I woke up shortly before the alarm went off, conscious of how early it was for a Sunday morning. The sun was warming the kitchen with its first rays and I thought that I should already be out there, taking photos, not wasting a minute of what might be the last fine day of the year instead of sipping hot tea and munching on white toast with apricot jam. The morning air was crisp and chilly with the only warmth in the flaming colours of the trees. I could see my breath as I made my way to the S-Bahn, fumbling for my gloves in my pockets and wishing I'd exchanged the ankle boots for knee high ones. On the platform, the odd travellor headed for Schönefeld airport with small suitcases, perhaps off to some hot destination. Yet I didn't feel in the slightest bit jealous as the train rattled on via Treptower Park, Ostkreuz and I saw the golden tones of the sky reflected in the Spree. Part of me hestitated whether to get out there but I had decided to travel all the way to Grünau, a place I had last visited at least two years ago. There is still the familiar Imbiss or snack bar opposite the station and the tram rails which disappear into the forest. Some modern villas occupy the lakside, competing for the space with watersport clubs. Yet I could not help noticing a number of buildings standing empty, their windows broken or boarded up and gates in front of overgrown gardens padlocked. I wonder what they were before; former post offices, schools, restaurants and whether they shall ever be brought to life again. I'd optimistically wandered down to the pier, deserted until next summer, hoping to begin a walk by the lake but had to continue for what seemed for miles through streets. At the empty beach, a line of Strandkorbs took in the Indian summer and just after, a small path finally veered off, taking me deeper into the woods and down to the water's edge. From time to time, silhouettes of joggers dressed in black came towards me in that hazy light where sunshine and shadows mingled equally. The further I went along, the lovelier the walk became; the tracks of cyclists in the sand, the view of the lake on which rowers occasionally glided by. Pausing to take some photos at a small beach, a man sitting out on his boat waved to me. Families and couple were just beginning their Sunday walk as I emerged out close to the tramlines again and back in civilisation, wishing my time away could have lasted a little longer.
It's a pity this place was closed. I can only imagine the kind of food that's served in a restaurant with a carved native Indian on the roof.
Later on that day, I was seized by a desire to take more photos and watch the sun go down over the city. Normally, I avoid tourist traps like the Brandenburg Gate but I had a feeling this was the place to go. Berlin had never looked lovelier; even the most charmless, modern buildings were tranformed by the gentleness of the evening light and the colours of the leaves stood out like glowing embers in the fading afternoon. As strange as it may sound, it suddenly seemed amazing to me that I live here, how far I've come from the small place I grew up in and how lucky I am to be able to stay. At that moment, it all felt so easy.
Blowing bubbles on Pariser Platz
Trees and people cast long shadows at the end of a glorious autumn day
A memorial outside the Reichstag for the murdered politicians of the Weimar Republic
About ten days ago, I decided to watch The Railway Children, the film of my childhood about three siblings growing up in Edwardian England. I had not seen it for maybe twenty years but simply hearing that familiar music at the beginning brought tears to my eyes. Those landscapes of London and Yorkshire, the excitement and significance of the trains, the rain beginning to spit at the most dramatic moment. So much from my time growing up came flooding back; matinees at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham with its chandelier and green and gold interior where I would get a choc ice at the interval, returning home from swimming club on Sunday evenings starving before tucking into a boiled egg with soldiers, walking barefoot in the garden. The film left a lump in my throat in a way that would perplex an outsider seeing it for the first time. Another link with the past for me is re-reading Le Grand Meaulnes which I first discovered at the age of 20. I came to the final chapters while travelling down to London on a National Express coach just before Christmas and can still recall driving through the suburbs on a cold, grey day, fighting back the tears at the sadness of the story. I found it poignant too because it's about saying goodbye to our true youth, becoming an adult, abandoning those days of illusions and dreams. We may never lose it completely but it's difficult to escape the constraints of harsh reality sometimes. Even back then, I felt as if I had passed beyond that point and wished that I had read it a few years earlier. Coming back to it now, I find easier to lose myself in its pages, imagining myself in those frosty landscapes, awakening in a room filled with Chinese lanterns where you can hear the distant music playing. Even if the past is still a closed book into which we get an occasional glance, I'm glad to have those links with it, to feel that those moments still belong to me even if they are tinged with regret or nostalgia sometimes.
Lately, I seem to spend time in the train on the way home craving some particular flavour or dish, especially chocolate cake. I had an idea of how it should be; light but intense, fluffy but not moussy with some kind of icing. No recipe I had tried so far satisfied me and neither did rummaging through all my cookery books until I picked up one bought on my holiday in Scotland this year. I also grew up watching the Moomins, an animation based on the Finnish writer Tove Jansson's books. I might cringe at the English dubbing today but still have a fondness for their adventures, the fact that they use a rope ladder instead of stairs to come down from their tall, house, the fact that Moominmama always has an apron and handbag, prepared for anything. You can picture my excitement then when I discovered a cookbook featuring them. The book is divided into different sections; for example, winter, summer, harvest, picnics, lunchtime, dinner, garden parties and birthday parties. Although the Moomins are popular with children, the book is for the young at heart, rather than just the young since it features recipes for grog and some dishes which would be a little complicated for children. They're also accompanied with charming illustrations (see below!).
My eye immediately lighted upon a chocolate cake recipe. It managed to be amazingly simple, fast (around 5 -10 minutes prep!) and has to be one of my absolute favourite cakes. I made some little modifications, reducing the amount of sugar since 240g seemed rather a lot (those Moomins obviously have a sweet tooth) and upped the amount of cocoa. Reading about Kim Boyce's Good to the Grain on Luisa's blog a while back made me keen to try out baking with spelt flour which I used here instead of the wheat one in the original. I was pleasantly surprised by the results and felt it enhanced the chocolate. Use the best cocoa you can get your hands on; I know it may seem extravagent but I bought Valrhona 100% cocoa (for Berliners - you can now get this at Kaufhof on alex as well as KaDeWe) and frankly, it's the best I've ever tried.
Moomintroll's delicious chocolate cake (slightly adapted)
100g granulated sugar
150g melted butter, cooled slightly
180g spelt flour
40g good quality cocoa
2 tasp vanilla sugar
2 tsp baking powder
For the icing
200g icing sugar, sifted
1 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tsp vanilla sugar
4 tbsp cold espresso
4 tbsp melted butter, cooled slightly
1. Beat the eggs and sugar together until thick. Add the milk and melted butter.
2. Mix the dry ingredients (flour, cocoa, vanilla sugar and baking powder) together and carefully blend with the eggs and milk.
3. Pour into a greased and lined springform tin and bake at 200°C for 50 minutes.
4. Leave the cake to cool.
5. For the icing, measure the icing sugar, cocoa powder, vanilla sugar, coffee and melted butter into a large mixing bowl and belnd until thick and smooth. Spread it over the top.
Moomintroll's birthday cake