Okay, so, as will quickly become apparent, this is not really a “cake tour” at all. I was actually on holiday this time rather than my usual “business trip” type excursion. Nevertheless, despite it’s being mostly savoury in nature, the food in Berlin is well worth a mention. Poor Mark was, however, on a business trip and as his conference was in the Mitte area, we took a room there at the baxpax downtown hostel . While a little on the pricey side for a hostel, the private double room we had was perfect for what we wanted – although the shower was one of those irritating ones where you have to push a the button every minute and a half to keep going – and the atmosphere was friendly and relaxed. It was also ideally situated for exploring the Hackesche Markt area of Scheunenviertel (literally ‘Barn Quarter’) in Mitte. This was apparently the old Jewish quarter, but as with almost all of the rest of the city, it was mostly rebuilt after the war. It’s now a great shopping, eating, wandering district with little courtyard complexes like Hackesche Höfe and Heckman Höfe for exploring. Dominating all views, however, is the beautiful gilt dome of the Neue Synagoge.
Despite the area around Oranienburger Strasse being packed to bursting with restaurants, I found myself on the corner of Friedrich Strasse on the bank of the Spree river before I noticed I was in serious need of refreshment. I picked the cafe Julius Meinl simply because it had shaded tables where I could sit and watch the river and the boats where they split to go around museumsinsel – exactly what it sounds like, an island full of museums – and only found out when I went in search of the bathrooms that it was attached to a huge elegant hotel and day spa. It was only today, when researching for this blog, that I found out Julius Meinl is actually a relatively well known Austrian coffee house. Anyway, knowing none of this at the time, I settled down under an umbrella to peruse the menu. It was here that I first encountered these cheeky little spherical birds – which may just be well fed sparrows but I’m not enough of an ornithologist to say for sure – who crowded round Berlin’s eateries and bakeries eating crumbs from your feet if not quite your hands.
Being as it was my first meal in Berlin, I had to try Berlin beer, right? Well, on the menu was Berliner Weisse bier – perfect. However, when I ordered it, the waitress replied “rot oder grün?”. She explained that the difference was the red was raspberry flavoured and green was a German word beginning with ‘w’ that I didn’t know and she didn’t know the English equivalent for. Naturally I ordered green. In fact, I think I ordered it with such enthusiasm I scared her a little, but man did I make the right decision! I can’t really explain what this tastes like…but it hit all the right buttons for me, especially at lunch time in the sun. I loved it so much I looked for it on the menu at every restaurant and cafe we stopped at in Berlin only to come to the conclusion that perhaps it was a slightly down market or diluted drink as only the places we went for brunch seemed to serve it (which is a bit too early, even for me. Also, it is incredibly green!).
As the fact that this was an Austrian coffee house was unknown to me, I think I did pretty well in picking the only dish with “Austrian” in the title to accompany my grun bier. Austrian style dumplings stuffed with bacon with sauerkraut and gravy. Although that’s all the menu said, when I finally chomped my way to the third dumpling – these things are dense but oh so satisfying! – I found to my surprise that it was not stuffed with German bacon (which is more like ham really) like the other two, but with something that was more like if you made char sui out of really crispy bacon. All thoughts of leaving the third one unfinished vanished.
A lunch this dense required a lot more walking – beginning, of course, with gentle strolling. Luckily I was near the famous boulevard Unter den Linden which gave me ample opportunity to stroll, detour, get lost and then end up on Friedrichstrasse again. I actually found it impossible to get lost for very long in Berlin which meant I was comfortable in indulging my short attention span and wandering off to look at any shiny thing that caught my attention. Mitte is packed with amazing architecture, greenery and famous spots. However, I must admit that the highlight of my afternoon was seeing the Bugatti Veyron in a showroom on Friedrich Strasse. Mmm shiny…
Over the course of the day, I also got rather attached to Ampelmann and, as it was his 50th birthday, couldn’t resist visiting the official Ampelmann gift shop. Stay tuned for more on my Ampelmann related purchase!
That evening, reunited with my hardworking hubby and some of his fellow conference goers, I wanted to try a restaurant I’d read about in the Lonely Planet guide called Weinbar Rutz which was famous for Michelin starred Marco Müller’s modern twists on traditional German cuisine. Now, I did know it was a wine bar, given the name, however, I was led to believe it was also about the food… perhaps rather naively, I guess. Don’t get me wrong, the food was amazing. Flawless and exactly what I had hoped for from the description. Although, amusingly, one of the specials on the day we visited was Hereford beef! Also, it was not too highly priced, perhaps because we sat in the downstairs bar area…with all the wine. To go with our lovely German food, our group was drinking lovely German beer – some sort of medium dark ale with “rot” in the title of the brewery which I regret not getting the full name of – and water. This seemed to cause no end of problems. Every five minutes an impeccably groomed waitress would be at our table asking us if we’d like to see the wine menu, or if we had read the wine menu, or if she could tell us anything about any of the wines, or if we would perhaps like a glass of wine to go with that? It got a little tedious… in fact, I think it sort of ruined Mark’s meal. As for myself, it’s very hard to distract me from good food. And good food it was! I had the braised shoulder of ox with pretzel dumplings and spring cabbage. While it may have been ambitious to order dumplings twice in one day, these light little darlings were nothing like their Austrian comfort food counterparts. Crisp and fluffy at the same time they went perfectly with the meltingly tender beef and the rich gravy. The cabbage made it into a prefect well rounded meal. Mark had some amazing German black pudding – like Stornaway black pudding in texture but not in flavour – but I was so wrapped up in my own meal I have totally forgotten what it was served with. Mark is no use either. Not being the avid (read greedy) foodie that I am he barely remembers what he ate for breakfast today.
The following morning I left Mark to his work yet again and went out looking for pretty things. This time in the Alexanderplatz area of Mitte. I started by taking a walk around Museumsinsel, intending to head to Alexanderplatz itself, but, as I am me, I naturally got distracted and ran out of time. I did come across the absurdly incongruous Humboldt-box near the Berliner Dom. You could pay to go inside, but having no idea what it was, I declined. Also, pleasingly, I came across a man selling ‘wurst’ which he cooked on a rig attached to his stomach, stored in a cooler on his back and protected with an umbrella attached to his shoulders. Brilliant.
That day, Mark had time to join me for lunch so I led him to Schwarzwaldstuben, a beautiful Germanic pub I’d scouted the previous day in Scheunenviertel which is also given a mention in the lonely planet guide. With paintings of the black forest and fake, fuzzy deer heads on the wall, it was the ideal place to sit on a rainy day and eat rib sticking Maultaschen – spirals of pasta stuffed with sausage meat and then fried, mercifully served with a large salad. Sadly, I forgot to take any pictures of this amazing dish, engrossed as I was in eating it. Mark had the flammenkuche – a lot like a crispy pizza – and seemed to enjoy it equally well. I washed it down with Rothaus Tannenzapfle beer which may or may not have been the same beer I had the preceding night in the wine bar. If it was, the different environment was responsible for altering the taste to something a little maltier and substantial. As the weather was a bit on the soggy side, I spent the afternoon reading and sipping tea until I was called upon to meet the conference gang for dinner. They had been having drinks in a Vietnamese restaurant on Oranienburger strasse called Koriander – it seems to me that in Berlin, every restaurant, cafe and coffee house is also treated as a bar by its patrons if they feel like it, and there are no ill feelings for people who take up the tables and don’t eat the food. Inititally they had been intending to go elsewhere for dinner, but as the conversation got more heated (variations of “my software is better than your software” as far as I could tell) people started ordering food and the smells started an avalanche of food orders. Again, I took no photos. But the Ho Fun with chicken, peanut sauce and raw vegetables was amazing!
After dinner, when people started leaving to catch flights etc, and the remaining few were looking for something to do, I remembered that Fran had said that the cheesecake in Germany was something special. So, as she is an authority on such matters, I suggested an expedition. I’d been in one place earlier in the day – for the sipping of tea – which had at least four varieties and wasn’t much of a walk, although the rain made it seem further. Sadly, it was the sort of place that closed at 18.00. No problem, said I, the pub we had lunch in had cheesecake on the dessert menu! Onwards, then, to Schwarzwaldstuben. Which was packed to the gunnels and displayed a dessert board with a chalky smear where it used to read “kasekuchen”. Disappointed and soggy, we trudged on. Then, out of the gloom loomed an orange fronted restaurant/cafe with “kasekuchen” written on a permanent sign outside and with what we all guessed to be a polish flag hanging from it but at this point we were too soggy to care about the provenance of said cheesecake. In we filed and took seats at the only empty table large enough for our group only to be brusquely told that we had to vacate the table by 21.00 as it was reserved. Being as it was only just after eight, and all we wanted was tea and cake, we were happy to oblige. The waiter harrumphed off to bring us menus. I ordered the cheesecake and some tea. Then the next person order cheesecake and coffee, only to be told that there was only one slice of cheesecake. Only one! Never mind, they would get some other cakes and we could share. Sadly, the cheesecake that arrived seemed to have been frozen until recently and badly thawed. The cheese part had no texture to speak of, or flavour for that matter, and the sponge base oozed cold water when you bit into it. All in all, an unsatisfying experience.
The following day, Sunday, was our last day in Mitte. Mark’s conference was over and we had decided to go up the TV tower in Alexanderplatz for the panoramic views. Naturally, Sunday was impenetrably foggy. Not the sort to let a little thing like weather get in our way, we did it anyway. On the plus side, there were no queues and the fog did clear every now and again so we could catch fleeting glimpses of the closer buildings. There were also plenty of plaques around, explaining the buildings that we couldn’t see. They all started with the history of the building and the role it played in Berlin and ended with “…it was rebuilt after the war.” Probably worth a look on a good day, although it was a little expensive at 11 euros. However, we did get a money off book for Berlin’s other tourist attractions.
Now, my primary foodie target for Berlin was the famous Berlin Currywurst. Junk food, yes. But you can’t go to Berlin and not try it! We found a little van under a railway bridge opposite museumsinsel with crowded benches and a queue of at least a dozen people. How could a queue that long be wrong, I ask? Being chilled by the rain and more than ready for lunch were probably the optimal conditions for the ingesting of currywurst, which is exactly what it sounds like. A sausage with curry sauce, sprinkled liberally with curry powder. Amusingly, to me at least, the sauce was squeezed from udder-like bags hanging on the ceiling. And how did it taste, you ask? Pretty damn good! Salty, savoury, not too spicy. Junk food at its finest.
Post currywurst the rain was still coming down. The perfect excuse I though, to look at fish! The Berlin AquaDom was supposed to be pretty good, boasting the worlds largest cylindrical aquarium which you can go up through the middle of in a two-storey elevator (yep, the elevator has stairs in it) and an octopus which is the same species as Paul the psychic octopus. I know. Try to contain your excitement. The queues were pretty long, but it was Sunday.
Naturally, I had a great time, but I’m easily pleased by aquariums. The octopus was very active and there were several conga eels hanging from various tubes and a room full of jellyfish being subjected to bright coloured lights, but the highlight for me was the shoal of herring. Sounds weird, but they were in a cylindrical tank in the centre of the room, swimming round and round, and it was mesmerisingly beautiful. Did make me sort of hungry, though…
And that was only the first half of our holiday! Watch this space for the next installment.