Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Pickled beef and Nobel rats

The Dom from the river Trave.
Sunday in Lübeck dawned bright and fair, and with the promise of good weather for the morning at least, it was a case of getting out of the hotel early as quickly as possible – but only after breakfast.

Now this is the point at which we are going to talk breakfast. Usually, on my travels with The Other Half, we find a nearby café and have something pastryish and a coffee. Hotel breakfasts tend to be vastly overpriced and not actually very good.

But the breakfast at the Alter Speicher turned out to be a veritable feast.

Small frikadellen, Nuremberg grilling sausages, hard-boiled eggs, several different sort of herring – oh, the herring – breads, fruit, honey (something that Tony comments on several times in Buddenbrooks, as a “nature food”).

There was fruit juice and coffee, an array of salads and more varieties of cream cheese than you could have shaken a cheese straw at.

The Dom from the Trave.
It was still early when I’d finished, and I wandered in peace and quiet, joyfully. I went back to the Marienkirche, looking for the devil that some wit had thought to sculpt and place outside.

Finding him, I also found a Japanese tourist who photographed me with him. I reciprocated. And my idea took off, as I was then asked to photograph an elderly lady and her daughter on either side of him.

Another wit had placed a paper cross around his neck. But perhaps it wasn’t intended as a joke? God only knows.

In another juxtaposition of the unexpected, bikers were starting to arrive for a big bikers’ service that was scheduled for noon.

Marienkirche from the Petrikirche.
The city was blissfully quiet and the sun was coming through, so I took the opportunity and headed straight over to the Petrikirche, which provides one of the seven Gothic spires that tower over old Lübeck.

The whitewashed interior has been turned into a fascinating gallery space, but I was visiting for the lift, which takes you up to a viewing platform in the tower, from where you can gain magnificent views over the old city and beyond.

Drifting up from the Trave below were the sounds of a brass band, as rowing eights oarred in for the start of a race.

Rowing is big in Lübeck: a boat trip around the old city later revealed at least two clubs, both bustling with cross-generational activity. And then there were all the cyclists and the joggers and the walkers. These Lübeckers are active folk.

But I headed first for the Dom – the cathedral – down a gentle hill from the Marienkirche and the Rathaus. A service had started inside, so I didn’t enter, but headed down a further hill to the river’s edge, and wandered for some time before coming across a boat trip that was within a very convenient five minutes of casting off.

Günter Grass Flounder
The trip on the river allowed for more lovely vistas. The boat itself was driven by an elderly man who doubled as our guide – having already decided that I should be charged the senior's fare.

I caught bits and pieces of his commentary, but the most extraordinary moment was when, ever so fleetingly, his speech almost sounded like someone reading Chaucer.

Watching Wallander on the television, The Other Half and I have, more than once, felt that understanding the spoken Swedish is like having something on the tip of your tongue: so very near.

In a three-part series on the contribution of historic immigrants to the UK, Eddie Izzard illustrated the closeness of old English and Dutch (or at least Fresian).

And here it was again – linguistic similarity and distance combined.

I was delighted to realise that I was remembering bits and pieces of German as the day passed. Hardly just tourist stuff either – I’d been really rather thrilled to realise that I knew der Taufel, the German for ‘the devil’.

But there was also the embarrassment of mingling my limited language knowledge.

When we first visited France, I’d find myself using German words. Here, several years of French trips asserted themselves into the language as I found myself using a French word instead of German. Thus the deeply embarassing nonsense of “tres gut”.

Günter Grass rat – and, err, smurfs.
More and more I regret being so lousy and so disinterested in languages at school.

Although I will also admit to feelings of enormous chuffedness that my pronunciation – and my attempts to speak German as much as I could – were praised by a number of people.

The first was an elderly woman in a shop that sold both model trains and cars, and hand-carved wooden Christmas decorations; bent and with hair of snow, she made me think instantly of Sesemi Weichbrodt, the girls’ teacher in Buddenbrooks.

The same efforts were also rewarded by someone giving me free cakes – and someone else randomly buying a white rose from a passing seller and handing it to me.

They don’t get many Brits up here – I asked – so perhaps it was partly the exotic value.

A piece of Nobel art.
One of the staff in the cafe where I was given the cakes also spotted my Manchester City polo shirt and found the last minutes of the FA Cup semi-final on the television, coming outside to tell me. Which was extraordinarily considerate.

Before that, though, the day had also allowed a visit to Günter Grass-Haus, where many of his sculptures and drawings are on display, together with his Nobel certificate.

It was also housing a temporary exhibition of John Lennon's art.

This was, in many ways, far more ‘alive’ than Buddenbrookshaus had been. If I’d expected too much there, I’d expected little here – and found much more.

For me at least, Grass is not only a fabulous writer, but an artist of huge integrity – in many ways, a continuation of Mann.

And the paintings and drawings and sculptures that are on display remind vistors that he is also a great visual artist.

Most surprisingly, though, was the discovery that there were limited-edition books available, each with a numbered, signed lithograph inside.

In all the art from our travels that now hang on the walls at home, we had only a print of a Grosz Berlin street scene to represent Germany – and that was bought in London.

Not any more.

Admittedly, I’d have snapped up one of his wonderful rat sculptures if that wouldn’t have meant really shoving the boat out beyond what I thought would be acceptable. But a signed, stamped, numbered lithograph by a Nobel laureate is still pretty impressive.

The culture vultury continued with a visit to the nearby Museum Behnhaus Drägerhaus.

Caspar David Friedrich: Kügelgens Grab
Formed from two old merchants’ houses, it is partly a museum, with half a dozen rooms furnished in early 19th-century style. The rest is the gallery.

I don’t know why they bother with attendants, though – the floors squeak so much you couldn’t possibly snatch anything surreptitiously and hope to run away noticed.

It does, however, have a cloakroom with lockers, where 1€ secures you a locked space until you’re finished.

In true ‘n’er cast a clout’ mode I was still wandering around in a heavy leather jacket. It was blissful to be able to take it off.

The gallery houses a collection of paintings by the Nazarene school – early 19th century painters dedicated to spreading religious faith through their Italian-influenced Biblical scenes.

Johann Friedrich Overbeck – with Bible.
Although one of their founders, Johann Friedrich Overbeck (1789-1869), did occasionally break out into less overtly religious topics to paint something such as the self-portrait with his family, for instance. Although another self-portrait, ‘with Bible’, hardly screams ‘life and soul of the party’.

I have to say, I wasn’t over-impressed. And that has nothing to do with the religious aspect: rather, that they simply seem rather poor by comparison with other painters of religious scenes, whether Italian or Flemish, to mention but two.

The gallery’s five paintings by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), including Kügelgens Grab (1821-22), were, on the other hand, a welcome tonic, even allowing for their over-blown romanticism.

There was also a huge, temporary exhibition by Lübeck's own Johann Wilhelm Cordes (1824-1869), which had some interesting studies and paintings. His Norwegian fjord paintings were good and the studies of clouds intriguing, but otherwise he was obsessed with painting soldiers and seamen in fantasised scenes that look … well, fantasised.

Johann Wilhelm Cordes study.
One of these had a poacher lying on the ground, one hand holding his dog’s head down, the other a rifle, a dead deer with them, while above, a gamekeeper and dog hunted for them. It was oddly rather comic book.

Of all things, it made me think of a sort of 19th century combination of the likes of Chris Foss and those little 'Commando' comics.

But the gallery also had work by another Lübeck artist, Albert Aereboe (1889-1970), whose paintings in the early 20th century provided some interesting thoughts.

A self portrait from 1924, with the old city seen through a narrow window behind, was particularly interesting, and reminded me of the patrician, very formal way in which Thomas Mann presented himself to the world in portraits from that era and later.

Albert Aereboe
And Aereboe repeated the trick too, in his portrait Bildnis Dr F Bonhoff, from the same year. It's difficult not to see this as a reflection of a time and place and attitudes, rather than the responses of Mann in particular to how he revealed himself to the public.

Albert Aereboe: Bildnis Dr F Bonfoff
Aereboe’s Rote Jacke, from the same year is a very good still life: classic yet modern at the same time.

There was also a Kirchner and a Beckmann (Bildnis Elsbeth Goetz, 1924), and a few by Munch from his time living in the city.

A 1929 painting by New York artist Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956), of Lübeck itself, was one of the most intriguing there. The Cubist influence was clear, but it was also highly reminiscent of an Expressionist film set: think Das Kabinet des Dr Caligari – in colour.

And finally worth a mention is Flugzeugabsturz ins Kornfield by Franz Radziwill (1895-1983), which is not exactly a familiar art subject.

Flugzeugabsturz ins Kornfield by Franz Radziwill
The thing is, not every gallery in the world is stupendous. But you can learn things from smaller galleries too – and perhaps, in some ways, even more than from seeing iconic paintings.

The evening was given over to a different sort of culture – a visit to Schiffergesellschaft.

Characterising itself as a ‘posh pub’ might seem like overdoing things, but this 1535 building has housed the seamen’s guild for centuries and has also been a place to eat and drink.

Sure enough, it gets a mention in Buddenbrooks, when Thomas takes guest of the family, Herr Permaneder, there, and is described fleetingly, complete with it’s fleet of vast model ships hanging from the roof.

Lübeck by Lyonel Feininger.
The interior is extraordinary – the menu full of traditional, northern German food.

I started with herring three ways, which came on volkornbrot and with pickles. It was gorgeous; the firm, sweet fish combined with different dressings, including a very light curry one with fat, juicy sultanas.

To follow, it was always going to be the labskaus. This is history on a plate. A traditional seamen’s dish, it is made with preserved meats – corned or pickled beef – and grated beetroot, and is traditionally served with a fried egg on top.

It is an interesting taste – a remarkably subtle mix of sweet and sour, with the egg adding further sweetness. It came with more pickles and half a herring on the side.

Labskaus found its way all around the Baltic and Scandinavia – and also to Liverpool, where it gave its name to the local residents of that port city.

Herring three ways.
These sort of food connections are fascinating.

In a 2009 Telegraph article on Lübeck as a city break destination, Simon Heffer enjoyed it, but commented that he received strange looks as an Englishman ordering it.

Well, I can report no such looks. So perhaps it was just him. Or perhaps it was me!

In her classic book on German cuisine, The German Cookbook, Mimi Sheraton says that the Schiffergesellschaft labskaus is the best she tasted on her travels in the country, and the recipe she includes is from this incredible Lübeck institution.

I finished with plettenpudding à la Thomas Mann – in other words, the trifle with raspberries and cream that is served as dessert at the housewarming for “the house on Mengstraße” that opens Buddenbrooks.

It was tasty enough, but I’m afraid it bore only a passing resemblance to what Mann describes. I shall have a go at recreating it myself at some stage.

For the record, I had a small beer – a Jever – on the side, and very pleasant it was too, and I concluded the evening with a Fürst Bismarck corn vodka – memories of which go back to our first trip to Berlin, in 2002.

And that was that for day two.

I slunk back to my hotel and sank into my bed.

But I was already beginning to understand just what a wonderful place this was – and I had a full day and a bit to go to explore it.

No comments:

Post a Comment