Written by Caroline Hobkinson
Artist & experimental chef Caroline Hobkinson moved to Berlin six years ago and fell in love with the local cuisine. As the seasons rolled by and the food changed she realised the city’s epicurean history provided a valuable lesson
I love food. I love the idea of being able to eat anything I want at any time. I love the great cuisines and food cultures of the world. Why then, you might ask, did I move to Berlin?
This is not a place internationally renowned for its food. And to my frustration when I arrived I found its most exciting restaurants priding themselves on their ‘seasonal’ menus, perhaps over the actual quality of their food and the experience of eating it. I applauded the idea of an outdoor restaurant keeping its own hives to make honey, but went off it very quickly as the bees swarmed around my head during the meal. Dessert was a write-off. There was something rather smug about this socially and environmentally conscious approach to food in this city, something very self-righteous and, dare I say it, German. Being a German myself, I can say this, and believe me; we can do self-righteous, especially in Berlin.
But I was wrong. For behind that veneer of social responsibility I discovered a fascinating history of seasonal eating. I went to the markets; bought local vegetables from a group of old farm women whose faces were as beautifully coarse as the skin of the potatoes they sold me. I cooked wild garlic soup for the few weeks it was available, mourned the passing of the sorrel season, frantically poached elderflowers from the wild trees around the city to make sorbet, then waited patiently for the chanterelle mushroom season.
During this period, I discovered the Blutwurstmanufaktur, a ‘black-pudding factory’ and butcher in the rough end of the Neukoelln district. It is a shop that sums up Berlin cuisine, simple, self-effacing, democratic, and delicious. They have been making black pudding and many other types of sausage on the premises to the same recipe since 1902, and best of all you can eat lunch there. They have a simple weekly menu, one dish per day. They do not pride themselves on, or advertise the fact that their produce is local and seasonal, it just is.
Week upon week the markets would be full of different local foods, fresh in from the farms in the surrounding state of Brandenburg. I loved it. It forced me to cook different things, to think about what I was cooking. I got to know and love the simple, hearty Berlin cuisine. And it made me understand the place itself: A city whose epicurean rhythms had never gone away, in fact they had remained intact and essential to the survival of the city in torrid times.
Berlin was founded in the year 1230 and became capital of the militaristic state of Prussia before Germany was united. It was a booming industrial city through the 19th century and the heart of Hitler’s Third Reich before it was decimated at the end of the Second World War. It was never a place known for its food. Berliners were mostly working folk who ate quickly and simply; their cuisine reflected their abrupt, crude temperament. But from the very beginning they were seasonal eaters. Harsh winters and strong short summers meant seasonal food in this region was born out of necessity – when the place was established on a marshy island in the middle of a barren plain, food was nothing but seasonal – you ate what you could grow. Turnips, white asparagus, and mushrooms all had their seasons, as did the fish that would be caught in the River Spree and the wild boars that were hunted in local forests. What wasn’t eaten was dried and pickled for the harsh winter months, and it’s this cycle that began the humble pickled gherkin, available in a Big Mac somewhere near you. But come springtime, a flood of vegetables would commence with the queen of all seasonal food in Berlin.
Every April is white asparagus season, or Spargelzeit as it is known. Grown around the local town of Beelitz since the 17th century, these thick white spears fill the markets, and the menus of all Berlin restaurants. I’ve never seen a group of people go so seemingly mad over the arrival of a vegetable. Every year a Spargelkoenigen (asparagus queen) is chosen from the local beauties of Beelitz, and crowned in honour of the successful harvest. And Berliners gorge themselves on some of the 7,000 tons produced, many chefs creating a special ‘Spargelmenu’: five courses of the stuff! Michael Hofmann, the chef at Margaux restaurant, has been known to start with an appetiser of soft asparagus tips with cubed rhubarb and argan-oil-marinated kohlrabi, all the way through to a dessert of candied white asparagus. Chef Steffan Hartmann of Hartmanns believes its enduring popularity lies in the fact that “it’s the only truly seasonal vegetable left. You can get everything in the supermarket all year round – except for the white asparagus”.
Just like the rest of the world, as modernity took hold through the 19th and 20th centuries, transport and the industrialisation of food production meant you could eat what you like when you liked in Berlin. But then unlike most cities in the world Berlin reverted back to a strange kind of seasonal eating.
In 1945, after the Second World War, the ruinous decimated city was on its knees. Divided between East and West, it became the front line of the Cold War; a microcosm of the ideological battle that would wage through the world for the next 35 years. Both East and West suffered their own kind of food shortages – the East through the embargoes of communism and the West through the Berlin Blockade of 1948; a time when West Berlin’s land supply routes were cut off.
Amid the bombsites on both sides of the city, fruit and vegetable allotments sprang up. In the absence of a flow of food into the city, people claimed the land and grew their own vegetables, and out of necessity ate what was in season. The terrible destruction had returned huge swathes of the city to nature and in the process returned its citizens to a more natural rhythm of eating.
And it became about more than just food on plates. At the height of the Cold War people in the East and West grew their own vegetables often as a gesture of autonomy amid the ideological battle they found themselves stuck in. Their urban agriculture was making a political point; we don’t need your wretched systems and silly standoffs to survive. Acres of land that were wartime bombsites still remain allotments or Schrebergärten to this day, a culture in part born out of those times.
And still it continues, in the summer of 2009, a bombsite next to Moitzplatz in Kreuzberg that had remained derelict since the war started to sprout green shoots; herbs and plants were potted in old bakers’ crates and milk cartons, and the Prinzessinnengarten was born. Herbs and vegetables, when in season, are cooked and served up in the restaurant in the garden, and the place is a roaring success. Let’s not talk about their bees though.
Around the world the undoubtedly worthy fad of urban agriculture, seasonal eating, and farm-to-table restaurants can be seen in every city. But perhaps in Berlin more than most it can lay claim to being part of the soul of the place; part of its history and natural state.
SEASONAL CUISINE – MONTREAL
Montreal in Canada is a clash of new-world attitude to food fused with classical French cuisine. Like Berlin, it’s a seasonal city with harsh winters, hot summers, and very little in between.
Jean Talon market is one of the best food markets I have experienced in the world. It seemed like every time I visited I discovered something new, but the most exciting and perhaps the most seasonal food I’ve ever come across were ‘fiddleheads’. These are a green vegetable; the tightly coiled tips of a young fern plant. They are not industrially farmed anywhere and are only available in a few places in the world for a few weeks of the year. They have a spring-like taste, not unlike green asparagus. I sautéed them with butter and garlic – they looked beautiful and tasted delicious. The next week I went back to get more, but the season was over. A quick peak at the city’s restaurant menus reveals unique local vegetables are combined with the rich culinary heritage of the French to create something new and wonderful. As you might expect from a nation that has so much space and so much natural beauty, the Canadians care about what they eat and eating in season. These are people who understand the rhythms of nature and the impact of seasons. So I asked a few of them what they thought of ‘fiddleheads’, and was slightly disappointed to hear the reply, ‘Fiddlewhat?’”
Distance: 4,393 km
Flight Time: 6 hours, 35 minutes