Saturday, 28 April 2012

Rosemary and Sea-salt Focaccia Recipe

Hausgemacht Focaccia (with a glass of water and a chunk of Edam)
Summer weather seems to have arrived at last! It is bright and sunny outside, and 27 degrees in the shade. Time for barbecues and picnics, and what better accompaniment for either than some delicious focaccia bread.

The recipe I give here is basically the same as the one baked up by the BBC's Hairy Bikers, only they made theirs on a bridge in Venice. Sadly, I will have to do with my terrace, but then again my garden doesn't smell like Venice on a hot day.

For this recipe you need, for the dough:
  • 500g/1lb 2oz strong white flour (Weizenmehl Type 550, look out for description Backstarke), plus extra for dusting
  • 1 x 7g/¾oz sachet of fast-action dried yeast (Hefe. Dr Oetke is ubiquitous and good quality) 
  • 1 tsp caster sugar (Streuzucker, or extrafeiner Zucker. Or substitute a teaspoon of honey (Honig))
  • 1 tsp fine sea salt (Meersalz)
  • 2 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for greasing (Olivenöl - we find the cheap Ja! oil from Rewe is just fine)
  • 300ml/10fl oz/½ pint warm water
Add the olive oil to a measuring-jug of warm water and dissolve into it the sugar or honey. The water must be body-temperature warm - anything hotter will kill the yeast. Stir in the dried yeast and put the jug aside in a warm place. The yeast should very soon start to activate and froth up.

Weigh the flour into a large mixing dish and add the salt.

Now gradually introduce the sweet water/oil/yeast mixture to the mixing bowl, working through with a wooden spoon.

When the dough starts to come together, get in there with your hands, and form it into a ball, picking up the flour from the sides of the bowl.

Now turn the dough out onto a floured surface and start kneading it. This is ultra important as it warms and stretches the strands of gluten protein molecules in the dough, making the dough elastic and springy. Without it, the dough will be solid and stodgy, so take at least five minutes to give it a good kneading.

Whilst you are kneading, you have time to think about the European classification of flour types. Here I have specified Type 550, which is a strong bread-making flour. For everyday baking, type 405 is the norm. The number is derived from the amount of ash residue per 100g after incinerating the flour overnight at 585 degrees C. The ash represents the amount of bran that remained after the milling process, and it is the bran that contains the gluten proteins. The more the wheat grains were milled, the finer the flour, and the less bran in the final product. For light, fluffy fairy-cakes you want short strands of gluten protein, so you choose a flour with a lower type, e.g. 405. What we want though is stretchy bread with long protein molecules, so we need flour that hasn't been processed as much, i.e. 550. For wholegrain bread, you of course need flour with an even higher number, because they haven't been processed so much to remove all the roughage (so, up to 1600). In other European countries than Germany, the number is expressed per 10g of flour, so 55 is strong flour for bread in France. And for Italian pasta, you really need 00 Durum wheat, which is the most processed you can get.

When you are done kneading, put your dough into a bowl and cover with cling-film or a clean kitchen towel and leave to rise for about an hour in a warm place. I chose beside the barbecue on the terrace, because by now the temperature is edging towards 30 degrees. Wow, Hitzewelle!

After an hour, and hey presto! it has doubled in size:

Next you have to knock the dough back, and give it a short knead on a floured surface again. The purpose of this is to break down the pockets of CO2 gas created by the yeast fermentation, otherwise you would have bread with large holes and little else.

When you have knocked the air out of it, roll the dough out into a rectangle roughly the size of your baking tray; mine has an internal size of 38cm x 25cm. Olive oil the tray liberally, place the rectangle of dough into it, then press and ease the dough out to fill it. If you have done your kneading well, the dough will slide on the oil and spring back to a smaller size. Don't worry too much about this, as you want a rustic look.

Next cover the tray with oiled cling-film and leave in a warm place to prove for a further thirty minutes:

After thirty minutes, the dough will have expanded again and become lovely and puffy. This process is worth not skimping, as with time the magic yeast releases that wonderful taste of un-hurried bread-making, that you don't get with supermarket-made bread.

Now, put on the oven and let it heat up to 220 degrees C. 

So next you start poking your index finger all over into the dough down to the baking tray. Then you liberally sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper, and about a tablespoon of freshly chopped rosemary (German: Rosmarin). Then you sprinkle salt crystals or flakes to taste (we don't like a lot of salt, so only a bit for us), and drizzle with about three tablespoons of olive oil, making sure the oil runs into the dimples. Finally you poke in about a dozen rosemary tips, so it ends up looking like this (tip - for a variation you could strew with sun-dried tomatoes or olives):

Right, into the oven with it for about fifteen to twenty minutes. When the bread is looking golden brown, it is done!

Slice it up and eat straight away, or wrapped up in aluminium foil it will last a good few days because of the high olive oil content. Lecker!

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Springtime, Cycling Along the German-Polish Border

Courting storks on a rooftop near Ratzdorf, where the rivers Oder and Neisse meet on the German-Polish border:
Love on a Rooftop
Also here we saw a stork cross the border (watched by a miniature pony further down the bank that you can just about see) ...

.. and we were also gladdened to see geese returning from the Arctic (or they might be cranes. Whatever. Wave after wave of flocks of large birds flying in from the north. Not flamingos though.):

Below is a photo of the border. You can see the red and white border post of Poland in the distance:

The border region has some very pleasant countryside indeed. We were cycling through it along the Oder-Neisse Radweg, which is a well-paved, long-distance cycle- (and inline skating-) path. The leisurely ride gave us plenty of time to take in the lush flood-meadows alongside the rivers:

The cycle path runs on the other side of a dike that protects the settlements along the rivers from flooding:

Periodically the water-levels do rise dramatically, especially at the end of Winter when the snows of Eastern Europe thaw and come flooding down these rivers on the way to the Baltic sea. Invariably we then get on TV channel RBB outdoor location shots from the Pegel (water level gauge) at Ratzdorf. On those occasions the Pegel usually has water up to the top doorstep and you couldn't get to it except by boat, but today it looked like there was no threat of inundation:

That means the gnome inhabitants of Ratzdorf shouldn't need to worry:

And neither should the beavers along this border, which is bursting with wildlife. But we should watch out for their beaver build work in case it undermines the cycle path!

Kloster Neuzelle - A Virtuoso Baroque Performance

On Saturday we decided to take our bikes out to the South East of Brandenburg and cycle along part of the Oder-Neisse Radweg - a cycle path that follows the Oder and Neisse rivers and therefore the border between Germany and Poland (and eventually the Czech Republic) - down to the twin German/Polish city of Guben/Gubin.

Our starting point was the picturesque town of Neuzelle. To get there from Berlin Friedrichstraße Bahnhof involved a one hour forty minute journey on two red RE trains, changing at Frankfurt Oder.

The town of Neuzelle is unique in this part of Northern Germany for being an island of Roman Catholicism in an area of  Lutherian Protestantism after the Reformation. Kloster Neuzelle was a Cistercian abbey, first established under the patronage of Henry the Illustrious (Heinrich III der Erlachte), Margrave of Meissen, who had it built in memory of his wife Agnes. What you see today though is a rebuilding of the abbey in the 1650's after it was devastated during the Thirty Years War. It was then more associated with Prague and Bohemia, the rest of Brandenburg having converted to Protestantism, and the Italian architects and artists brought in to do the work reconstructed it in the Southern German baroque style.

From the outside the abbey church looks innocuous enough. It's architecture looks Alpine, and it is set in a recently re-landscaped garden reminiscent of the blueprint of  baroque, the Palace of Versailles (compare with the gardens at Schloss Charlottenburg and Sans Soucci in Berlin and Postdam, also re-styled to their baroque original layout).

The interior though is late baroque, or baroque on acid, also known as rococo. It is the flamboyance and orchestrated spectacle of baroque taken to its ultimate conclusion. It is no wonder that after this excessive zenith, architectural taste swung back to its beginnings with the simplicity of neoclassicism.

There isn't anywhere you can look without your eyes being distracted with detail upon detail, carved in wood and stone, and all brightly painted or gilded. Candy-twist pillars lead your eye up to successive levels, where cherubs fly above you to ceiling paintings high above depicting biblical scenes.

The baroque style came about as a reaction against the relative austerity of protestant tastes. Instead of Lutheran inner-meditation and personal spirituality demanding minimal distraction from external stimuli, Roman Catholicism countered with spectacle, displays of wealth, mythic tales, and sheer shock and awe at the majesty of the Catholic heavenly hierarchy. In effect it was an exercise in getting bums on seats in a time when German states were falling like dominoes away from control by the Holy Roman Empire.

The baroque style consists of tall, narrow, brightly lit spaces contrasted with the play of dark shadows. Everywhere there seems to be movement, in the same way that baroque music, played on enormous and intricate pipe organs, is designed to fill these same spaces with ascending, intricate chord progressions. Kloster Neuzelle is a perfect exemplar of this style, and it is a good thing that though now secularised, this building has been preserved by State Brandenburg to remind us of this period piece. 

To modern aesthetics, it all now seems a bit hysterical and totally OTT. Never mind the dusting and re-gilding that must need to go into maintaining it. It brings me to mind of 18th century opera, the soaring music very clever and intricate and festooned with twiddly bits, and the emotions all grand and full-on and very chiaroscuro.

If I was brought up in the Roman Catholic tradition, I imagine I would fair feel like swooning at the imagery and associations, from the hundreds of statues of saints, the religious icons, the stations of the cross, and the holy reliquaries and shrines. As it is, half an hour in the church was enough to sate my senses, and I was glad to get back out into the real world. The late baroque period of Germany was an interesting and sensually exciting time, but I wouldn't want to live there. 

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Giant Environmental Disaster Machine

Imagine the Eiffel tower.

Now imagine it laid out horizontally on the ground: it would be 324m in length.

Now imagine a steel construction more than half as big again, 500m in length and 80m high.

Finally, imagine this colossal structure weighing 11,000 tonnes moving forward along rail-tracks at 10m per minute on 760 electrically powered wheels. Imagine it  gouging out of the ground beneath it, every hour, the equivalent volume of soil as a football field filled to a height of 8m.

This is the F60 Abraumförderbrücke, one of the largest mobile pieces of machinery in the world. It was built to dig a wide trench through seams of brown coal (Braunkohl), so that excavators could get at the coal and extract it. On one end of the bridge, two 60-meter long arms each with a continuous band of iron buckets scooped up the earth (hence the 60 of F60). This debris was transported on a series of conveyor belts the length of the bridge across the gauged-out valley to be dropped onto spoil heaps at the other side.

Panorama shot of the F60
We visited the last of five F60's ever to be built, at the Besucherbergwerk (visitor's mine) F60 near Finsterwald, 130km south of Berlin. We were kindly driven there by a friend with a car, otherwise it would be hard to get to by public transport (see map here).

The F60's were the culmination in technology used by the DDR (GDR) to provide East Germany with its own independent source of fuel for its new factories and steel plants. Meanwhile, large tracts of land were devastated and towns uprooted as the gigantic mining machines crept slowly across SE Brandenburg, turning the landscape in their path into a moonscape.

Thankfully for the environment, these behemoths conceived in the DDR times, were decommissioned as soon as a unified Germany got around to formulating a coherent energy and environmental policy. The F60 at the mining museum went into service in March 1991. At the end of June 1992 it was turned off. Even though the land has had twenty years to recover, you can see the mess that those thirteen months caused. Ironically there is now a solar panel farm where the F60 passed by, and rows of wind turbines on the hills behind.

At the top of the F60. Note the rows of solar panels in the middle distance.
The former mine has been flooded to make an artificial lake on the right.
The highlight of a visit to the museum is to go on a guided tour. This lasts for one and a half hours, during which the tour party makes its way in hard-hats from the ground on one side of the F60, climbs up through the body of the bridge next to the conveyor belts to its highest point on the other side, and then climbs down back again. This takes you a distance of 1.5km in all, and goodness knows how many steps (the guide did say ...)

Along the way the informative tour-guide tells you lots of information about the F60 and the history of the museum. One fact that amazed me was that the whole structure was operated by just twenty-five people. You can imagine how many hundreds of miners it put out of work. 

The tours are in German, but if you don't speak a word of the language, still don't miss joining the tour for the experience of climbing the bridge.

Thankfully the previous open-mesh walkways have been filled in, and safety rails added, but the height and exposure of the stairs can still be a bit giddying.

An interesting day out, though if the weather had been less grey then the views from the summit would have been much more stunning. I pre-supposed that the visitors would be mostly middle-aged men and their sons, the type who have vast model railways in their attic, but I was wrong. Do wear sensible shoes though, and 'Glück auf!' as the miners used to say in greeting.

Here are some more piccies from the day (click for bigger):

Friday, 13 April 2012

'Iron Sky' Review - And Watching English Language Films in Berlin

We went to see Iron Sky at the CineStar in the Sony Centre on Wednesday, which was great entertainment and full of laugh-out-loud moments. It has creative and original ideas in abundance, and is visually rich with great steam-punk cgi special effects and luscious screen-candy actors. Additionally, the soundtrack is awesome.

Its humour is very much in the style of Mel Brooks at his Nazi/Star Wars-spoofing best, but sadly without the same level of acting and direction (or budget). The humour ranges from the lowest common denominator to knowing references to Nazi history, and in a way it would be better called the Ironical Sky (oh hold me, hold me, before my sides split!).

The premise of the film is that a group of Nazis escaped to the dark side of the Moon in the final moments of the Second World War, where they established a Moon colony with plans to return to Earth just as soon as they have got their supreme weapon fixed (named the Götterdämmerung, naturally - not the only Wagner reference by far). Problem is, with time their technological knowledge  and culture have degenerated somewhat, with only an old mad-professor type (ironically with a resemblance to Einstein) left to complete the project, and the children on the base being taught that the Nazis are a peaceful race.

The fun begins when a hunky black American model lands on the Moon, is captured by the Moon Nazis, and thereby inadvertently delivers into their hands the essential super-computer needed to get the Götterdämmerung launched. That super-computer being a mobile phone. Moon Nazis then hop over to Earth in a dinky UFO to get more of these phones because, typically, the battery ran out before it could be used properly. I'll leave it there for you to see how the plot expands.

Well, plot such as it is because it has enough holes to fly a space-zeppelin through. The scenes were sometimes a bit disjointed, but then it did take three years to make, with 10% of the funding coming from the internet community (individuals credited in a long list at the end). But you can forgive all that for a wonderful parody of Sarah Palin as the US president trying to get elected for a second term, which is worth the admission-price alone.

As an aside, when the German's talk about people living on the Mondrückseite (the far side of the moon), they mean that they are ignorant and out-of-date. Just though I'd throw that in there.

Of course there was an added frisson of watching a film full of Nazi regalia in a cinema just 800 metres from Hitler's former Chancellory and bunker, and the German audience gave lots of nervous laughs at the audacity of e.g. a swastika shaped moon colony. But this film definitely has an anti-Nazi (and anti-Republican Tea Party) message, despite some pretty sexy (male and female) Nazi characters.

There are lots of literate nods to other films, including Dr Strangelove, Star Trek, Plan 9 From Outer Space, Moon (the Nazi base is powered by helium 3), Charlie Chaplin's Great Dictator, Hitler's rage scene in Downfall, and Team America: World Police.

The stunning soundtrack is dominated by Laibach, whom we had seen the week before at the Heimathafen in Neukölln. Indeed, Laibach had projected most of the film onto the stage backdrop during their gig, so we felt that we had already seen the film. There is also reference to Laibach in the film, when the Moon Nazis come to Earth and get a makeover when they are requisitioned to lead the Sarah Palin look-alike's re-election campaign: the swastikas have been replaced with the logo from Laibach's Volk album. Tracks from that album are of course in the film, most effectively 'America'.

The costumes in the film are something Max Mosley would have gagged for (or been gagged for), especially when given a makeover into shiny black BDSM short-skirted Nazi chic. It actually got me thinking, somebody back in 1930's Germany must actually have got together a team to sit down and design all the Nazi uniforms and regalia right down to the last Totenkopf button and jack-boot buckle. What strange brain-storming sessions they must have been.

Not just the wardrobe is well designed; a lot of thought has gone into the entire concept and realization of the film, so that there is a consistency and originality that is stamped all over Iron Sky. We were particularly impressed with the thought and level of detail that must have gone into the UFO's, and especially the awesome Götterdämmerung.

In conclusion, the funniest Finnish film we have seen, ever. And in comparison to the sparse number of comedies to come out of Hollywood in recent years, the best original comedy film we've enjoyed in a long time.

Definitely worth seeing, just don't go expecting any kind of cinematic or acting masterpiece. Sit back and prepare to laugh your stockings off.



A final word about watching original language films in Berlin.

The bad news is that German audiences absolutely hate sub-titles. They would much rather watch foreign (by which I mean English) films very badly dubbed into German. This applies to English language television as well, and it is somewhat distracting hearing Jamie Oliver or Jeremy Clarkeson speaking German in a deep voice. Interestingly, when the Danish-Swedish crime series The Bridge was shown on German TV (it was made in collaboration with ZDF) it was dubbed into German, whereas in the UK it was shown with sub-titles. Personally I think that an actor's voice is just as important in the projection of a character as their body-language, but I'm in a minority here.

The good news is that the Berlin CineStar Original in the Sony Center on Potsdamer Platz always shows original language films, and often shows German films with English sub-titles as well. Check out the forthcoming programme here.

(Addendum: apparently Iron Sky will only be on release for one day in the UK. One day! So ironically it looks like you would have to come to Germany to watch it on a movie screen.)

The Dahlem Museum Complex

The South-Western area of Berlin feels a bit distant from the action of Berlin Mitte. The district of Dahlem in particular seems a world away from the busy government and tourist areas around Brandenburger Tor and Alexander Platz. Indeed, the U-Bahn station Dahlem-Dorf has a thatched roof for goodness-sake, and is positioned opposite a country manor house adjacent to a working organic farm.

But it was not always so, as this area was once at the heart of the American Sector in a divided Berlin. Just up the road is Schöneberg Town Hall where JFK gave his famous 'Ich bin ein doughnut!' speech, and not far away you will find the Allied Museum on the site of the former US HQ and barracks on Clayallee (named after US General Clay of Berlin Airlift fame), which chronicles the role of the USA in liberating Berlin from the Nazis and rebuilding the city. With a bit of help from Britain and France too of course (the fourth ally, Russia, is represented in the museum mainly in terms of becoming the enemy in the Cold War ).

Dahlem is also the main campus for the Freie Universität Berlin (Free University of Berlin), which was founded in 1948 with the help of generous donations from the USA by students and lecturers critical of the draconian political system in force at the Humboldt University (which is based around Unter den Linden, at that time in the Soviet Sector).

Nowadays the Freie Universität Berlin remains one of the leading Universities in Germany, and more pertantly for this blog is home for the Dahlem Museum Complex (das Museumszentrum Berlin-Dahlem).

The Museum Complex houses three Museum in one large, sprawling building, namely the Museum of Asian Art (Museum für Asiatische Kunst), The Ethnological Museum (Ethnologisches Museum), and the Museum of European Cultures (Museum Europäischer Kulturen). The entrance ticket is for all three museums, and you can wander between each museum easily; often without realising which museum you are actually in.

These three museums have massive collections, and you could easily spend a day in each. If you don't want museum overload, then a better strategy than rushing around all (or any one) of them is to concentrate a visit on just one or two sections; for example, the impressive Polynesian exhibits, or the equally eye-opening African section.

Unlike central museums like The Pergammon, which can be murder on any day in high-season, the Dahlem Museums are much less crowded; sometimes the attendant staff seem to outnumber visitors. So, you can take your time to admire the collections and absorb what they are telling us about the cultures that created them. Or play a game of counting how many attendants you can jerk awake as you tip-toe into a room and cough.

Despite the size though, some cultures of the world hardly get a look-in - Australia and New Zealand aborigine cultures for example. This is partly because there just isn't enough space to exhibit everything in the archives, but mainly because the collections map the explorations and colonization of Germans in, mostly, the nineteenth century. So, not a lot from India, but lots of exhibits from the former German Protectorate of Nigeria.

Labelling and explanations of the artefacts in English is a bit haphazard; some areas of the museums have good English language coverage, whereas in others there might be one information board on the wall in English, but the objects themselves are labelled in German. This is usually not a problem if you have a grasp of basic words like Speer (spear), Boot (boat), Kopf (head), Schale (bowl), Mantel (coat), Malerei (painting), Maske (mask), Schmuck (jewellery), and so on, all of which are obvious just by looking at the object anyway. There is also an English audio guide included in the ticket price, but not many opportunities to use it.

Here are some of the artefacts from the African section. This is one of the most interesting, particularly as you don't get anything from this continent in the other Berlin museums outside of ancient Egypt. The Africa collection is displayed in a very dark, hot and stuffy series of confusingly arranged rooms though, perhaps taking the 'darkest Africa' metaphor a bit too far.

The Meso-America collection is also very interesting, including some large stone Aztec reliefs and sculptures. In comparison to the Africa section, these are displayed in a large, light and airy space.

Another highlight of the museums is the Polynesian collection, especially the outrigger boats, canoes, and catamarans, and reconstructed tribal hut.

There is a large series of rooms dedicated to North American indigenous cultures - Germans really love stories about Cowboys and Indians - but covering as it does from the Inuit to the Pueblo and all the diversity that entails, it does seem to be spreading itself a bit thin. There is an interesting room of modern Native American art though, and a good attempt at disassociating contemporary Native American culture from the romantic myths of Karl May.

The culture of India and South East Asia is mostly represented bysome magnificently sublime sculptures;

The Far Eastern sections are equally interesting, though by this time my feet were starting to give in. Apart from the expected Japanese, Korean and Chinese porcelain and delicate pen-and-ink artwork, there is a piece of contemporary Chinese conceptual art here in the form of Al Weiwei's wonderfully fragrant house made of bricks of tea in a meadow of tea leaves:

I haven't tried here to even cover the fascinating South American, Middle East, or Thai collections - never mind the whole of the museum of European cultures - and neither should you in one visit. Save it for another visit. And another. And another.

The plan is for the Museum of Asian Art and the Ethnological Museum to be eventually relocated to the Humbolt-Forum, in a reconstructed Berlin City Palace (Berliner Stadtschloss) on Museum Island. It would be good from a lazy-tourist point-of-view to have all the main museums conveniently located together in the centre of Berlin, but would be a shame if the more adventurous tourists stopped making the trip out to Dahlem, where they would experience a unique and contrasting part of Berlin. That's if the Berlin City Palace ever gets re-built of course.