lundi 25 mai 2009

Train journeys and the Rules of the Game

In all our time together, J. and I have rarely lived in the same place. This might seem strange or unbearable to some people but it’s something that I’ve got used to over the years. Of course, there are drawbacks. Sometimes I long to be able to spend an evening with him in the middle of the week or cook and then stroll in the Berlin parks as we used to do. Everything needs planning and there’s no room for spontaneity. You also have to accept waking up alone most of the time which is hard and if the separation is too long, no telephone calls or emails can seem to fill the void between you. The first journey I used to make to visit J. regularly was from Lyon to Chambéry. It wasn’t particularly long and was one of the loveliest imaginable along the smooth waters of the Lac du Bourget where I could see the Dent du Chat before arriving in Chambéry with its parks and pink villas. The next one, from Mulhouse to a small town in the Black Forest was slightly more adventurous and involved changing trains twice and taking a tram across Basel from the French to the German station. From there, the route followed the Rhine via charming little towns through the hills. I remember that I had to get up early to return to teach in Alsace on Mondays and felt so melancholy as the mist rose up from the river or the first rays of sun stroked my face.

Now of course, I travel regularly from Berlin to Munich which takes much longer than the other journeys (5-6 hours). At first it seemed interminable and boring but somehow I’ve grown to love the time in the train and it seems to go by so quickly. For a start, I read more than ever and can often shut myself away in my book while the landscapes whizz by. The mournful, snow covered woods and graveyards are now gleaming and alive with the summer. Somehow, it also seems to be like a safe little world in the train where fellow travellers eat, chat, play, sleep and read. One time when I was coming back from Leipzig on a stormy night, it was so peaceful and warm in the carriage that I just didn’t want the journey to end. Life is so much simpler inside when you’re headed somewhere and free of any obligations. It’s when you get there that you have to think about them again. Travelling also gives you the chance to meet people you’d never normally get to talk to and hear wonderful stories. I’ve never forgotten the woman from Nice who told me about her grandchildren as we travelled North or the man from Freiburg and his stories of his time in London or A. who also visits her boyfriend in Munich and who studies art. Of course, with each journey, there’s also the excitement and joy of meeting him again and the two days together followed by goodbyes which never seem to get any easier but that doesn’t stop me savouring the time away from everything in the train, eagerly turning the pages or drifting into pleasant dreams.

As any traveller knows, one of the worst things about coming back is the empty fridge, unless you live with someone thoughtful enough to keep it well stocked with all your favourite things. I’m not and so this inevitably means going to the supermarket just after I get back, although I can’t face this without a cup of tea first.. My shopping trip was fairly successful but frustratingly, I always seem to buy things I already have and forget things I need. Today, I longed for something simple but tasty and settled on potato salad. I don’t much like the regular ones you buy in supermarkets with sloppy mayonnaise and acidic onions but J’s mother makes a delicious one, all golden and steaming in a large glass bowl. I remember a wonderful scene in Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu, one of my favourite films of all time, when the some of the staff of the Marquis de la Chesnaye make anti-Semitic comments about him but his chef defends him by saying that only someone of class would know the proper to make a potato salad is by pouring white wine vinegar over them while they’re still warm. This was exactly the kind I too wanted to make and the one below is a liberal adaptation of that given to me.

Warm potato salad (serves 4)

1 kg potatoes

150 ml vegetable stock

4 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 onion, finely chopped (red or spring ones work well)

1 clove garlic

A little sunflower oil

Salt and pepper

  1. Begin by washing the potatoes and cutting off any dark bits. You can either skin the potatoes to begin with or wait until they’re cooked but still warm. I prefer to do it before to avoid burning my fingers but I’ll leave it up to you. Put them into a saucepan and fill with just enough water to barely cover them. Add some salt and cook on a medium heat with the lid on for about 20 mins or until cooked.
  2. When they’re ready, drain and leave to cool slightly. Remove the skins if you haven’t done so before and cut into slices. Don’t worry of they fall apart as they don’t have to look perfect.
  3. Heat the stock in a small saucepan and add the vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. Still well then remove from the heat and pour over the warm potatoes until they have absorbed the liquid and are neither too moist nor too dry. Add extra vinegar if needed.
  4. Toss in the onions and crushed agrlic, pour over a little oil and mix well before enjoying with crusty bread or tender fish.

lundi 18 mai 2009

The Long Goodbye and Tarte au Citron

This is the title of a classic Altman film which my Dad used to watch obsessively but which I somehow never saw. I can still hear the dialogue between my parents and my mother asking impatiently “Are you watching that film again?” Important scenes were of course described to me, particularly the bit where Elliott Gould tries to fool his picky cat into eating an inferior kind of food by putting it into another tin (no kitty I’ve ever met would fall for that one!). The title is also somehow appropriate for me because I’ve always dreaded having to say goodbye. When I was a child, I couldn’t bear being sent off to bed and whenever we had visitors, I used to cling to them and tearfully beg them to stay. Of course, things have improved since then but I still get that awful feeling whenever a trip or visit is coming to an end and I know we won’t see each other again for a while. Why is it always Sunday evening? Where did all that time go? Whenever J. comes to visit me in Berlin, he takes the night train from Munich. The nice thing about that is that we can breakfast together and we really do have the whole day ahead of us. The disadvantage though is that he has to return late on Sunday evening. In fact, it’s incredibly difficult after watching a Melville film and eating spaghetti aglio olio where it’s warm and cosy to then set out for the train station when you’re already feeling sleepy.

When J was here in Febraury, it had been snowing steadily all day and the soft new flakes muffled our steps as we made our way to the S-Bahn. We walked down to water’s edge at Wannsee to see its frozen surface and enjoyed those last precious moments together in that silent landscape. Last weekend though couldn’t have been more different. Our two days mainly consisted of cooking, watching films and exploring new areas in Berlin. Yesterday morning we looked at Andreas Feininger’s photos of Manhattan in the 50s and imagined how wonderful it would be to soak up the noise and energy of New York. Afterwards, J. took me to the famous Café Einstein for pear tart and a jug of hot chocolate with lashings of cream. I had often heard about it as it’s one of the oldest cafés in Berlin but was surprised to find it so discreetly tucked away in a quiet street. Unlike most customers we sat inside on the red leather banquettes in a high ceiled room with deep wooden panels, mirrors and low hanging lightshades like globes. Opposite some Spanish people were savouring their étagère brunch of pastries and blueberries with fromage blanc. Late afternoon, we strolled down to my favourite Indian restaurant in Goethestraße for Alu Gobi and Bhatura bread that burns your fingers.

When it was time to leave, the air was still sticky but with a soft breeze and the streetlamps burned like fireflies in the night to guide us. The lake glimmered with the reflections of the boats while further on the horizon, you could still see a lighter patch of sky. Towards the East there were flashes of lightning and we knew that the storm would come soon, even though everything around us made it seem so impossible. I watched J’s train pull off into the night and then was left to journey back alone. The streets seemed so much emptier and the raindrops began to fall.

This morning when I woke up, it was still raining and I knew that the only way to cheer up was to have some serious comfort food. One of my favourite recipes is tarte au citron or lemon tarte. I love its tangy creaminess and light but crisp pastry and it has never failed to lighten my mood, even on the darkest days.

Lemon Tarte

For the pastry

200g flour

50g sugar

100g cold butter

1 egg

½ egg yolk

For the filling

Juice and zest of 4 lemons, plus some longer strips

3 eggs

100g sugar

125g cream

Some icing sugar to decorate

  1. Sift the flour into a mixing bowl with the sugar. Cut the butter into small pieces, then finely grate the lemon peel and add to the bowl along with the egg.
  2. Wash your hands with cold water to keep the pastry cool and mix together by hand until it forms a smooth ball which is neither too sticky nor too dry .Add more flour or water if you need to.
  3. Wrap the pastry in clingfilm and place in the fridge for an hour. Remove 15 mins before you want to roll it out.
  4. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C and begin rolling the pastry out. Dust the work surface and rolling pin generously with flour and roll out until it’s not too thick or too thin (it shouldn’t fall apart) and roughly the size of your pie dish. Gently pick it up and mould it so that the pastry comes up high round the sides (it will probably shrink). Prick it all over with a fork so that you won’t get air pockets in the oven.
  5. Place a layer of greaseproof paper over it and use dried beans or lentils to weight it down. Bake it blind in the oven for 10 mins then remove and brush the base with a thin layer of egg yolk (a brilliant tip I stole from the wonderful Patoumi). Bake for a further five minutes.
  6. To make the filling, squeeze the juice from the lemons and grate the zest, using the peel of one half for some longer strips to decorate. Use a hand held mixer to beat the eggs and sugar until they are extremely frothy and leave ribbons when you lift up the beaters. This might take a moment so be patient. Add the lemon zest and juice to the cream and beat until thick. Mix into the sugar and eggs until smooth.
  7. Pour the filling onto the pastry and bake at 170° for about 30-40 mins until the lemon cream is firm on top. Leave to cool before dusting with icing sugar and serving with a cup of tea or coffee.


dimanche 10 mai 2009

This year at Marienbad, plus my very first loaf

I made my way once again
along these corridors and through these rooms
in this building that belongs to the past,
this huge, luxurious and baroque hotel
where endless corridors follow on from one another...

From the very first time that I saw L'année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad), I was consumed with a strange kind of fascination and longed to enter this strange universe where the dialogues are as labyrinthine as the corridors, where doors open onto different rooms each time, where the gardens have a strange light giving the people long dark shadows and the trees none. Most of amazing of all of course is the hotel and its guests, two of whom famously try to remember, or perhaps forget about when they last could have met. Could such a place really exist?

I knew deep down that it simply wasn’t possible and unfortunately, my research cruelly confirmed this. The hotel scenes were a mix from Schloss Nymphenburg, the hunting lodge Amalienburg and Schloss Schleissheim, all in Bavaria. Still, when J. suggested spending the 1st May weekend in the area around Marienbad, I still felt it would be special to go there.

My journey to Františkovy Lázně began in the sleepy hours of a public holiday and involved changing trains several times in places I’d never heard of before. From Reichenbach, our train journeyed deeper and deeper into thick pine forests so that they had to switch on the lights. Small baroque style churches stood proudly on hills with blackened bell towers above us. When I arrived, the town was full of classic cars, Ukrainian tractors and their respective enthusiasts. We spent hours wandering through the long avenues with their yellow buildings and through parks with white rhododendrons and fading magnolias. Dotted around are water tanks where you can see bubbling springs and minerals and on the rooftops, storks are nesting. That same afternoon, we strolled down to a café by the river where a band was playing for people to line dance to and ate ice cream and in the evening tried the local Mehlspeisen and took tea and honey cake on the terrace of the Imperial hotel.

Marienbad is totally different from anything in the film but still amazing. You can sit by the Hauptkolonnade and hear the cooling song of the fountain and eat the special wafers called Oblatter. You can lose yourself in the fairytale forests above the town and on the way, take in the crumbling grand hotels which are shadows of their former selves. Though I still preferred Františkovy Lázně, I’m already longing to return there with J. in late autumn when the trees will have started to lose their leaves and darkness will fall earlier. The journey back was filled with sleepiness, the words of Ingeborg Bachmann and images flooding through my mind of my past trips with J. Later on came the tap tap tapping of raindrops against the glass and everything seemed so far away already.

Since then, I’ve been suffering a bit from what can only be know as the post holiday blues. A friend of mine told me it’s completely pointless but sometimes, I just can’t help it. It’s probably worse this time as I’m suffering with a cold so to counter that, I had a go at making bread. I never knew it could be so relaxing to spend your evening kneading dough and had forgotten just how fabulous it is to have the smell of fresh bread wafting though your home. No recipe for now though as there’s still some more work to do. Somehow, my loaf looked good and I loved its rugged crackedness but was a bit on the salty side and next time I should probably use less yeast. Practice makes perfect I guess…

mardi 5 mai 2009

In the footsteps of Thomas Bernhard

The day began early with the first flickers of light in the sky and the morning song of the birds as we needed to get an early start from Munich. On our way to Austria, there were flashes of the Chiemsee, and on the horizon solid, snow covered blocks seemed to rise up from nowhere. We made it to our first destination, the Wolfgangsee where the political heavyweight (in both senses) Helmut Kohl used to come to slim. We settled for a bit of rock climbing on a scorching hot day with Kaiserschmarrn as a lunchtime reward and afterwards headed for the Thomas Bernhard house in Obernathal. The route was via the Traunsee which brought back wonderful memories of our evening there last October and the search of a restaurant. We found a beautiful place by the water’s edge. The leaves of the mountains around us had already turned brown and gold and it seemed like everyone wanted to soak up the last rays of sunshine. A man in a motorboat destroyed the perfect glass smoothness of the lake as he came ashore, swans dived in its gentle ripples and it all felt so perfect and timeless. As evening fell, it became clear and cold and we sought refuge inside where Eispalatschinken and hot chocolate were served. When we passed the restaurant again, I felt a longing to rediscover that autumn dusk and nestle in the warmth and light of the small room.

Sadly, things didn’t work out with my visit to the Thomas Bernhard house since they are only open on Bank holidays and weekends and in Austria, Good Friday is a normal working day. I had to content myself with wandering around the house outside and trying to look in through the windows. I saw his incredible shoe collection and a kitchen with rather uncomfortable looking furniture. It’s strange but I somehow found it hard to imagine him here, looking at the same things I saw and walking through the nearby woods gathering his thoughts. Instead it seemed just like a museum of objects far removed. Everyone in the area seems keen to cash in though; his detested neighbour of 20 years had written a rather pointless book about him (his only comment on the notorious chainsaw episode where T.B injured himself badly was that only experienced people should use one), displayed next to a hideous portrait. Later on, I spoke to the neighbour who assured me that T.B was menschenfeindlich and exaggerated everything, whereas I can imagine how much an outsider he was made to feel here. Despite the setbacks, I still hope to visit the house from the inside at Pentecost.

As usual, the few days together went by far too fast; days of cloudless skies and burning sunshine. Close to the Irrsee, a large yellow moon was waiting for us low in the sky before removing her thin veil of cloud and in Salzburg, we dunked our croissants in large mugs of chocolate and wandered in and out of churches. In the alps J. got up early and went in search of the snow while I slept long and spent the rest of the time mostly writing or reading the letters of Ingeborg Bahmann and Paul Celan, wondering why it was so impossible for them to be together, why words had driven them apart and created so many misunderstandings, feeling how much they loved and needed each other and yet how, ultimately, they were so very much alone. In the evenings, we walked by the powerful gushing river to the town of Lofer for Bratkartoffeln and Germknödel and I longed to stay. Of course it was impossible and I had to comfort myself with some spaghetti ice cream in an Italian café close to the Chiemsee on our return before accepting it was finally over.