I’d thought that our trip to Germany would be a quiet one, where we would largely stay at home, read, go for long walks in forests turning to gold. We did this for about a week before we began to travel extensively. My plans of cooking with seasonal produce came to nothing. I passed a farmer’s markets once, and looked longingly at the pumpkins, mushrooms and ginger. A mushroom stock is a nice thing to use with a pumpkin, tomato and ginger soup. I had it planned out in my mind. But because I was going to travel for the next four days, I just took the featured photo instead of buying the produce.
Eventually my closest brushes with seasonal food came in some restaurants. I searched for a place which would serve goose, though the beginning of November was too early for it. The first two courses gave us goose, quail and duck. Game is also seasonal food. The main course of roast duck with potato dumplings, baked apple, and red cabbage with pears was a typical Westphalian dish, with a balance of sweet and salt. That night the temperature had dropped to about two degrees, so this hearty food was delightful.
The dessert was another very local and seasonal creation: gingerbread creme brulee with a pumpkin seed parfait. The nutty parfait was wonderful with the candied orange peels that you can see in the photo above. I’d never had a gingerbread creme brulee before. It was quite a surprise. It was a big meal, but one I was happy to have tasted.
Since we were at Pariser Platz we decided to drop into the new building for the Academy of Arts. The last time we were in Berlin, we just didn’t have the time to visit the building that houses this more than 300 years old Academy. Like its counterparts in other countries, the Academy, with its famous members, plays a role in the arbitration of artistic taste.
Be extremely subtle even to the point of formlessness. — Sun Tzu in The Art of War
The building was remarkable. The Academy was evicted from this location by Albert Speer, the Nazi Chief Inspector of Buildings, in 1937. Subsequently it was badly damaged in the war, and later became a prison for those attempting to escape over the Berlin wall. Guenther Behnisch designed the glass frontage to connect the work of the Academy with the city at large. The entire front was rebuilt as a glass and steel cage from which stairs and corridors lead into the old stone building at the back. It works beautifully. The frontage does not look out of place. Moreover, when we walked into the lobby (photo above), it was filled with light even on a overcast and wet day. In the mirror in the photo you can see the stairs which lead up and into the old building.
There are not more than five cardinal tastes, yet combinations of them yield more flavours than can ever be tasted. — Sun Tzu in The Art of War
The bookstore was open. We had not checked the calendar of events, and it turned out that the sequence of holidays meant that there was nothing planned for the day. We admired the stairs and the bridge to the winter garden. After this we could have turned away and left if we had not remembered that every gallery and art space in Berlin has a nice restaurant. This was no exception, with its nice white wine and lobster ravioli. This cafe joins those in the Hamburger Bahnhof and in C/O Berlin in our memories. In Germany it is always worthwhile extending a visit to a museum or gallery to include lunch.
What is the food that Berlin eats? The Family wanted to find out and I was happy to help. In search of Berlin’s own food, we scoured the city from Mitte to Ku’dam, from Oberbaumbruecke (featured photo) to Potsdamer Platz (below). The answer was scrawled on walls everywhere: currywurst, bratwurst and pommes in that order. For those of us who need a translation, the last two are grilled sausages, often in bread like a hot dog, and French fries.
Currywurst? Invented by seasoned street-food vendor Herta Heuwer, according to Wikipedia, there is an element of mystery about its evolution. As CultureTrip put it “Maybe Herta stumbled upon the recipe through trial and error or maybe her matured palate after years of slinging grub to the street omnivores knew what the people wanted.” NPR Berlin assures us that its fans include Angela Merkel. Currywurst is nothing more than grilled sausages chopped into pieces and dunked into ketchup with curry powder sprinkled into it, just the thing that would be invented in 1949 by a smart housewife running an imbiss in the British-occupied sector of Berlin.
Coffee time in Germany is serious: you have to have cake. We met an old friend for coffee. As we reminisced about the Christmas we’d spent in the family home more than a decade ago, his mother brought out the cakes she has baked specially for the afternoon.
Rita outdoes herself each time. This time it was a cheesecake with mandarins. She makes the topping with quark and whipped cream. Quark, if you are wondering, is a German sour cream, somewhere between the consistency of Indian chhena and French fromage blanc. When used for a cheesecake, it sets fast into a creamy and firm layer. The bottom is a regular layer of cake. The whole thing looked wonderful before she sliced it, but was even more interesting sliced. The Family exclaimed over the even distribution of mandarin through the cream. We each took seconds, and resolved to go on a long walk later.
One cake is usually not enough for a good coffee. Rita had also baked a raisin tea cake. I’m always pleasantly surprised by cakes where the raisins are uniformly distributed through the volume. My technically competence is not good enough for that. In any case, Rita’s raisin cake is my special favourite. The Family was astounded to see me take a second helping of that also. We did have a long walk in the cold after that. I hope that was enough to burn the calories.
Never Google "quintessential New York", because you’ll be immediately sent to Forbes, or Conde Nast. If you are to believe Forbes, then the iconic New York snack is delicate sandwiches in the Star Lounge at the Ritz-Carlton. For the one-percent, maybe. But as my friend Mike would say, "Get outta here!" And if I wanted to get something back for The Family, I would not take the advice of Conde Nast and go shopping at A Détacher on Mulberry Street either. Mark Twain may as well have said quintessential is nothing but essential with a college education. Googling "essential New York" does not do much better.
I turned to my favourite oracle: the wisdom of the crowd, and messaged all my nieces. The clear winners were an I-love-NY t-shirt (the kind which you can also buy on the streets of Mumbai or Delhi) and a hot dog from a street stall. I’d run this question past Mike a few years ago, and he told me to go to a diner. Other favourites included lox, bagels, pizza, doughnuts, pastrami, and cheesecake. There’s just so many calories you can take in a day. So I stuck to the phone-a-friend suggestions, hot dog on the street (featured photo, outside the Grand Central Terminus) and a diner for breakfast (photo above, on the East 60th Street). These were wonderful things to do.
How can you remake pastry into an Indian sweet? Every time we talk to a chef at one of our favourite innovative restaurants in Mumbai our questions turn upside-down. Should we have asked "How do you take a traditional Indian taste and turn it into a sweet?" A few months ago we ended a meal with a tarte tatin reimagined with guavas. Yesterday we ended with a pastry filled with unripe mango, salted and with a dusting of chili flakes on the plate. See the red powder in the featured photo? Pastry chef Namrata Pai is on a roll.
Apart from the food, the main thing which keeps us coming back to this mid-town restaurant is the constant change in the menu. As the seasons change, different produce comes fresh into the market. Chef Thomas Zacharias prides himself on bending with the seasonal winds. The pastry in the featured photo is a late hold-over from the summer menu. The rest of the menu has moved on to the monsoon. This places the restaurant smack in the middle of the global farm-to-table food movement. A wonderfully flavourful tiny fish, mandeli, is back on the menu.
One lovely thing that is not easy to spot in the photo above is the fact that the hot kitchen has a significant number of women chef. This is a healthy trend. I worry about the elitism inherent in organic food and the fresh food movement, even the word sustainability, but gender balance cannot have downsides.
When you walk down Barcelona’s La Rambla, you feel that it could not have changed much through its history. Your feeling may be correct. As far back as 1217 CE, there was apparently a pig market near a gate which stood where Miro’s mosaic can be seen at Pla de l’Os. This was then part of a larger market, which now seems to have taken over the whole of La Rambla. But if you want to see a real food market, you have to duck into the Boqueria market, whose entrance is on this road. Among the things we didn’t know about it was that you can find Catalonia’s oldest nougat here. The sample we had did not taste 242 years old!
The meat stalls stand at the entrance to the market. The variety of hams hanging there left me stunned. Most of the sales people seemed too busy to have a chat about the differences between the meats, even if we had a shared language. The pig market was moved here in 1840 after a convent was removed. As you can see in the photo above, the current structure is very modern, but atop it stands a high structure of iron struts which is clearly older. At the edge of the photo you can see the even older stone pillars, which mark out a covered gallery running around the market. This older structure houses lots of restaurants and tapas bars.
We moved into the crowded fresh produce section of the market. Although I saw nothing which I have not seen before, all the produce looked extremely fresh. The chilis that you see in the photo above are wonderful when they are grilled. We had a plateful of that much later in the evening. Some of the fruit stalls have fresh juices available. It was still extremely warm and the fluids looked welcoming. We took our time selecting the juices we wanted to drink. Fresh pressed orange juices were our breakfast staple in Spain, but here there was a large variety: from tropical fruits like guavas to European summer berries.
We moved on, and found the usual selection of cheese. Stopping there would have been sad, not just because I don’t know much about Spanish cheeses, but also because we did not have the leisure to select a few of them to taste over days. I wish we had the time to go back and walk through the market a few more times at leisure, sampling a larger variety of tastes. It would have helped us enjoy what the city calls one of the world’s largest markets if we had access to a kitchen while in Barcelona.
We walked out of Plaza Mayor in Madrid through the north-west exit, and we were in the San Miguel square. In front of us was a wrought iron and glass structure from the beginning of the 20th century: the market of San Miguel. In recent years Madrid has converted many indoor spaces to the equivalent of food courts, from this to the upmarket Platea near Plaza Colon. We were in Madrid for too short a time to try more than one.
The main business of the market started behind the stall with fruits and vegetables. The sides of the market are lined with shops selling interesting tapas: fish on toast, cheese on toast, hams, stuffed olives, and so on. We diffused through the market slowly. The central aisle had long tables where you could sit and eat what you had bought. This part was crowded, and we realized that we would have to wait a while to find a place.
A very pleasant discovery was a counter for wines. I had my first tasting session of wines from the Rioja and Ribera del Duero areas here. We had discovered the grape varietal called Tempranillo a year ago in Portugal. We met it again. My previous experience with Spanish wines was inadequate. I resolved to repair this gaping hole in my experience during the trip. There was also a counter with sherries and vermouths, which could serve us over another evening, if we had one.
Decades ago, I had my first view of live performances of Flamenco in Tokyo. The cultural compliment seemed to be returned here. I tasted something called Gulas which adapts Japanese cutting techniques to create a dish which looks like eels on toast (click on the thumbnail above to see the details). Later I found a stall selling sea urchins. I’d only ever had it before as the wonderful raw goo that is called uni in Japan. This is different, as you can see in the photo above (if you haven’t seen sea urchins before, click on the photo of the things which look like hairy doughtnuts).
The Family found a stall with Sangria, and I got myself a Rioja. We found seats at a table and settled in for a bit of tapas: some fish, some ham. I’d not had much experience with the cheese of Spain. This was a good opportunity to try out the varieties available here. Madrid has an olive which I had not tasted before: this variety looks bright green, and has a different flavour (you’ll see it in the bottom rack below the stuffed olives if you click on that photo). The sweets did not seem specially Spanish. There were macaroons and chocolate of various kinds, and the Portuguese Pasteis de Nata, all of which looked and tasted authentic.
We thought it was a nice place to have an early evening’s drink. Dinner, as always in Spain, comes much later, well after sunset.
We knew of the Spanish fascination with bulls well enough to discuss whether or not we wanted to see a bullfight (our decision: not). But we did not think its tail would play an important role in the cuisine. After a long day of walking about Madrid we settled down for a sundowner: The Family with a Sangria and a Tio Pepe for me. After a few sips, and some nibbling at the large plate of croquettes and olives which came free with the drinks, we thought we needed a little more to munch.
The lady who served us suggested a plate of little pies made of Rabo de Toro. What is it? She explained that when you cut the tail off a bull, you can remove the meat and cook it. "What happens to the bull?" one of my nieces asked on Whatsapp. We were not worried about these little details. We ordered a plate. That’s what you see in the featured photo. The red is grilled chili, and the brown sauce is the house speciality. Considering that the house is more than a century old, I had no hesitation in dunking my pastry in the sauce. The filled pastries were brilliant, as was the sauce.
We had lucked on to a wonderful place. Although it is at the edge of the tourist area of Madrid, the food and the drinks were good, and the servings were generous. This was our first encounter with the notion of a free tapa with drinks, something that we encountered again later. Perhaps we should have sat there for dinner, but our Indian habits are not far from the Spanish style of eating late. We finished our nibbles and drinks and wandered off.
I encountered Rabo de Toro as a stew later on, and was impressed again. My advise to you, young niece, is not to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Soon after the late breakfast coffee is finished, people in Spain seem to begin to look for something to drink. In this season the heat begins to sap your energy already by noon. So a glass of Sangria is never unwelcome. There are as many recipes for Sangria as there are bartenders, so apart from the constant red wine and sour fruits, the proportion of triple sec, brandy and sugar vary widely. The Family had a large variety ranging from a nice bitter pre-lunch drink to a sweetish late-afternoon cooler. I tried the Tinto de Verano a couple of times. It is similar to the Sangria but seems not to have the sugar.
Late in the trip I discovered Cava. When you walk into a restaurant and they offer you a free glass of Cava, it is hard to refuse. Later, as I contemplated whether to ask for a glass of red wine, a waiter came by saying the bottle of Cava had to be finished. Again, an offer hard to refuse. Dry sparkling Champagne-like wines are not my favourite accompaniment to food, but the Spanish weather makes them more acceptable.
In a trip through Spain you will have to make a special effort if you want to miss sherries. I had an fresh tasting Manzanilla while watching the afternoon sun baking the walls of the Alhambra. In less exotic surroundings I tried out a nuttier Amontillado. I did put in an effort to avoid this and try the regular wines instead.
My trusty fall-back was the Vino Tinto, typically a Rioja or a Ribero del Duero. The ones I liked best used the grape known as Tempranillo (aka Tinto Fino), often mixed with small amounts of other varieties. A few places had Riojas made with Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz (Syrah), which also turned out to be interesting and worth trying. I was pleasantly surprised by Granada wines. They have recently been awarded the Designation of Origin (DO) status which protects their special local character. My exposure to Spanish wine is less than two weeks old. It has been a wonderful learning experience.
Interestingly beer is a common drink in Spain. It seems that Spain is the forth largest producer of beer in Europe. I found this surprising, given the deep roots wine has in the culture. The beer of Spain is light, and had in small quantities. I ordered my first beer on a blazing afternoon in Seville, and it came in a small 20 cl glass. San Miguel 1516 is a common brand, bitter and light. I was told to try the Alhambra 1925. It is very individual, and a little heavier. The bottle is very distinctive, as you can see from the featured photo.
I wish I had found good teas in Spain. There are many tisanes, but I love aromatic black teas. This is not a Spanish drink. I’m sure there’s much more to find. I cannot possibly have explored every drink in such a vast country within two weeks.