Thursday, 15 December 2016

Potatoes!

First of all, one for the school-child humour corner. It's amazing what you get as extras when you buy German potatoes!


These extra large potatoes (in Britain we'd call them 'baking potatoes') are actually quite hard to get hold of. I don't know if the Kartoffelhaus restaurant chain buy them all up or something, but the potatoes in German supermarkets are usually half the size (and the 'dick' are rarely all that 'dick').

German potatoes are more commonly sold in three varieties:
  • festkochend ('waxy' - in Britain these are like Jersey Royal potatoes)
  • vorwiegend festkochend ('predominantly waxy') 
  • mehlig kochend ('floury')
This can be confusing to a Brit, who are more likely to buy by variety. The packaging does usually have the potato variety printed on it (the ones above are 'Soraya'), but don't waste your time looking for maris piper for your chips, as I have yet to find any in Germany.

Basically, if you are wanting boiled potatoes or are making Kartoffelsalat then go with 'festkochend'. If on the other hand you want mashed potatoes or potato dumplings (gnocchi), then go for 'mehlig'. Anything else (including chips and baked potatoes) and 'vorwiegend' will work.

Until recently I hadn't noticed that these three types of potato are colour coded. The packaging for 'festkochend' always has a green label, 'vorwiegend festkochend' has a red label, and 'mehlig kochend' potatoes have a blue-labelled bag.

Potatoes are also often labelled by their season, so 'früh' are early season, 'new' potatoes that are harvested from May to early June. 'Mittelfrüh' start appearing in the shops around the middle of August and go on to the end of September. 'Späte Kartoffeln' are dug up between mid-September and the end of November.

Potatoes form an important role in German cooking, but it was not always so. When potatoes first made their way back along the trade routes from the Americas to Europe they were viewed with suspicion. They are after all part of the Solanaceae family of plants, which includes such poisonous plants as deadly nightshade and mandrake. For a long time potatoes were only grown in Europe as ornamental plants or curiosities. 

In the eighteenth century the French only fed the potato tubers to pigs, and in Britain the potato plant was only grown for its flowers, but over in Prussia the rather more enlightened King Friedrich II recognised their worth as an important source of nutrition. The Brandenburg part of Prussia is, as anyone who lives there today knows (hi!), very flat and the soil is poor for growing crops. Where the soil is rich in nutrients, it is because they are often inundated, e.g. in the floodplains of the river Oder. Potatoes thrive in this kind of environment, because they have deep, anchored roots that don't get washed away, nor do they have a crop above ground un-sheltered from the winds that blow down from the Baltic.

Friedrich II encouraged his peasantry to grow potatoes as a crop, the better to get them fit for serving in his army, which had major expansionist ideas. Legend has it that Old Fritz set soldiers to protect the fields where his experimental potato crops were growing in the Oderland. This aroused the curiosity of the locals, who thought the crops must be extremely valuable if the King was guarding them in this way, and so it came to pass that potatoes mysteriously began appearing in the fields of nearby farmers. More historically factual is that from 1746 onward Friedrich II issued 15 'Kartoffelbefehle' or 'potato edicts' that ordered all his subjects to plant potatoes wherever they had the space to grow them. Later edicts gave instructions on suitable soils for them, tillage, how to plant them, and so on.

To this day, visitors to Friedrich II's grave by Sanssoucci Palace in Potsdam, and to such places as his statue in front of the home of his youth in Rheinsberg, leave behind a potato in thankful memory. It is noted though that amongst the documents of his royal household there has never been found a recipe for a single potato dish or inclusion of potatoes on a menu.


Sunday, 28 August 2016

Neustrelitz: Baroque Lakeside Gem


Neustrelitz is a serene town about 100 km north of Berlin in the Land of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, which most people (even Berliners) have never heard about. But if you want a restful place to stroll around, or eat a meal beside a crystal clear lake, then I can thoroughly recommend Neustrelitz. If on the other hand you seek thrills or high-street shopping chains, then you might find it a bit empty.

Neustrelitz is called 'neu' (new) because the original town, first mentioned in 1278 and growing to be the seat of the duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, burnt down in 1712. The new town was built nearby in the baroque style fashionable at the time, which is why Neustrelitz has a consistency in its architecture unlike, say, the mish-mash of Berlin.

Neustrelitz is also 'neu' in that it has obviously had a lot of post-unification renovation money poured into it. We briefly visited Neustrelitz about five years ago, and a lot of the roads then were building sites. Now all the streets are cobbled, the pavements clean and freshly laid, and many of the buildings repaired and repainted. This does give the town the feel that it's newly out of its box or a film-set constructed just last week.

There also seems to be a distinct lack of people; you would think that a delightful town like this with peaceful gardens and elegant buildings and statues, set beside a picturesque lake and with a modern marina, would be packed with tourists on a sunny Saturday in late August. Not a bit of it. Good if you want to get away from the madding crowd, not so good if your idea of holiday relaxation is an ice-cream on a sun-lounger whilst the kids splash around on a pedalo, then a bit of retail therapy on the high-street, before heading to a Biergarten for evening entertainment. There's none of that. Well, not much, and if you go to a cafe for Kaffee und Kuchen then you may well be the only ones in the place.

Maybe it's a case of the town firming up its infrastructure and rebuilding the war-damaged and DDR-neglected buildings first. Then the tourist industry will develop, and pretty soon H&M and DM will come to the high-street, and a house in Neustrelitz will be changing hands for a million or so. In the meantime, a recommendation for chillaxing and enjoying the rolling landscape of Meck-Pomm. Not being big crowd-lovers, this is the way we roll so we fell in love with the place.

By the way, we got to Neustrelitz by catching the Stralsund train (the Rostock trains will also do) out of Berlin Hauptbahnhof or Gesundbrunnen which run every hour and take about 1hr 15mins to get to Neustrelitz. You can do the whole journey with up to five people for the same price with a Berlin Brandenburg ticket - even though Neustrelitz isn't actually in Brandenburg. Achtung! This train can get very busy in Summer with people taking it to get to Warnemünde and the coast.

Here are some photos I took of Neustelitz to give you an idea of the town:






























Fisher on the Zierkersee

A handsome heron (der Reiher) spotted at the Hafen of Neustrelitz on the Zierkersee in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.


Saturday, 25 June 2016

Hooray! Boris Has A Plan!

Boris Johnson reveals his plans for a trading partner for the UK post-Brexit.


Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Spicy Lentil and Carrot Pasties Recipe


Wonderful that the choice of food is in Germany, one thing that Deutsche Küche lacks is much by the way of pies and pasties. I guess I find this notable because British cooking has so many savoury pastry dishes: Cornish pasties, cheese and onion pasties, beef wellington, sausage rolls, Melton Mowbray pies, steak bakes, vol au vents, game pie ... the list goes on. Greggs the Bakers would not be profitable if they opened a branch in Berlin is all I'm saying.

It's not as if the ingredients for a good pastie are not hard to get. They even have ready-made puff pastry readily available in die Supermärkte, which is labelled as Blätterteig, but what the German cook uses it for I can't guess.

Anyway, as an exercise in cultural exchange, here's my easy recipe for spicy vegetarian lentil and carrot pasties. This recipe make four large pasties, usually with filling left over, or six smaller pasties.

First, get together your ingredients.


Then, take the chilled ready-made puff pastry from the fridge to let it come to room temperature. My pack has 275g of pastry in a single sheet. If you are a masochist with time on your hands, you can make your own puff pastry.

Next, put the following into a pot with a lid:
1/2 cup red lentils
1 cup water
1 tsp stock powder

Bring to the boil, cover, and simmer gently until the water has been almost absorbed, but the mixture is still wet and the lentils haven't entirely disintegrated. About 5 to 10 minutes maximum.

Meanwhile, peel, wash and dice:
1 medium onion (140g or so)
2 x carrots (~ 200g)
1 x potato (~ 140g)

And finely chop:
About a thumb of ginger

Soften the onions in about a tablespoon of olive oil in a thick-bottom pan. I add a teaspoon of black mustard seeds to the oil first, and when they start to pop, the oil is hot enough for the onions.
After a couple of minutes or so, add the ginger and continue to gently cook for another two minutes.

Next throw the diced carrots and potato into the pot, and let that saute for five minutes.

Then add your spices. Type and quantities involved here are up to you, but I am using:
1/2 teaspoon chilli powder
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
I also add a good pinch of salt and a twist or two of black pepper.

Mix the spices over the softening vegetables to coat them, then stir in the lentil mixture. If your lentils and carrots have gone a bit anaemic, then squirt in a tablespoon of tomato puree to give them a bit of colour.

Let this simmer very gently for five minutes. Do not let it burn on the bottom of the pan. If it looks too dry, then loosen up with a splash or two of water. It should now look like this:


Take off the heat and put to one side to cool down. If you are in a hurry, place the pan into a washing-up bowl of cold water (obviously not letting the water get in the pan with the lentil/vegetable/spice mixture). What you shouldn't do is put piping hot mixture onto pastry or the pastry will melt and tear. Also, fingers will inevitably be involved, so you don't want to burn those either.

Now, turn the oven on and let it warm up to a medium heat - say about 190 degrees C.

Unroll your puff pastry on a floured worktop and give a gentle roll.

With a sharp knife, cut the rectangle of pastry in half, then quarters. You now have four rectangles of pastry, and each one will become a pastie.

Place a sheet of baking paper onto a baking tray, and onto that place a rectangle of puff pastry.

Now, spoon some of your cooled lentil mixture into one half of the rectangle only, with a 1cm margin between the mixture and the edge of the pastry. Moisten the edge of the pastry rectangle with a brush of water or a little milk. Then fold the pastry over the mixture and press down the edges to enclose the mixture in a neat little packet. If it's not so neat, then don't worry, the rustic artisan look is good too. Just make sure the edges are sealed so the mixture won't leak out during cooking.

Brush with milk, and cut a few slits into the top to let steam out. If you are feeling adventurous, sprinkle with sesame seeds, or poppy or nigella seeds.

Repeat three times, so that all the pastry rectangles have been made into proto-pasties.

Here is a piccy of what they might look like. Yours might well be neater.



Place on the middle shelf in the oven, and cook for 25-30 minutes.

Serve hot with the accompaniment of your choice. They go equally as well with salad as they do drizzled with brown onion gravy and served with peas and broccoli. They can also be left to go cold, and make a robust addition to a picnic.

Thank you, you're very welcome!


Friday, 17 June 2016

das Mohnfeld - the Poppy Field


Das Mohnfeld

Es war einmal, ich weiß nicht wann
Und weiß nicht wo. Vielleicht ein Traum.
Ich trat aus einem schwarzen Tann
An einen stillen Wiesensaum.

(Once upon a time, I know not when
And know not where. Perhaps a dream.
I stepped out of a black pine forest
Onto the fringe of a still meadow.)



Und auf der stillen Wiese stand
Rings Mohn bei Mohn und unbewegt,
Und war bis an den fernsten Rand
Der rote Teppich hingelegt.

(And standing around motionless on the quiet meadow, poppy upon poppy,
And up to the furthest edge the red carpet was laid).




Und auf dem roten Teppich lag,
Von tausend Blumen angeblickt,
Ein schöner, müder Sommertag,
Im ersten Schlummer eingenickt.

(And resting on the red carpet,
gazed upon by a thousand flowers,
A beautiful, sleepy Summer day,
Nodding off in the first slumber.)



Ein Hase kam im Sprung. Erschreckt
Hat er sich tief ins Kraut geduckt,
Bis an die Löffel zugedeckt,
Nur einer hat herausgeguckt.

(A hare came in a leap. Frightened
he ducked deep into the leaves,
covered up to the ears,
Only one peeped out.)




Kein Hauch. Kein Laut. Ein Vogelflug
Bewegte kaum die Abendluft.
Ich sah kaum, wie der Flügel schlug,
Ein schwarzer Strich im Dämmerduft.

(No breeze. Not a sound. A birdflight
Hardly moved the evening air.
I barely saw how the wings flapped,
A black streak in the twilight haze.)



Es war einmal, ich weiß nicht wo.
Ein Traum vielleicht. Lang ist es her.
Ich seh nur noch, und immer so,
Das stille, rote Blumenmeer.

(Once upon a time, I know not where.
A dream perhaps. A long time ago.
I saw only, and always,
The calm, red sea of flowers.)



Gustav Falke (1853-1916)
My translation, so don't take as gospel :)


Thursday, 16 June 2016

Something Unexpected In The Garden Centre


Moving aside a plant-pot in the local Basdorf garden centre, I came across a mother thrush with at least one tiny fledgling. 'Was guckst du?' she seemed to be thinking.

I quickly and gently put the plant back in place, and left Familie Vogel in peace (after quickly taking a snap of course).

Mmmmm Hummus!


Berlin is no stranger to culinary specialities from around the world, many of which we have sampled with gusto. But whilst Mongolian, Ethiopian, Mexican, or Croatian restaurants are not that hard to find, dishes from the eastern end of the Mediterranean is as popular in Berlin as Italian and Thai. Which is good news for us as there is nothing we love more than falafel and halloumi 'im brötchen', or a spicy chickpea tagine and couscous, with a side order of  tabbouleh salad. And all of which can be enhanced with a dollop of tangy, creamy, garlicy hummus.

Hummus is a wonder food that is as nutritious as it is 'lecker', and it is so simple and cheap to make for yourself that you wonder how back in the UK the likes of Sainsburys supermarket have the audacity to sell small plastic tubs of the stuff at inflated prices.

There are as many different recipes for hummus as there are countries that feature it in their cuisine. Indeed, it is almost a cultural definer that can blindfold test a meal prepared by an Egyptian, a Turkish, an Israeli, or a Syrian cook. Here's my preferred hummus recipe for you to try, with the caveat that it is by no means definitive. Indeed, I strongly encourage you to experiment. Add roasted cumin seeds if you want, or double the amount of garlic, or whizz in some roasted red peppers, or go mad and use broad-beans instead of chick-peas.

For my hummus I would gather together the following:


If you can't read the German labels or make a good guess, what I have here are:

1 x can of chickpeas. (or more usually we would have soaked a 500g bag of dried chickpeas overnight, given them a half hour simmer the next day, drained them and bagged them up for the freezer. But if you've used up all your chickpeas making falafel, again!, a can will do).

4 tablespoons of delicious tahini, which is a sesame paste you can buy in any Turkish Supermarkt or Asia Store.

4 cloves of garlic, peeled, crushed, and then chopped.

The juice of one lemon. I sometimes also scrape off the zest if it's a nice, unwaxed, organic lemon.

4 tablespoons of olive oil. Keep the bottle handy for drizzling later.

A good pinch of salt

1 x food processor or blender

Drain the liquid off of the chickpeas into a jug and keep handy. It's also traditional to retain a few chickpeas to add as garnish

Put the chickpeas into the food processor.

Add the garlic and blitz until you've got something like breadcrumbs.

Next, add the tahini, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt to the chickpeas and garlic in the food processor.

Give it all another good whizz in the food processor until it is a smooth paste.
If the mixture is too thick, add the retained liquid from the can, or a glug more olive oil.

Taste. Yummy, yes? If not perfectly to your taste, feel free to add a spoonful more tahini, or lemon juice, or salt.

Turn out into a serving dish, drizzle a bit of olive oil onto it, top with the retained chickpeas, and garnish if you want with a few coriander leaves or a sprinkling of sumak.

Eat as a dip with flat-bread, or in a falafel sandwich, or as a salad dressing, or spread on toast, or scoop up with a stick of celery, or just dip your fingers in and lick them clean!

Afiyet olsun! בְּתֵאָבוֹן! Guten appetit! وجبة شهية. !









Sunday, 5 June 2016

Chamomile - Kamille


One of my most favorite wild-flowers of early Summer is undoubtedly chamomile, with its sweet, distinctive scent that puts me in mind of a cup of soothing camomile tea.

I didn't realise that there are two varieties of commonly cultivated chamomile; Chamaemelum nobile or Roman or English chamomile, and Matricaria chamomilla, aka Chamomilla recutita, or German chamomile. I guess that by its name, the flower filling the cornfields around us is the German one. Whatever, it smells divine and gladdens the eye!

As a blonde-haired person, it also reminds me of rinsing my hair in an infusion of dried chamomile petals then letting it dry in the Summer sun. Nowadays my hair is getting more white than yellow, but the scent brought back a warm Proustian Madeleine remembrance of things past.

Let me share with you some photos of chamomile, taken on a cycle through Brandenburg on a lovely Summer's day.