mardi 19 janvier 2010

Heimweh nach dem Kurfürstendamm

My return to Berlin has in many ways seemed like a strange and beautiful dream. The masses of snow, rediscovering my room with its piles of books, coming home every day with wet feet because of my hopelessly inadequate boots but having the comforts of cheese on toast, large mugs of cocoa or tea and settling down with a Woody Allen film or getting around to the book someone gave me for my birthday last year. It's almost as if I was never away at all and yet I feel I love the city more than ever. Before my trip to Paris, I was afraid that I wouldn't want to come back here because it would seem cold and ugly in comparison. But although I still love Paris, it was hard to describe the emotion of getting into the TGV headed for Frankfurt and hearing the announcements in German once more or changing in snowy Mannheim to the familiar high speed ICE trains. Just little things but they gave me the impression I was getting closer to home. There's something inside of me that clicks with the imperfection and the solitude of Berlin. Reading Caroline's wonderful post the other day made me realise how much this city is part of me, how much I need it.

Late breakfasts at the weekend

Last Sunday, I set out to explore the snow in Tiergarten. Early in the morning, there was still a grey mistiness hanging over the trees, the heels of my boots sunk a little into the solid white ground with each step and I met only occasional joggers and dog walkers on my long walk through this special place filled with so many memories. I had never seen so much snow in Berlin before and it reinforced the silence and magic of it. Later on, there were children being pulled along on sledges and cross country skiers keen to take advantage of the winter landscapes while they last.

Later on, I decided to walk back all the way to Charlottenburg along the Kurfürstendamm, the rough equivalent of Oxford Street, although it's no longer as important as it was in divided Germany when it was realy the centre of West Berlin. The title of this post refers to a famous song by Hildegaard Knef and can be translated as "I'm homesick for the Kurfürstendamm" or Ku'damm as everyone calls it. I've always had a special affection for it, even if most of my friends can't understand why. I remember going to a vernissage with Justine at the Maison de France. The organiser described Ku'damm as the Champs Elysees of Berlin and outside passers by stopped to look in at us through the large glowing windows like those of an aquarium which made me think of the restaurant in Balbec in Proust. Afterwards we went to the most adorable little pizzeria in Uhlandstraße where you sit on wooden benches and they announce when your order is ready over loudspeakers in Italian. Coming out into the cold, we looked up at the beautiful buildings opposite with their iron balconies and strolled back to Savignyplatz past the nocturnal displays in the chic, deserted boutiques.

There is still so much I want to discover here and maybe the optimism I'm feeling right now is just that "fresh, new year's effect" which will melt away with the snow but I know that even though it's good to go away, the best part is when you come home.

Before I give you my late recipe for Christmas cake, I know that many of you will be sick to death of Christmas, overeating and seriously rich food. It also seems terrible to think of the festive period after seeing all the heartbreaking images from Haiti. All I can say is that nothing really seems that important anymore in comparison. The only appropriate thing to do is to give a donation and most of all not forget.

Christmas cake (makes a 110g cake) - from Nigella Lawson's How to be a Domestic Goddess

350g sultanas
110g raisons
50g glacé cherries
60ml brandy
110g butter
90g brown sugar
2/3 tsp lemon zest
1tbsp marmelade
2 large eggs
250g plain flour
1 tsp mixed spice
pinch of salt

Fits an 18cm round tin.

1. Place all fruit in a large bowl and pour in the brandy. Cover and leave to soak overnight.
2. Pre-heat the oven to 150 °C. Line the baking tin with a double layer of baking paper - it should reach about 10cm above the edge of the tin.
3. Cream the butter and sugar, then add the lemon zest.
4. Add in the eggs, then the marmelade, beating well.
5. Sift the dry ingredients into a bowl then add them alternately with the brandy soaked fruit.
6. Pour the mixture into the tin and bake for about 2-2.5 hours or until a cake tester comes out clean.
7. When the cake is cool, brush with brandy and wrap in extra thick tinfoil so it stays moist. When it's 100% cool, remove the foil, remove the cake from the tin, re-wrap it in foil and store in an airtight container for at least 4 weeks before you plan to eat it. I like to pour over some extra brandy every couple of weeks to make sure the cake doesn't dry out.

To decorate

1 large block of marzipan - about 500g (preferably white, but they'd sold out when I went to buy some which explains the yellow snowman, and from an organic shop so it's free of E-numbers!)
300-400g icing sugar
3-4 lemons

1. Dust your work surface with icing sugar and roll out the marzipan so it will fit the cake but still be a good, thick layer. Brush the cake with a little warmed jam to make it stick and gently place the marzipan over the top and sides of the cake.
2. Sift the icing sugar or put it in a mixer to get rid of the lumps. Add in as much lemon juice as you like to get your desired consistency - I like my icing a little bit runny. Carefully smooth it over the marzipan using a palette knife. Leave to set for a few hours before placing any other decorations on top.

My marzipan birds - I can be artistic too sometimes.

Holly from our garden for a finishing touch!

The trifle recipe is the same as the one I posted here, expect that instead of panettone, I used trifle sponges for a more English touch.

lundi 11 janvier 2010

Les dernières nuits de Paris

Travelling by train always makes you feel you're leaving a place much more intensely than by plane when the landscapes disappear under a layer of cloud. It had been years since I'd last taken the Eurostar from London to Paris, passing by the oast houses of Kent and the breathtaking landscapes of southern England. While other passengers were slumbering, I felt the last rays of sun pouring onto my face until it finally started to set and the sky was cracked with the most intense scarlet. Gazing out of the window, lost in thought, I remember before I lived in France how melancholic the sight of cars on the roads used to make me because all of these people lived in France and I didn't.

When I arrived in Paris, it was already dark and the old, familiar platforms of the Gare du Nord were waiting for me. Being a book lover has it's good points but it also means that you're constantly weighed down by luggage, so you can imagine my case stuffed full of Christmas presents and how heavy it was. After hauling it up and down the steps of the métro and along narrow streets cursing loudly and wishing my hobby was stamp collecting, I finally opened the door to Ju's charming little apartment in Montparnasse, an old artist's studio with enormous windows, caressed by the beams of the Eiffel Tower as soon as darkness falls.

But Paris would still have to wait a little longer until I had returned from Rouen, the home of .....Rose. As the train was pulling out of the Gare St. Lazare early the morning, there was still a half-moon visible in the sky and at the same time, the clearest, most beautiful day was beginning. The windows of the buildings we passed shone with a pinkish, golden light and little by little, the sky became a dazzling mix of gold, cream, grey and blue. The journey was so beautiful, yet I tapped my feet with impatience to reach my destination. Rose was waiting for me at the station, my guide through the winding streets with their half-timbered houses in this wonderful place. The day was bright, but cold, we stopped to warm our hands with a hot chocolate in a café where Simone de Beauvoir used to go when she was a teacher in Rouen.

The garden of the musée Flaubert

Simone's café as mentioned in La force de l'âge

The name 'Rose' makes me think of the ageless beauty in Aragon's Aurélien or the capricious but charming sister of the heroine in Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle but nothing can match the real one. She talks of books like old friends, shares my passion for the works of Boris Vian, makes me want to lose myself in Greek myths and discover the early writings of Raymond Queneau and can show you the most wonderful bookshops where you can buy second hand editions of Tokyo Sanpo at a bagain price. Then there was the most amazing lunch at a Korean restaurant and talk of trips to Italyand Germany, learning Asian languages and of course, books!

The école de beaux arts, located in a former mass grave.

Some of the wonderful, old houses in Rouen

Later on. we climbed higher and higher up the steep slopes above Rouen to reach the cemetary where the the sunlight still warmed us with its rays and the tombstones were covered with the remains of the last snowfall. Cats scuttled in between narrow alleys as we searched for the graves of Flaubert and Duchamp.

The family Duchamp's grave. The inscription reads "In any case, it's always the others who die."

The flowers reminded us of the waterlily in Boris Vian's L'écume des jours"

That same evening, in the charming house high above the city, Rose made us a wonderful fennel gratin and to finish the most beautiful cake with pralines roses. There was also the music of Satie, the voice of Juliette, frequent glasses of delicious wine and my first ever Neufchâtel cheese. I slept in her study, full of books which reminded me how little I've read but which also seemed to watch over me like Rilke's angels. The next morning, I opened the shutters to discover that the deepest layer of snow had transformed everything completely and as we said our farewells at the station, thick flakes were still falling. I wished I could stayed a little longer in her street which seemed so English, where cats curl up beside you and where you can flick endlessly through all the books you've always dreamed of with the distant sound of a piano playing in the background.

Luckily there is also another place where you can find a different study piled high with books, where you arrive to find a magnificent goûter of perfect chocolate and chestnut tartelettes accompanied by a comforting pot of exquisite tea by Mariage Frères. This place is, of course, called Patoumiville, or just Rennes for those who have yet to discover her beautiful blog. As we sat in the lovely, luminous apartment whose walls are covered with pictures of writers, film posters and scenes from Annie Hall and Rohmer films, the only sound was that of the spoon clinking against the beautiful cups and plates as we talked about all the things we have in common. Later that evening, we ventured out into the cold to walk the short distance to the Japanese restaurant where you can order a tartatre du thon which melts in your mouth and to finish, exquisite Daifuku with vanilla ice cream which made me want to consult Julia's blog and make my own soon.

The tartare au thon

Perfect daifuku

The next morning, I awoke to find the most amazing breakfast laid out on the table; white bread from the boulangerie Cozic, a huge jar of chocolate spread sent by Mingou, blackcurrant jam, tome cheese and a large pot of green tea.

To work off some of the calories, we set out to explore Rennes on a crisp and golden morning, wandering through the snowy, deserted park where a man was taking pictures of squirrels, pausing at Patoumi's favourite bookshops before we finally stopped for a delicious vegetable tart in a café where you can not only choose from an astonishing range of teas with exotic names like gin fizz and sous la véranda but also choose from a list of desserts which all look equally delicious. Crumble with crème anglaise, coffee and walnut cake and so many more but we both decided on the rich English cake which managed to be both rich and light. The hours slipped by too fast and then it was already the moment to take the train back to Paris where I left with a goûter of croissants, oranges and macaroons. There was a dreadful feeling of sadness as I saw her beautiful boots and Madame Mo bag for the last time and darkness began to fall around us in the TGV.

And Paris? It's so difficult for me to sum up the last few days and the whirlwind of impressions I had. There were the walks in the Luxemburg where children were having snowball fights under the marble gaze of the statues of kings and queens, the frustration at not being able to visit all the wonderful cemetaries whose gates remained closed for days with the snow when they would have looked so beautiful, the galette by the Odéon that Patoumi had recommended, the walks in the footsteps of Simone de Beauvoir on the left bank and the visits to all the amazing bookshops.

Deserted alleys of the Luxemburg gardens

The statue of Bacchus with the Panthéon

Anyone for tea?

A sheep lamp in the streets near the Odéon

Evening in Paris

As close as I could get to a cemetary from the footbridge in Montmartre

View across to the islands

Salon des antiquitaires close to the Champs de mars

La Rotonde in Montparnasse which Simone de Beauvoir's family lived above for a while

There was also a chance to meet Julia at l'Entrepôt and consume plates piled high with the most delicious food, discussing Sweden, Wild Strawberries, life in Berlin and Paris, photography and so much more.

Some pastries at l'entrepôt

Travelling back to Berlin where the whitest, most magical landscapes unfolded before my eyes and delicate, little flakes were falling, it felt good to be going home but there was also disappointment at not being able to meet you all; Mingou, Pia, Sarah Lou, Gracienne, Sarah and so many others. I guess though that will have to wait until next time...