‘Dungheap Food’ – Eating out in Berlin
by Giles MacDonogh Posted: 5th August 2014
I probably spent a good part of every year in Berlin between 1991 and 1997, after that my visits became increasingly sporadic until now, when I suppose I am lucky if I drop in for a day or two every three or four years. The city has certainly been stumbling to its feet since the fall of the Wall and when the rebuilding is finished (and who knows when that will be) there is little question that it will be the most exciting place in Europe.
From a purely gastronomic point of view, there is a danger that with so much rebuilding and in-filling the beastly chains will muscle in and Berlin will be packed with chain restaurants, branded cafés and ‘concepts’ (how do you eat a concept?) like everywhere else in the world. When Berlin was just an island in a hostile Soviet ocean, the multiples gave it as wide a berth as all but the hardiest tourists. There were few posh restaurants, and fewer comfortable hotels. In that time the standard offering was the wholesome Berliner Kneipe or pub where you ate local food. If we don’t look out, this might simply disappear.
I had this problem flying in to Berlin on the 2nd. By the time I had checked into my hotel in the Linienstrasse and obtained some cash, I was hungry, but the myriad restaurants at the top of the Friedrichstrasse did not seem right for a Londoner: Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Pan-Asian, Italian, tapas, pizza, eat-all-you-want etc. is just what I find at home. I craved something authentic. After much hesitation I found it on the Torstrasse: a proper old Kneipe with Gothic script and bogus beams and a long menu of regional German food. Mine host (who looked as if he had been drawn by Heinrich Zille) had to be chivvied away from the television he was studying closely, and I think there were no more than four of us eating that evening. Still I had good beer, good schnapps and goodRindsroulade. I went back to my hotel full and watched some sort of German Inspector Morse spin-off on the gogglebox.
From the following morning I fell into line with my university people. We lunched in an Italian place behind the Humboldt University which offered vast pizzas and pasta dishes not to mention heroic salads. I missed a trick though when I saw one of our number had a plate piled high with tagliatelli and girolles. At night we ate tapas: No Misthaufenkuche for us: visiting academics do not eat ‘dungheap food’, a word used by some foreign visitor to sum up the food of Wilhelmine Prussia.
Once I had quit my fellows I reverted to my quest for authenticity. Berlin is still good for small food shops. Where I was staying in the Bayrische Viertel there were three or four excellent bakers within easy walking distance with the Streuselkuchen and marzipan Plunderschleife my children liked for breakfast. There was a huge array of different breads, with a 50-50 wheat-rye loaf we ate until they ran out and we took the rye-dominated Schwarzwälder instead. From the local shop I discovered an excellent initiative to encourage Berlin beekeepers. You could buy packages of three 10cl pots of really strong-flavoured local honey. When I left I stocked up on Brandenburg linden honey for home. It has always been a great favourite. I used to buy it from a beekeeper who had a stall outside Schloss Rheinsberg.
Apart from huge numbers of pubs, the Viertel had wonderful greengrocers with masses of tempting ripe fruit and wild mushrooms. Most summers in Britain I don’t eat peaches or apricots, because the fruit seems to be suffering from an identity crisis which makes it believe it is some species of apple. There were delicatessens and butchers too and a wonderful old-fashioned confectioner. Downstairs from our flat was a large organic shop selling produce of all sorts. Perhaps the oddest place local to us was a hundred-year old winery restaurant in an alleyway off the Berliner Strasse where you could eatà deux in an adapted wine tun.
In a vaguely Teutonic idiom there are plenty of Austrian restaurants now in Charlottenburg and Wilmersdorf, where you may eat a half-decent schnitzel, but that is not really berlinisch. The first night we were all together as a family, we found an unpretentious place where we could buy Fritz Allendorf’s excellent hock by the litre and eat variations on matjes herrings or Pfifferlinge, the local German name for what the French call girolles and we (inaccurately) chanterelles. With the alternating rain and sun, it was a marvellous time for mushrooms, and I was able to buy a big punnet of them in Potsdam for my host’s dinner party on Saturday.
It was so hot in Berlin that I drank more beer than is my wont. Most of this was Weizen or wheat beer. There were old favourites such as the Weihenstephan that I drank in a themed place on the Hacke’scher Markt with white and Käsekrainer sausages from the Bavarian state farm, but the most interesting was the organic Weizen from Braumanufaktur I had in Potsdam. It was quite dark and tangy. The company has its own brew-pub and you can sample all their specialities there.
Most children like sausages, so from that point of view Berlin is ideal, but it was not always easy to get the message across to them that sausages tend to be bought from stalls or vans and not from bars and cafes. The Currywurst so beloved of Berliners was wholly disdained but some Berlin foods went down well, like the Bouletten we had in the Stadtklausein Kreuzberg. The Stadtklause was a discovery: a marvellous old pub quite close to the ruins of the old Anhalt Station. From its proximity to the offices of Tagespiegel and Die Zeit, I should say was frequented by hacks. It had a collection of old pictures of the station.
One nice thing about much of the old western parts of the city is that nothing changes quickly. Walking through another of my old stamping grounds in Wilmersdorf, I noted that a fair number of the places I used to go to twenty years ago are still operating, including a Swabian restaurant called Besenwirtschaft where I used to eat the local pasta. In my various stays in Friedenau over the years I had often seen a good looking pub-cum-restaurant on the corner of the Bundesplatz and one night we went out to look for it. I had heard more recently that my old host in Friedenau, Urs Müller-Plantenberg went there once a year in January to eat roast venison and celebrate his escape from East Prussia in 1945, when he was a boy of five or six. His family managed to get the last train from Marienwerder before the Red Army cut the Germans off. Many were killed outright. Others were starved to death. The rest were banished to the west, months and years later.
Zum Nussbaum was not only still there the food was much as I imagined it. There was wild boar on the menu, Sulze (aspics), Kartoffelpuffer (potato cakes), Pfannkuchen mit Speck (bacon pancakes),Königsberger Klopse (Königsberg meatballs) and other stock north-east German ‘delicacies’. I had some excellent Königsberger Klopse and my daughter and I shared a north German summer pudding or Rote Grütze afterwards. There is a pretty front garden under the nut tree of the name, but inside there are two dark-stained, panelled Ur-German rooms with antique posters and photographs and the old-fashioned ‘Theke’ or bar. I cannot recommend Zum Nussbaum too highly for those looking for proper old Berlin restaurants.
In a way, the experience of our last night in Berlin-Charlottenburg, was similar. We were looking once again for an authentic pub. Diener is a Kunstlerkneipe or artists’ pub just off the Savignyplatz. I went into look at the pleasantly authentic scruffy interior with lots of photographs of bohemian worthies. The waitress was in a bad mood and the customers were lining their stomachs in preparation for the Germany-Brazil match, which was crowned with such a sensational victory a few hours later. The menu, however, was just right: there was Griebenschmalz (dripping) and toasted rye bread, as well as Leberkäs (meatloaf) and Kartoffelpuffer with various toppings, and there were matjes herrings and Königsberger Klopse. It was proper Berlin food, and in one of the smartest corners of the spanking new capital:
Diener Tattersall, Grolmanstraße 47, Charlottenburg, 10623 Berlin, 030/881.53.29.
For the rest, this has been a typical holiday month and I have not been out much. I went to a dinner atBoisdale in Canary Wharf on the 15th organised to celebrate smoking and smokers. Boisdale has a nice roomy terrace for puffers and lots of the guests staggered out for a relieving cigarette or cigar in the course of the evening, leaving telltale gaps at the table. Even if I gave up smoking thirty ears ago I have to say that I am an old-fashioned liberal about these things: that you should be allowed to do anything provided it does not impinge on the liberty of others. I am also pretty sure that carbon monoxide fumes from cars are more dangerous than inhaling tobacco smoke.
On the 28th I was entertained by South Africa’s Nederburg Wines at Quo Vadis in Soho. I had not been to this venerable London restaurant since it was owned by Marco Pierre White. Marco moved in his collection of Damien Hirst stuffed sharks, cows etc, and the suggestion was that they might soon end up on the menu. I had a nice little salad of smoked mackerel with apples, celery and walnuts and some smoked haddock fishcakes with back pudding and a fried egg, followed by an almond tart. I saw no mention of beef or shark on the menu so I presume they were gobbled up a long time ago. The Nederburg wines are extremely good value at £8.99, particularly the slightly old-fashioned oaky Winemaster’s Reserve Chardonnay and Cabernet. It was also a chance to meet the telegenic farmer Jimmy Doherty, who makes splendid things on his farm near Ipswich.
Originally posted by Giles MacDonough on http://www.macdonogh.co.uk/wineandfooddiary.htm