent meal, sitting inside this time after torrential rain during the day.

I ordered the spargel with hollandaise – the waiter who delivered it questioned whether that was what I’d really ordered and not meant to order it with, say, a schnitzel. I had to reply that I don’t have a very Germanic appetite, so yes, it was just the spargel and sauce. Well, plus some new potatoes. Which were lovely anyway.

I followed that with a dish of calve’s cheek – having heard cheek meat recommended by assorted TV chefs and not having had the chance to taste it. It was really tender meat, very tasty, and was served with an intriguing snail ragout, puréed potato and spinach. An interesting and tasty dish.

The break between courses worked well again and I opted once more for the chocolate torte. Really good stuff.

We also lunched at KaDeWe on the legendary sixth floor – a fabulous food hall, which includes a number of mini eating areas: kitchens with benches or stools around them, serving a range of freshly-cooked food.

I had excellent matjes herrings, served on a bed of sour cream and sliced onion (very refreshing) and with a mass of pan fried, sliced potatoes.

One wasn't really supposed to take photographs inside, but I managed to sneak one.

We also had wurst at a biergarten in Tiergarten, the city’s vast park. It was served in the cooking water, in bowls, was as light as a feather and went down fabulously with a pretzel, two sorts of mustard and good beer.

Then there was currywurst at Berliner Republik on the Friday evening, surrounded by Werder Bremen and Bayer Leverkusen fans arriving in town for the German cup final the following day. Plenty of tales exist about how this particular Berlin speciality was created – most via accidents – but it was a very light curry sauce, tangy and rather tomatoey.

The culinary disappointment of the week was Lutter & Wegner. A very old and well-known restaurant, we expected great things. The spargel soup was an intense flavour, but rather salty (suggesting it had been hanging around for some time) and there was far too much of it.

Unlike Gendarmerie, we were rushed between courses. I thus fail to agree with the Time Out guide that the service is excellent: efficient, yes. But too rushed.

Having quaffed my soup, I moved onto Himmel und Erde.

Now, this was being offered as a speciality of a smart restaurant. And I was thrilled that, even after being handed an English-language restaurant, I knew what this was and could order it in German. As a German friend tells me, it’s winter food for manual workers. But I was falling over myself to try such a traditional dish.

A long, single black pudding, halved lengthways, served with apple and pureed potatoes, it was tasty – but sat incredibly heavily. As did the red wine. I thought I was going to be ill.

The Other Half, who had chosen the same main course, also felt ‘heavy’ for about the same length of time after. We left without finishing the wine – and certainly without even considering a dessert.

In Potsdam, there was a very nice piece of grilled salmon, with spargel and potatoes, followed by a slice of Black Forest Gateaux.

The zoo supplied a decent, slightly spaced wurst on our first visit (chips rather hard and chilled given so few customers that day) and, on the second, a very decent frikadellen. On that second visit, cheeky Berlin sparrows came and grabbed food from our plates and fingers.

And a rather smart restaurant on Charlottenstraße served up a very pleasant lunchtime dish of Nürnberger Rostbratwurst, served with excellent sauerkraut and potatoes, as we sat outside, watching the rain from beneath a canopy, a stone's throw from Gendarmenmarkt.

I enjoyed a few glasses of Berliner Weiße mit rot (white beer flavoured with raspberry syrup), which were very refreshing. But after getting over the novelty, I stuck with more traditional beers for the rest of the trip.

But without doubt, the culinary part of the trip was a roaring success.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Animal crackers

Vague thoughts had crossed my mind before heading off to Berlin that we might potter along to the city’s zoo (the one in the west, that is) at some point – not least so that one could say that one had said ‘hello’ to Knut, the world famous polar bear who is now two years old.

It was Tuesday and the weather forecast was not brilliant. We’d made the most of the morning with a boat trip on the Spree, before ducking into a café-bar, Berliner Republik, to escape the inevitable shower.

Musing over the rest of the afternoon ahead, The Other Half suggested the Zoologischer Garten. On first consideration, time in the open on a day of inclement weather didn’t appeal massively. But then the reasoning occurred that such weather might reduce the number of coach parties wandering around the place. So off we set from Friedrichstraße Bahnhof.

With the largest number of species in the world, it also offered a chance to photograph some exotic animals – something I’d never tried before.

Well, it was certainly quiet. We saw some elephants waiting to get into their ‘house’. And then a lovely sight of two young giraffes and two adults.

The big cats all seemed to be inside too: as we ambled into their quarters, a male lion was roaring, sending goosebumps up and down the spine. The cats themselves are magnificent – and a particularly insouciant leopard posed very nicely for a shot.

The carnivore house also houses the meerkats and the dwarf mongooses, which seem to be a competition in who could out-cute who. The meerkats do all the things you’ve seen on documentaries – including having one standing guard even though there’s no predatory threat.

And the mongooses spend a lot energy trying to all curl around a single branch together to sleep.

That produced technical issues – getting close enough to the glass to avoid it messing up pictures. But the results were very pleasing.

Our fellow apes were suitably ape-like and didn’t engage me anywhere near as much as I’d expected, some of the monkeys were far more fun – one little one dropped a rope while we were watching. Deeply distressed by this, it was comforted by a fellow monkey. It's difficult not to anthropomorphisise at such moments

And then there was a panda. Who was asleep. As pandas are most likely to be.

We grabbed a lunch from the café, where the food had been sitting beneath lamps for some time, given the lack of crowds, then hit the trail again, catching the pacing brown bear and finally, Knut. Who was lying down and doing not a lot, until he hauled himself up and ambled into his own indoor quarters.

It was the right idea. A few moments later, it started to rain. I managed to get under cover long enough to get my camera into it’s nice, waterproof bag, but got absolutely drenched as we headed back, as quickly as possible to the Elephant Gate.

It didn’t take much to decide to visit again. And we spent the best part of the Saturday there, in better weather and with bigger crowds.

The photography was challenging, fun and very rewarding.

But what made these visits so enjoyable was seeing the animals up close, in some cases, interacting.

Cats, for instance: it doesn’t matter how big they are, I now realise that they all eat grass, all patrol and all like to sleep on shelves. Which brought to mind the sight of The Queen Bee dozing on a bookshelf. Although I won’t be telling her that she’s got a lot in common with lions and leopards – she’s got more than enough grand ideas as it is.

Amazingly, on the Saturday, Bau Bau the panda was awake, while taking an extra lens with me enable me to get some corking shots of some of the birds, including while being eyeballed by a bloody big king vulture, which seemed to be echoing Robert de Niro and asking: "You looking at me?".

Berlin is doing valuable work in terms of conservation, but what seeing so many animals in the flesh, as opposed to via the TV screen, does is to usefully remind you of just how beautiful – and awesome – the rest of the this planets inhabitants are, and how much they need protecting.

I last saw a zoo – a tiny, private one – in KwaZulu Natal about 11 years ago (run by a certain famous circus family) and it was dreadful – very, very upsetting, with cages that were far, far too small for big cats and neurotic apes that were alone and with sod all to distract them.

Berlin is what zoos can be. And I won’t be waiting as long to pay a call to a zoo again.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Of Wagner and some rather good dumplings

This is turning into a funny old year for finally doing musical things that I've dreamed of for around three decades.

In April, it was finally getting to see Ultravox live – and last week, it was seeing the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Indeed, not just seeing them, but seeing them in the Philharmonie, their own home concert hall.

I'd first become aware of the Berlin Phil back at the end of the 1970s, when I was studying music 'O' level at school, and that awareness developed when I started 'A' level studies.

My mother, delighted that I was listening to something other than 'pop', started buying me records at Christmas and birthday. Given the wide world of choice that is available in the classical music world, I had rapidly developed a mantra for her to remember: Deutsche Grammophon, Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan: simple.

I have an absolutely specific memory from the time: we had started 'A' levels and were being introduced to one of our set works, Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. It was a recording by ... well, you can guess. The piece has remained one of my favourites, but as I sat in the tiny attic classroom, listening to this extraordinary music for the first time, I was transported to a pastoral paradise; a world of willows trailing their fronds into gently flowing water, of dappling sunlight and, of course, of a flute-playing faun. It was the most sensual music that I'd ever heard.

So when we booked our trip to Berlin, I leapt at the opportunity to see if it was possible to attend a concert.

If memory serves, they were performing three concerts in the city last week, but choice had been diminished by demand (including for a performance of Debussy's La Mer) so I simply grabbed what I could.

That was to be for the world premiere of a new piece for wind quintet and orchestra by German composer Siegfried Matthus, plus highlights of acts two and three of Wagner's Götterdämmerung to round out a complete programme.

Quick research told me little about Matthus, but I managed to find a recording of his Symphony No2 and Concerto for Violincello and orchestra to offer a taste of what we were getting ourselves into.

Gulp. This was very modern – at least, very atonal.

Now we're not averse to modern serious music, so we simply waited for the night itself.

It was a windy walk to the Philharmonie. We made sure we were in plenty of time. After taking a few snaps of Hans Scharoun's building, I collected my tickets. For pretty much the whole week I'd been in a calm glow – enjoying so much of the trip, but not being overly excitable about anything. At this point, as I came close to actually kissing my ticket, the realisation of just how much it meant started to dawn.

We raided the shop – a number of recordings to add to the collection – and then slowly headed to our seats upstairs. Up a lot of stairs, to be accurate.

As we waited in the remarkable auditorium, famous for its accoustics, my mind drifted back to those school music lessons. At 'A' level there had been just six of us. I wondered if any of the others had continued to listen to – or even play – music. And as the orchestra drifted in, I found myself thinking of Noel McKee, our wonderful teacher, and thinking that he'd be very proud, in his ever so slightly pretend-grumpy way, that at least one of his pupils had made it to where I was sitting.

The Matthus piece was first up. With a substantial orchestra plus the quintet, we were surprised when Sir Simon Rattle took his place at a set of kettle drums next to his conducting podium – and started the performance on these slightly off-tune instruments, before turning to step into his normal position (he returned to the drums to conclude the work too).

The piece was fascinating. It gave us reminders of the Classical, of the pastoral/Romantic and of the 20th century, with percussive sections that owed a great deal to jazz. And all linked by a scuttling theme.

Far more obviously melodic than expected, it seemed to be telling the listener that nothing is new – and that we can never fully escape all previous forms: that history, if you will, is always with us; that everything is a circle. And the idea of a musical past woven into a musical present seemed to perfectly reflect this city of history on every corner too.

This being a world premiere, we were treated to that most unusual sight at a 'classical' concert – the composer, who took his place alongside Rattle at the end for our plaudits.

A fascinating and enjoyable work, I'm hoping it'll be released on disc – not least because I want to actually listen to it carefully again.

And Rattle is an intriguing conductor to watch – his style is almost as bubbly as his distinctive hair; he can hardly stand still. And yet, like all the best conductors – and after eight years in Berlin, Rattle's showing he's no mug at this game – he exudes authority. It's something that I find fascinating. Von Karajan almost always conducted with his eyes closed, sometimes barely moving. Yet he exerted complete control over the musicians (not without a few highly-strung souls amongst them either). On one occasion at a rehearsal, a brass player apparently made a slight mistake. All Von K did was open an eye to look briefly in his direction. The man later recorded that he felt compelled not to make the same error again.

After a break – always interesting to watch the stage hands change things around for different orchestrations – Rattle let the orchestra rip. If anyone was in any doubt that this was going to be full-blown (some would say overblown) 19th century German romanticism, then the presence of an amazing four harps on stage, plus around 45 violins (according to The Other Half, who counted them) should have acted as a warning. It's no wonder Wagner needed to build his own opera house. Although, to be fair, he was hardly the only composer of the period who scored for big bands – Mahler and Richard Strauss were not very far behind.

Now I appreciate that Wagner is an acquired taste, but whilst I'm still not hugely up on the singing bits, the straight orchestral stuff can send me into ecstasy. With added goosebumps. It's music that has a G factor, forceing you back into your seat, holding you there and demanding you pay attention.

And when a clear, piercing brass theme emerged above the quivering strings in the funeral march, I was almost reduced to total mush.

As we left the auditorium, The Other Half asked how I was. "I'm going to try to start breathing again," was all I could muster, as I attempted to make my insides relax.

We walked in silence from the Philharmonie toward Potsdamer Platz. Food was required. Amid the neon and steel and glass, Weinhaus Huth stands as the one remaining pre-war building, but Diekmann, the highly-lauded restaurant there, was accepting no new customers that night.

We found a large, modern venue still serving and settled down with beers (a dark Franzikaner for me – oh joy), trying to order our thoughts, having ordered the food.

Although assorted guides to the city berate the area for its lack of quality eating places (apart from Diekmann), I very much enjoyed a dish of Königsberger Klopse – veal meatballs, served with a traditional caper sauce, plus a gem lettuce salad and, of course, potatoes. The meatballs, I'm delighted to say, were light as a feather and very tasty.

It really was not a bad way to conclude a night I'd waited 30 years for. And are the Berlin Phil really good? Oh yes – very!

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

History around every corner

If you want to avoid history, then you’d probably be best advised to avoid Berlin, because you really can’t keep away from it there.

It’s not just the obvious, the large scale. Here a street named after a student leader in 1968, there a tiny brass plaque in the cobbled pavement to a woman who was deported to a concentration camp from that spot.

I wanted to do history – well, some history. A trip out to Potsdam and Sanssoucci had been identified as a must, giving me a lovely big dose of old Prussia as we strolled around the gardens, formal and less formal, that surrounded Frederick the Great’s getaway palace.

There too was the grave where he was finally interred, in accordance with his wishes, at night and without ceremony, next to the graves of his beloved dogs.

It was a Monday and the palaces themselves were closed. Whilst that meant not being able to wander in the halls where the king had entertained guests with his flute playing and conversed with Voltaire, it had the advantage of meaning a greatly reduced tourist presence that day, thus enabling many moments of solitude, where the only sounds were bird song, a gentle breeze in the trees and the occasional buzz of insects. It was beautifully soothing.

Not quite everything was shut – the shop remained open, so I didn’t have to miss out on the appropriate fridge magnets, postcards and a lighter. The Other Half has long been tolerant of what he describes as my being a "romantic Prussian" – his reward was being photographed next to a T34 tank at the Soviet War Memorial in Tiergarten later in the week (his kind of history).

But even as one approaches Potsdam on the train – a lovely journey through wooded countryside much of the way – more recent history imposes itself. When the train stops at Wannsee, for instance, and you see the name on the platform sign, it is impossible not to make the historic connection. And then, of course, Potsdam itself hosted the allies’ post-war conference to decide the fate of Germany.

A short walk down the road from our hotel in one direction was the Jüdisches Museum, with architect Daniel Libeskind’s shattered Star of David providing a disorienting and claustrophobic experience next to the old Kollegienhaus, where the main part of the museum is housed.

In the other direction had stood Checkpoint Charlie, where people could pass through substantial checks from the US to the Soviet sector. Now, with the original checkpoint in a museum, a copy has been built and bus loads of tourists queue to have their pictures taken in front of it, with models dressed in the uniforms of the four occupying powers.

With spectacular irony, on street corners in all the major tourist areas, trestle tables are loaded with reproduction Soviet and DDR military memorabilia – hats in particular: communist iconography made for profit.

And on Marx-Engels-Forum, the knees on the seated statue of Marx are polished to a shine by the endless bottoms seated there for holiday snaps.

Later in the week, as we walked from the hotel to the Philharmonie to see the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, we found ourselves on the street where the last remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall stands. If every souvenir shop that sells what they purport to be real fragments of the real wall is telling the truth, then that wall must have stretched to the moon and back – never mind across a city.

There are holes in the remaining stretch, with bared wire visible like prison bars, and gouges where the surface of the concrete has been stripped away, as though by clawing hands. It is ugly and obscene, and something keeps you mute as you hurry past.

The next day, I discovered from my Time Out guide to the city that the building site on the other side of that stretch of wall is where the Gestapo headquarters were. A temporary exhibition of photographs from the first half of the 20th century stands on the site while an exhibition and memorial centre is built. The pictures displayed are the only place where it is apparently legal to show the swastika, an otherwise banned symbol.

I’m never comfortable amid such history – but then again, it should disturb. In Amsterdam, next to the Westerkerk, stands a small statue of Anne Frank. On many occasions, I’ve seen people having their photographs taken, smiling, next to it. Which disquiets me.

In the UK, we’re comfortably removed by distance from most of our historic dodgy deeds. There are some memorials to the victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but none that I know of to the victims of the British concentration camps in South Africa in the first years of the 20th century or in Kenya in the 1950s, for instance.

And Churchill and Bomber Harris even have statues to celebrate them – conveniently ignoring, amongst other things, their roles in the 1919 gassing and carpet bombing of the Kurds in northern Messopotamia (as it was then) or in the firebombing of Dresden in 1945 (which incident itself still divides opinion as to whether it was proportionate: even Churchill tried to distance himself from it).

The immediacy of such history prompts one to query one’s own relationship to it – and one’s own response. And in some cases in particular, there is a sense that one has to have a socially-approved ‘correct’ response. If you don’t, have you ‘failed’?

Not all Berlin’s recent history is so disquieting, thankfully. It was with great delight that I found a collection of 21 original pen and ink erotic sketches from 1925. Together with a bowler hat purchased from the same market, I could quite happily create a Cabaret mood.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Putting the 'fine' into fine dining

I admit that I didn't fly out to Berlin with any expectation that I was probably about to enjoy my finest fine-dine experience to date.

We'd walked past Gendarmerie on the eve of our arrival in the city and made a mental note. On the Sunday evening, we decided to give it a whirl – and fortunately, even without a reservation, we got a table outside.

The staff were excellent – very friendly and not in the least bit rushed. Indeed, dinner took us almost three hours with welcome breaks between courses.

I started with a terrine of black pudding and goose liver (foie gras, in essence), topped with a layer of tart, fruity jelly.

It was served with an apple chutney, spiced with a hint of cinnamon, and a small herb salad, with a slice of toasted brioche that was so light it almost fell apart.

Not only did this look stunning, it was fabulously well balanced, from the sweetness of the meat, through the less-sweet apple to the bitter herbs. It had texture, colour and, most of all, it had taste. Wonderful: I was close to orgasmic over it.

I'd had a glass of Champagne when we sat down, and being slightly better versed in the wine department, had selected a 2007 Dr Loosen Riseling. Which was jolly good too. I didn't really feel tempted to ask about the 1945 Rothschild that was listed – price on enquiry.

And so to the main course. The Other Half, having enjoyed a chervil soup, had lamb. I opted for a piece of cod, grilled, and served on a bed of puréed potato, with a halved fennel, a little tomato and a very light, frothy sauce, that never threatened to swamp the fish.

The cod itself was excellent – tasty and moist. And it struck me how much the tomato (hidden initially when the dish arrived) just added a little welcome sharpness to the dish – it wasn't simply there as some sort of afterthought or design point.

At this point in a restaurant meal (apart from in Barcelona or Collioure, where meal structure is perfectly suited to me), I'd usually have had to leave some of the main course, and wouldn't have a cat in proverbial hell's chance of being able to manage a dessert. However, I'd comfortably managed every crumb of what had been placed before me thus far and, when I saw desserts being carried to a nearby table, my mind was made up.

I opted for a chocolate torte that, despite the assertions of the menu, didn't arrive with a biscuit of Proustian fame, but a portion of utterly gorgeous strawberries. I wasn't complaining.

And the torte itself was perfection – rich and moist and utterly gorgeous. Our waiter, having told me that they didn't do dessert wines by the glass, suggested a glass of another Riesling – it turned out to be quite different – a grassy, light taste that complimented the dessert perfectly.

This was a first visit to a serious, chef-led restaurant. And it didn't disappoint.

Chef Axel Burmeister already has form – not least at the Esplanade in Berlin. And it's difficult to imagine him not making a hit of Gendarmerie, which had only opened its doors for the first time around three weeks before our visit.

Perhaps the biggest compliment that I can pay is that, after our most expensive meal ever, we decided to book again for our final night. And we weren't disappointed then either.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Sloughing off the misery of Heathrow

Given my hopes for the Berlin trip from a culinary viewpoint, it could hardly have got off to a worse start.

Although, to be fair, that wasn’t anything to do with Berlin or even Germany, but the grotesque experience that is Heathrow airport, multiplied by having to spend around three hours at the utterly dreadful Terminal 3 before actually being able to get on board our plane to head out.

Heathrow is an airport I attempt to avoid wherever possible. It was a salient reminder of why. Crowded, impersonal, utterly homogenised and like a winding, airless maze.

And the food was … well, how polite do readers want me to be?

Once stuck in the terminal, we ate at a Weatherspoons, one of a large chain of industrialised boozing joints throughout the country.

I ordered a chilli con carne. Well, that’s what it said on the menu – going so far as to claim that it was made with quality beef. There was simply the little problem of whether one could actually find any beef in the dish when it arrived.

Frankly, it looked rather like a bowl of liquid shit, and seemed to be a thick meat-flavoured gravy, with barely a hint of any pieces of meat to be found and a few kidney beans at the bottom, served with “yellow” rice (let’s assume it was artificially coloured, since one can hardly imagine the company going to the expense of using genuine saffron) and some nachos.

It filled a gap.

After what seemed an awfully long time, we landed at Tegel: straining to see out of the window, I was calling out sights as soon as possible – there was the Fernsehturm (TV tower) and sure enough, there was the Berliner Dom, the city’s Lutheran cathedral.

Suddenly, everything seemed to speed up – we were at the hotel on the Friedrichstraße, just down from Checkpoint Charlie, and, having unpacked, ready to enjoy the evening sunshine that had greeted us.

Maps had suggested that it was a long walk from the hotel to Unter den Linden, but we strolled up Friedrichstraße to get our bearings. Near Französische Straße, my bearings suddenly took a huge boost – looking down a street, I could see St Hedwig’s Cathedral. Which means Bebelplatz and then Unter den Linden.

Heading in that direction, we passed a most interesting restaurant – Gendarmerie – and made mental notes.

Wandering down Berlin’s famous boulevard toward the Brandenburger Tor, my excitement built. Seven years earlier, on our previous visit, the gate had been shrouded for restoration. I’d not seen it.

And so we bumped into Germany’s big birthday party – the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Bundesrepublik. The other side of the gate was a heaving mass of Germany humanity, being entertained by live acts on two vast stages.

We took in the atmosphere for a while, enjoyed a first beer, and then headed off into the darkening night to find food – proper food.

Realising that our hotel was very much in an area that has become dominated by government offices and businesses, we were beginning to wonder if we’d have to order sandwiches from room service, when we happened to almost run into a large group of Bavarians in costume – full lederhosen etc – just boarding a coach from Maximilians, a Bavarian restaurant.

First, they were still open. Second, they had a speciality menu of spragel – asparagus – just as I’d read about before the trip.

Delighted, I enjoyed my first white asparagus (beautifully presented, bundled together and tied with a fine strip of leek) and a wiener schnitzel, which was moist and very tasty. And hardly surprisingly, the beer was excellent.

After the misery of Heathrow, the trip was finally underway in style, and the stress of that experience simply sloughed off.