vendredi 23 octobre 2009

Voyage en Italie

When we left, the sky was grey and full of snow with nothing to see on the horizon but clouds and fine snowflakes falling at regular intervals. The tops of the mountains around us in Austria became whiter and whiter and the fir trees looked as if they had been dusted with icing sugar. Yet all that changed when we arrived in South Tirol, on the other side of the Brenner Pass. A place where autumn and winter don't seem to exist; there is only summer, followed by some cooler months. In the valley lined on both sides by sculpted mountains with dark green vegetation, you find fields upon fields of apple trees but not the kind you see in your typical garden. They look so fragile and small, weighed down by large quantities of beautiful pink apples. Vineyards for grappa stretch far into the distance next to silvery grey olive trees. The cold and the snow from just a couple of hours ago seemed so unreal. High up above, little villages, towers and castle are perched on the rocks overlooking the way that Hannibal once took.

We stopped at the lake of Toblino with it's beautiful little castle in the middle and the cyprus trees I've always loved so much. Families walked by the lakeside, talking animatedly and young couples embraced and took photos.

There was the first night in an abandoned hotel in Dro with its glacial rooms, green swimming pool and rows of pink balconies with plastic chairs which made you feel the loneliness of the end of season. In the morning, we breakfasted alone in the icy lounge on tiny white rolls with cheese, croissants, doughnuts filled with crème patisserie and scolding hot coffee which I tried to warm my hands with. Outside though, the sun was already shining with perhaps the most beautiful, clearest light I have ever seen. Often, I find the heat and humidity of summer oppressive but it felt so wonderful to have the golden rays on my skin. The famous castello of Arco on top of steep limestone cliffs rose up on the skyline and then we reached the lush shores of Riva del Garda in the nothern part of Lake Garda with its light coloured villas, exotic gardens and palm trees which reminded me of le Parfum d'Yvonne. The light danced on the water and in the afternoon, little waves disturbed its calm surface on which dozens of little white boats and windsurfers were sailing.

Strange looking apples on Lake Garda

In Verona, we strolled close to San Zeno and searched for Juliet's house and her balcony where she called down to Romeo. On the walls, hundreds of little notes had been stuck by lovers all over the world with romantic messages and it was impossible to move for huge numbers of tourists who had also come to see the meeting place of the starcrossed lovers. Around the corner, I discovered a charming square with a statue of Dante which made me long to read the Divine Comedy in Italian, an idea which I quickly abandoned when I saw the two enormous volumes on sale. On the way to Vicenza that evening, I watched the dying glow of the sun which seemed to stretch its long fingers across the countryside for miles and illuminate the stone houses of the tiny villages we passed through.

Most beautiful of all though was Venice. After some Mr. Hulot moments at the station, I boarded the train from Vicenza early the next day. Nothing prepared me though for the vast expanse of blue water as we were arriving, a view that somehow touched me as I thought one day how the city will sink back into it and disappear. Close to the train station, I bought an apple cake, or strudel as its called here and set off to explore this place I had dreamed of for so long.

Every little street is full of poetry with its countless bridges reflected in canals as clear and smooth as Murano glass. The houses with the lines of washing and closed shutters seem to contain so many secrets and I wandered back and forth for hours with only the distant chimes of a church tower bell to remind me of the passing of time. I had never felt so inspired by light and colours before.

After fresh gnocchi with tomatoes in a charming wine cellar and a hot chocolate in a trattoria, I took the boat across from Fondamente Nuove to Isola San Michele or the Island of the Dead. Here there are barely any tourists and most of the other passengers were taking flowers to the cemetary. Large cyprus trees on the island stand over you like candles and the only sounds are those of the gravel as you walk along the different alleys and the splashing of the water all around. There is such a feeling of peacefulness here which deeply moved me like never before. I thought of the wonderful painting by Böcklin and the final journey to this amazing place where eternity begins.

The musical cries on the shore announced the return to Fondamente Nuove. Close to Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo, I savoured a perfect tiramisù ice cream and came across a wonderful French bookstore where I bought Venises by Paul Morand and Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi and immediately regretted leaving Dictionnaire amoureux de Venise . The light was becoming softer and even more luminous. At last, the tourists made their way home and I felt another side of the city come alive with its special charm reserved for those who linger in the shadows. Though I returned that evening exhausted, feeling a little ill and also sad to leave this place which captured my heart, I know that it was simply the most perfect day and that there is so much more to discover and return for.

jeudi 15 octobre 2009


I've already mentioned it so many times so I guess everyone knows I'm headed for Italy on Saturday. In a way it still seems unreal, yet I feel an almost uncontrollable sense of excitement at the idea that Vicenza, Verona, Trieste and Venice will soon no longer be just names to me. Here in Berlin, there's a damp chill in the air and I've dug out my winter coat and gloves. Somehow, I miss the beautiful autumn light we had in Marienbad and hope to see the ravishing colours glow at least a little longer. In the train to Munich at the end of September, I remember seeing wonderful lines of pumpkins in fields close to the last remaining sunflowers and had the impression they were defiantly resisting the changing temperatures.

Yet now it's truly the season of hot tea, soups, cinnamon, chestnuts and serious comfort food. While many complain about the long, dark evenings, somehow I also enjoy being wrapped up warm and strolling around Berlin which, for me, is always loveliest at night. Looking up to the lights of the beautful buildings round where I live, they always seem to represent so much life and warmth and make me want to be part of that. Bergman films, Jane Austen novels and knitting are the things I most like to devote myself to when it's cold outside. And yet, the thought of crystal azure skies and golden sunshine on a clear dry day in Italy makes me feel exhilerated; Venice, the city of Proust, the setting for so many books and films I love and Trieste on the Adriatic sea where Svevo and his English teacher James Joyce once lived. As ridiculous as it sounds, just checking the weather forecast next week made me tremble with emotion at the thought of all the things I'm dying to experience and the lazy hours with J. when we can just chat or wander the streets as evening falls.

I hope to return with many photos and recipes to share with you but first there's still so much to organise. As always, the choice of books has top priority! It's only a short trip but somehow the idea of being without something to read or being bored terrfies me. The Thomas Bernhard autobiography is a must, as is Proust, Svevo's Confessions of Zeno and the book of Ingeborg Bachmann poetry. Taking all these is a little crazy because I certainly won't get through them but maybe the bibliophiles among you will understand. So the blog will be on holiday for a week but just before I go, I'd like to leave you with a recipe for Russian Zupfkuchen, one of my favourite cakes and a mix of cheese- and chocolate cake. It wasn't as good as the one at Datscha or Anna Blume as my difficult gas oven burned the top but as Chrissi kindly reminded me not to be too much of a perfectionist, I was satisfied with my first attempt! Actually, the sun came out for the only moment that day when I was taking the pictures so I took that as a good sign. The trees in the yard behind my room were glistening with raindrops and I stopped for a moment to savour the light.


Pour Ju qui aime le Zupfkuchen autant que moi et en souvenir de tous nos repas ensemble!

For the base

400g flour
200g sugar
150g soft butter
30g cocoa
1 egg
1 pack of baking powder

For the filling

500g quark/ fromage blanc
200g sugar
100g soft butter
3 eggs, separated
a pinch of salt
a few drops of good quality vanilla extract

Pre-heat the oven to 180°

1. To make the base, cream the soft butter together with the sugar then mix in the egg until smooth and frothy. Sift in the flour, baking powder and finally the cocoa. You should have a kind of dough that's not too dry or too liquid. Take 2/3 of it and press it into a well greased Springform tin so that you have a layer on the bottom and sides.
2. To make the filling, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form, then add the pinch of salt and continue whisking until the whites form stiff peaks.
3. Mix together the egg yolks, sugar and butter together until smooth then pour in the quark and vanilla extract. Finally, gently fold in the egg whites a little at a time until completely blended.
4. Sprinkle over (zupfen) little pices the remaining base mixture like Streusel or crumble.
5. Bake in the oven for about an hour. In order to stop the top burning, I suggest placing a layer of tin foil over it after 20 minutes. When the middle seems set, remove from the oven. Leave to cool completely before opening the Springform tin.

I wish you all a great weekend and a wonderful week. Take care!

samedi 10 octobre 2009

Harlequinades 2009, plus little pleasures for the weekend

This weekend was supposed to be perfect with numourous baking challenges, plus a speech contest, all of which I thought would be a success. Sadly, things didn't go so well in either of those areas and I ended up walking home tonight in the rain without an umbrella and feeling frustrated. Luckily, after some tea, pasta and an Italian film, my mood isn't quite as dark and I'm at last ready to tell you about Harlequinades. It was Rose who suggested I take part; basically the challenge is to read at least one romantic novel (the equivalent in anglophone countries is probably Mills and Boon) and discuss it in an interesting way in order to grasp its philosophical and sociological significance. French speaking readers can find more info here. Some people might raise their eyebrows at my book choice but it's been ages since I read something like this and I had fun doing it. Actually, I thought it might be nice to have a romance in German to see if the clichés are similar. At Dussmann, the choice was surprisingly limited but I did manage to stumble across Frühling und so (Spring and so on) which is not only a Spiegel bestseller, but also set in Berlin. It tells the story of Raquel, a teenager and her sexual and romantic journey over one year in the German capital. Raquel is actually the Spanish version of Rachel which means "ewe" or one of purity so it's ironic that it's the name of our heroine.

The book is actually divided into four chapters, entitled spring, summer, autumn, winter and spring. I wondered whether the journey of the heroine would be one of profound self-discovery as in the beautiful film by Kim Ki-duk which is also called Spring, summer, autumn, winter and spring but each section is not so different, except in the various moods which the changing seasons create. Will Racquel ever be able to get over being left by Noa, her long-term boyfriend? Does the man of her dreams really exist at all? Is it possible to have a physical as well as an intellectual connection?

Raquel is what many would call a typical teenage girl; she worries about her looks and figure, goes out with friends and feels torn between her divorced parents and their separate families. The novel describes the modern patchwork family extremely well. Already though, she has a clear idea of the kind of life she should have in ten years and often expresses disapproval of those who haven't achieved that level. At thirty, for example, you shouldn't simply have an ordinary job on a film set but do something more important in the social hierachy.

She meets men easily and is aware of her seductive powers over them. Yet all too often, they seem to lack her emotional maturity and powers of observation. With sex, Raquel is often able simply to treat her body as an object, something separate from her emotions and is constantly analyzes herself from the outside. One of the nicest aspects of the book is that fact that it combines sexual advantures with the everyday life of Berlin and the many different areas form a backdrop which makes it a refreshing read. Raquel sees the social problems around her relating to Hartz IV, the long-term unemployment benefit many Berlin's citizens live on and alcohol and drug addiction in notorious areas like Kotti.

I won't spoil the ending for you but just want to finish by saying that there are some surprising twists along the way and that the author, Rebecca Martin is certainly good at writing about sex.

And the pictures in this post? So there's no recipe for you tonight but it's late on Saturday night and I had no energy to prepare much - sorry! The pictures are of two things I treated myself to yesterday; perhaps the last good tomatoes of the season - sweet and crisp - which I enjoyed with some good bread and cheese and a concerto torte from Lenôtre in KaDeWe. Maybe it's because I've gotten used to simpler cakes but it was somehow nicer to look at than to eat. In any case, you can savour them with your eyes and I promise you another recipe before I leave for Italy at the end of next week.

mardi 6 octobre 2009

Les soleils des demi-sommeils

I'd like to tell you of the skies, clear and crisp and blue or of the flames of autumn trees shimmering in the sunshine or of the day awakening us in our room above the thick yellow curtains. But somehow neither the words nor images can capture our two days in Marienbad; the only thing to do was to try and catch the hours as they went by and fix them in my memory. On the train journey, I travelled along the same route as in spring but this time, night was closing in. The same familiar fields and bell towers around me were barely visible in the dusk. Close to the Czech border, I sat almost alone in the carriage and watched as the conductor made his way home into the black velvet darkness underneath the glare of the neon lights. As we passed through Franziskovy Laszne, I thought of our nights there and saw the aquaforum where groups of people bathed happily outside in a small heated pool. In May, the burning images and poetry of Ingeborg Bachmann accompanied me but this time, I took the Thomas Bernhard autobiography with me in its beautiful yellow cloth edition. A friend had warned me how disturbing it was but nothing prepared me for the power and sadness of what I was to read. It opened with his days spent in a boarding school in Salzburg under the bombs and destruction of the Second World War and continued with his short time at the Gymnasium (high school) where he described the pain and rebellion of being an outsider. There was so much that touched on my own experiences that I felt the anger inside of me thinking back to my own school days and the people I knew. Even though at moments, the book seems unbelievably difficult to get through, it's defintely one of most amazing I've ever read. It's also wonderful to have a voyage of self-discovery and memories while travelling deep into the forests of a country I still know so little of.

In Marienbad, we stayed on the fourth floor of a hotel where all the other guests were much older. In the evenings, you could hear Bruckner or other classical symphonies playing across the town. I have always loved being high up above the streets to observe the people around. From our balcony, the colours of the trees seemed to become more and more intense each day and the stunning yellow buildings glowed in the morning sun. We ate breakfast in a vast hall, more suitable perhaps for ballroom dancing and felt lost in its space. In the sleepiness of the afternoons, I closed my eyes and heard the voices and different languages of the tourists walking down below and the gentle song of the fountain in the park opposite.

During the evenings and afternoons, we walked along the different avenues and in the parks where the light had never looked so beautiful. There were the colonnades and grand hotels, the villa Eva with its green neon sign against the white exterior and the empty clay tennis courts which will soon be abandoned for the winter. In the Classic café, we sat on the leather barquettes underneath black and white pictures by Peter Lindbergh and with candles flickering gently on the tables. I had pehaps the best Käse Sahne Torte ever (cheesecake) and returned there the next day only to be disappointed by the orange cheesecake which looked so tempting but was somehow tasteless.

We went out one last time onto the balcony to savour the view over the town and embrace on a Sunday afternoon with dramatic clouds on the horizon. It felt so sad to leave a place so different from my usual life where you can wander through forests and sun drenched streets without ever getting bored. I wondered how everything will look as the days turn colder and the trees lose their leaves, whether things there will seem as timeless as they do now.

J. and I said our goodbyes as I started my long trip home and back in Berlin, I felt as if I had been away for weeks. I tried out a recipe for minestrone soup which was amazingly comforting against the thought of a brutally early Monday morning start and the chilly evenings.

Minestrone soup - serves 4 (from Basic Cooking)

1.5 litres vegetable stock
500g potatoes, peeled and diced
Half a leek
2 large courgettes, thinly cliced
Approx. 1/3 of a head of celery
2 large carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 Roma tomatoes
1 tin red kidney beans
Salt, pepper and parmasan to serve

1. Bring the vegetable stock to boiling point in a large saucepan. Peel and dice the potatoes and add to the boiling water along with the leek, courgettes, carrots and celery. Cover the saucepan with a lid and leave for 15 - 20 mins.
2. Pour boiling water over the tomatoes and remove the skins. Chop roughly and add them to the soup, with the drained kidney beans. Cook for another 15 mins approximately over a medium heat or until everything is cooked but not soft.
3. Season with salt and pepper and grate over some parmasan. Best served with warm, crusty bread and a good film.