Monday, 9 May 2016

Rick Stein's Long Weekend

Zoo Station, where Rick Stein's long weekend began

Two programmes recently featured Berlin - Rick Stein's Long Weekend, and Travel Man's 48 Hours. Both featured quirky hotels, cold weather, art communes and a Trabant tour. The latter was the intended comedy element - there was much bleeping of profanities during these pre-watershed broadcasts. The cars, being made of Bakelite, are hardly robust and weren't easy to drive in their heyday, let alone after ageing the 25 years since the fall of the Wall and now having to manoeuvre through the 2016 Berlin traffic.

Both Rick Stein and Travel Man also featured the same restaurant - Billy Wagner's Nobelhart & Schmutzig, which is on Friedrichsstrasse just south of Checkpoint Charlie. It's the only time I've seen Richard Ayoade impressed by food. He normally has a nibble, sneers, and leaves. But this time he cleaned his plate and gave a thumbs up, speechless. So it must be good. Rick Stein was more effusely enthusiastic, as Billy Wagner did clever things with fennel seed, pork neck, leeks, kale puree, toasted pine needles and Rick's personal favourite - smoked eel. Billy Wagner is - well, if not a bit scary, then certainly intense. He cooks in front of you, hiding behind a Viking beard and a fierce stare. His food is locally sourced to the exclusion of anything else. Not even a lemon will grace his kitchen, because citrus fruits don't grow in Berlin.

Berlin is the home of Currywurst, which I didn't know, although I have eaten it there, from a snack kiosk in Park Sanssouci in Potsdam, because it's all I could afford. As you can tell, the two times I went to Berlin, I had limited gastronomic knowledge and not much money.

Beautiful Potsdam - and I ate Currywurst

Nonetheless, certain things I ate on those trips have stayed in my mind. Berlin is the city where I tried falafel for the first time. Falafel, now readily available in Waitrose, were entirely unknown to me in 1993. I have eaten them since in more authentic cities like Amman or Cairo, but it was Berlin where I had my first taste. I thought them a little strange, but didn't dislike them. Nowadays I love them and even make my own, they have become such a staple in my diet. I ate them last night, for example, as a return to cultured sanity in Leeds after taking my daughter to see Disney On Ice.


Unfortunately translated accompaniments to falafel in Jordan

I also remember eating a chicken and cashew nut salad in a small bistro just round the corner from Barbarossastrasse in Schoeneberg, the sort of place that had checked tablecloths, candles burning in Chianti bottles, and devoted regulars. It was the salad dressing that was such a revelation to me. Germans are well known for dousing their salads in vinegar, but this was a raspberry vinegar, not too sharp, not too sweet, just enough to make the dish amazing, and unforgettable. Sadly, the bistro seemed to have vanished when I returned to Berlin six years later, but as a friend had taken me there and my geography was hazy, it might have been I was just looking in the wrong place. I hope so.

Rick Stein showed how funky the Berlin food scene has become since I was last there, a ridiculous 17 years ago. And yet he was still very much able to find the traditional grub - the gigantic pork knuckles, cheese spaetzli, meatballs, sauerkraut, all washed down with litres of wonderful beer in bars full of oom-pah music and dirndl skirts. But in many establishments, the dishes have been made more delicate and refined, which has to be no bad thing. In fact someone just won Masterchef by doing just this - taking traditional British food and - in her words - elevating it to a new level.

Traditional German grub at the Leeds Christmas Market

No comments:

Post a Comment