jeudi 27 mai 2010

Where no endings end

I guess I must be the kind of person that everyone thinks they can talk to because I often find myself approached by complete strangers who wish to tell me things. My friend Abbie once suggested that's simply because I look nice.

Back in the days when I visited Paris on a regular basis, I remember my first time in Père Lachaise cemetary, wandering around with a map unfolded, trying to locate the grave of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a phenomenologist philospher I was crazy about at university. Looking across to my left, I noticed a middle aged man following my movements in the parallel alley. I'm not sure how long he'd been there but within seconds he was standing close to me and offered to show me the grave of Simone Signoret and Yves Montand. For some reason, I politely accepted which made it possible for him to tell me that he came from the midi region, that he was dying to take me out for lunch and then go back to his place together. I asked him whether he went there often to pick up girls, "Oh sometimes", he replied, "Ça dépend des jours. " Suppressing a smile, I explained that my Mum would be meeting me in around ten minutes and that in any case, I still needed to find where Merleau-Ponty was buried. Disgusted that I wanted to waste my time looking for someone he'd never even heard off, he left in search of easier targets. Since then, I've been approached by countless other drageurs who wanted to come under my umbrella or share my Kitkat.

Yet it isn't just the lonely hearts keen to have a chat. Waiting on the platform for the underground at Stadtmitte, a man with long grey hair approached me and asked whether I'd heard of the bakery Kamps. Since there's practically one on every corner, of course I said yes, whereupon he started to explain his business idea of expanding the franchise to the UK. To my horror, he took the same train as I did, sat next to me and asked me to find a job for him. I did the only rational thing and got off at the next station already. Luckily he didn't follow.

The strangest encounter though was one Sunday last summer when I'd been out to take pictures and drink coffee. Walking back through one of the streets close to my home, I paused to look at a shop window when a young guy asked me if I enjoyed reading. My previous encounters had made me learn that the best thing to do when you want to avoid talking to people in Berlin is to pretend you only speak French, although it's not 100% foolproof and I often wish I know some Hungarian instead. The question was a nice one though so I answered in German. The man took a large brown envelope out of his briefcase and explained that it contained the secrets of the universe. Since it was Sunday, he was feeling generous and had decided that one lucky person would receive a chapter of this magical text, based on numerology, for free. I tried as hard as I could to convince him that I didn't believe in those kinds of things but he simply replied "How do you know before you've read it?" He gave me his email address and asked me to let him know how things developed after my reading session. I took that along with the envelope and the moment he was out of sight, put them both into the nearest bin.

Reading this and my last post, you probably have the impression that I attract the worst kinds of people and have a terrible life but honestly, looking back all of these people just amuse me. I suppose not everyone is fortunate enough to have someone to open up to, even if these days I keep my eyes fixed on the book I'm reading when someone approaches me.

Photos from the market on Karl-August Platz where I go every Saturday

My cherries being selected
Speciality roses
If you're in an Alice in Wonderland kind of mood, you might want to try the oyster bar

I finally got around to taking a picture of one of those Apfelbrötchen I love
A walk on Sunday round Mitte
At the Alter-Garnison Friedhof
At Kaffeemitte on Hackescher Markt
Crostata with apricot jam - you'll get my recipe next time
The last remaining graffiti covered courtyard at Hackescher Markt
At the Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof

The grave of the DDR poet Heiner Müller
Today was meant to be the day when I reveal the Daring Bakers challenge to you. The May Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Cat of Little Miss Cupcake. Cat challenged everyone to make a pièce montée or a croquembouche, based on recipes from Peter Kump's Baking School in Manhatton and Nick Malgieri. I managed to find time to attempt them but unfortunately, they weren't a success. You may remember that the macaroons I attempted were also unsuccessful so I guess I don't work well with a piping bag. Basically, it was all going well until the moment when I had to add the eggs one at a time to the dough. It's supposed to go shiny then become drier like buttery mashed potato but mine just remained liquid which made it impossible to pipe. Then I made the mistake of adding more flour, the choux buns didn't rise at all and I gave up. At least though the coffee flavoured crème patisserie was a huge success and I could enjoy it on the bought chocolate cake, although I would have preferred it inside the choux pastry. So you see, nobody's perfect, though I wonder if my croquembouche would have been a success if I hadn't thrown that mysterious brown envelope away. For the recipe click here.

Coffee flavoured crème patisserie

Proof that I did try - my choux pastry mix before it all went wrong

jeudi 20 mai 2010

Other towns and cities

Those of you who read my last post will know that I'm looking for a place of my own. It seems the right time then to tell you all about my first experience living in a shared flat. At the end of 2004, unsure of my direction in life, I took a job in an international school as an Economics teacher in Aix-en-Provence, regardless of the fact that it only involved seven hours of work a week and was far away from anyone I knew in France. Arriving at the futuristic TGV station, still bleary eyed from the early morning train ride, I caught sight of the majestic Mont St. Victoire rising up on the horizon as I travelled into the centre on the shuttle bus. Aix is extremely pretty with little parks dotted all around where old men play boules and sit on park benches accompanied by the delicate song of fountains. In spite of that, I failed to appreciate my time there because I felt so absolutely alone. Although I'd managed to convince the directrice of the school that I was more than qualified to teach economics, having done it as one of my A levels, I was well aware of being embaressingly hopeless when it came to my classes. Basically, anything with numbers or equations makes me want to run away screaming and just the whole concept of elasticity was enough to make me feel like bursting into tears. Things might not have seemed so bad if I'd had somewhere permanent to live. Every day I'd spend hours in Internet cafés looking for a place but it didn't work out so I ended up staying in hotels. One was rather seedy on the other side of town and the other was close to the centre, nicer and with a friendly receptionist who advised me to try temping agencies like she had done to get more experience. To pass the time in Aix, I would drown my sorrows in a large bol of café au lait and eat several cakes at an exquisite patisserie close to the main square.

I'm the kind of person who suddenly has completely crazy ideas which I'm convinced are brilliant, like the time when I decided I could carry a table back from Ikea but that's another story. Sitting at the internet café one evening, I imagined how wonderful it'd be to get a place in Lyon, work there for three days, then commute to Aix for the other two. My eyes lit up when I saw the long list of rooms advertised in Lyon; I had heard someone say that the première arrondissement was the coolest so naturally, I looked there first, called a number and fixed an appointment for the coming Sunday morning. I remember it was the first weekend of the New Year, it was impossible to get a seat on the train so I paid a huge amount of money for a chance to sit on a strapontin, or pull out seat, in first class. The flat turned out to be on the slopes above the city in the middle of a leafy square. Nervously, I rang the bell and marched up several flights of stairs to the fourth floor where a blonde girl opened the door. She was S., a Berliner working as an assistante for a few months in one of the lycées. I was ushered into the flat, shown briefly round the kitchen and introduced to E. who was to decide upon the new colocataire or flatmate. He was tall, lean and seemed a little sarcastic but friendly enough. We all drank coffee in the huge living room with its high ceiling and wooden beams. There were windows on all sides and one could look across not only to the Fourvière church perched high up over the city, but also to the Crayon (pencil) building and beyond that sometimes to the Mont Blanc on clear days. Sitting at that table, I longed to be accepted, to wake up each morning in that apartment and share everything with my two flatmates. I need never be lonely again. When the time finally came for me to leave, I had all my hopes pinned on that one place and if it fell through, I honestly didn't know what I'd do.

Luckily, the call from E. came that same evening when I was in the TGV on my way back to Aix. My new flatmates would wait to eat with me the night of my arrival and there was an enormous sense of relief that I finally belonged somewhere. Sadly it wasn't to be; that first evening that I'd been so looking forward to actually decided my fate. E. asked me if I wanted soup and I made the mistake of asking what kind it was and then when he asked me if I wanted it mixte ou pas mixte (blended or unblended), he looked horrified when I said pas mixte. At least I imagine that was my gaffe because from that moment on, he hated me with a burning, silent passion. Whereas with S. and other friends, he could be charming and funny, with me there was the barely exchanged "Salut" in the morning and a sulky grimace. He occupied a room next to the kitchen where he would sit from the moment he came in from work until the early hours of the morning, working on his computer but also observing the comings and goings in the apartment. The living room became the cemetary for old computers which he'd pile up to repair and copies of the Chef d'Entreprise magazine covered his desk. He obviously liked to think of himself as the boss.

He detested the fact that I used to bake cakes which he considered strange because they weren't French, made fun of my cooking, although he had a point when he complained that boiled vegetables were tasteless and the cliché anglais, even though he himself typically ate pasta with ketchup. Maybe he didn't like me because he felt threatened by someone intelligent or because I wasn't one of those blonde German girls he seemed to prefer. Overhearing his conversations with S. on the sofa, I felt excluded and didn't know why. S. told me one evening that she didn't understand why E. and I hated each other but was sure it simply a misunderstanding. The low point came though when she returned to Berlin for the winter holidays, leaving me alone in the flat with him. At that time, I barely knew anyone in Lyon and had very little money so couldn't go out anywhere. After spending a few days with him, I remembered an autobiographical story by Albert Camus where he described the unbearable loneliness that overcame him with the realisation that he hadn't talked to anyone in days. My only comforts were learning German with a book about a French businessman who goes to Cologne, cycling through the city and trips to the Part Dieu library where I spent hours reading books about mountains with the somewhat ridiculous ambition of making it to the top of the Meije one day. I'd get up at regular intervals to drink coffee from the machine in the break room and eat a Twix. The thought of the combined tastes of synthetic capuccino with that biscuit and caramel horrifies me now but at least it was chance to chat to some of the other people.

When S. returned to Berlin definitively, she was replaced by B. who had been studying in Finland. I'd hoped that being the only girl in the flat would improve but I was an outsider from the others who had known each other from school. With E., things deteriorated even more and he simply sent B. as a messenger to inform me when we'd do the cleaning or ask me to contribute to the purchase of the washing machine. His presence around me made me feel nervous and uneasy; once I was asked to prepare a dessert, decided upon a chocolate cake which went disastrously wrong when I used too much butter and ended up with a dark, greasy mess. E. looked disgusted when I served it, even more so when a friend of his raved over the fact that it managed to be crispy on the outside and squidgy in the middle.

On the day I moved out before leaving for Alsace, we said our farewells. I don't remember whether we kissed each other on the cheek, but only that he sent B. one last time to check that I didn't forget to leave the keys in the mailbox! Occasionally I wonder what became of him. Someone told me they saw a child's seat in the back of his car recently and I hope things worked out for him, irrespective of our differences. Yet most of all, I'm glad not to share a flat with him anymore.

Last Sunday was a special day for me because I finally got a chance to try the new camera out. It's still early days and I have a lot more to learn before I feel 100% confident but already I have the impression there are some good times ahead of us.

Rainy days

At the freshly re-opened Neues Museum

This statue reminds me of the smile that so fascinated Jules et Jim in Truffaut's film

Marzipan and chocolate torte at the museum café

Pour Rose - unfortunately, the special edition costs €750 so I can't send it to you.

Evening falls on Savignyplatz

Regular readers of this blog will already be aware of my love for all things with lemon. I even managed to pick up a bottle of limoncello liqueur at my local store so now there's no excuse for not making a torta al limone. In the meantime though, I tried out another Nigel Slater recipe, with lemons of course!

Brown sugar lemon cake (from Nigels Slater's The Kitchen Diaries)


125g butter
125g brown sugar
200g plain flour
100g ground almonds
1 heaped teaspoon baking powder
a large organic unwaxed lemon
4 large eggs

For the topping

an organic unwaxed lemon
2 heaped tbsp brown sugar
4 tbsp water

For the syrup

2 generous tablespoons brown sugar
the juice of a large lemon

1. Pre-heat the oven to 170°C and grease and line a loaf tin. Begin by making the topping; slice the lemon as thinly as possibly and place in a small pan with the sugar and water. Bring it to the boil and let it simmer for around 5 minutes or until the water has almost evaporated and the lemon alices are sticky. Remove from the heat and set aside.

2. Beat the butter and brown sugar together until fluffy (this may take a little longer than with caster sugar but don't lose hope!).
3. Measure out the flour, baking powder and almonds and mix them together in a large bowl. Grate in the zest of the lemon.

4. Break the eggs into another bowl then mix them together with a fork and add them to the butter and sugar a little at a time. The mixture might curdle a bit but don't worry! With a metal spoon, fold in the dry ingredients gradually, taking care not to overblend. Pour the mixture into the prepared loaf tin and arrange the lemon slices on top, overlapping them in the middle. Bake for around 30-40 minutes or until golden brown and a cake tester comes out clean.

5. For the syrup, stir the brown sugar into the lemon juice; it won't dissolve completely. Using a fork, make small holes along the top on the cake surface and pour the syrup over it. Leave to cool. Best served with crème fraîche or thick Greek yoghurt.