mercredi 30 mars 2011


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We took our seats close to the front, still bundled up in thick winter coats and gloves in spite of the sun and the fact that spring is officially here. The seat next to the microphone was soon occupied by a young woman with her hair put back into a chignon, wearing a long ruffled skirt and knee high boots, perching an accordeon on her knee, one half of Duo les Gosses. As the first notes sounded, her friend rushed in from the back to greet her and began to sing. Dressed in a simple black dress with a red neckerchief and dark bobbed hair, she took us on a journey through the streets of her city where people go out dancing late, where the customer you have been longing to talk to comes and sits in front of you, about her heartbroken friend Lucien who felt suicidal. And then there were the songs of Edith Piaf which sometimes made us smile and sometimes feel sad. Next up was the Jeanette Hubert band whose lead singer strummed on her guitar, smiling at us all the time and singing songs in English about Sunday mornings and those little moments that make life special. Images came to my mind of San Francisco and the ocean which my friend Sabine had just been telling me about. The longer the concert went on, the more the music mingled with the delicious smell of hyacinths. There was a pang in my heart at the announcement of the last song, knowing that the festival was drawing to a close. This was my fourth year at the Herzgrün Liebeslieder festival, an event very few people seem to know about but maybe that's a good thing to keep it intimate. For the first time my good friend Chrissi couldn't be there but I didn't want to miss the burst of colours and songs. Some things never change; the man in the green felt suit sitting in the white tent in charge of handing out the precious tickets, the announcer who reads the favourite love poem of the artists at the start, the strange mix of people in the audience, including the woman in a large hat, secured with a pin and her friend who seem to go to every concert. As we came out, still shivering, there was the sound of the rock concert in the opposite greenhouse drifting up towards the high roof and filling the Sony Center all around. The food there is unfortunately geared towards the tourists, pretty bad quality and overpriced so we headed to Nollendorfplatz instead for an Indian meal at Amrit with yogi tea, curry with large servings of rice and bhatura bread which burns your fingers and leaves them greasy. Warm once again, I walked back to the underground station, listening to the birds singing and hoping the rest of spring will be as good as this.

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Duo les gosses

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Jeanette Hubert and her band

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At Viktoria-Luise Platz

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Salad for dinner

To finish, yet another cookie recipe and yet again from Mingou but they were so popular with my students, it doesn't seem right not to share the recipe with all of you.

Lemon meltaways (original recipe from Mingou here)

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Makes around 30 biscuits

16og very soft butter
125g icing sugar, plus some extra for coating the biscuits
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
zest of an untreated lemon
2 teaspoons lemon juice
260g flour
20g cornflour
a pinch of salt

1. In a larg bowl, mix together the butter, icing sugar, lemon zest and vanilla until smooth and creamy.
2. Add the lemon juice and salt and mix in.
3. Pour in the flour and cornflour and blend again until fully absorbed.
4. Divide the dough in half and roll each half into a sausage shape of around 4cm in diameter. Place in the fridge for at least 2 hours, or in the freezer for 15 minutes (I chose the latter).
5. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Remove the rolls of dough and cut them into round shapes of around 1cm in thickness. Place on a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper and bake for about 10 minutes. When they're ready and fully cooled, coat them with some icing sugar.
They can be stored in an airtight container for up to a week.

mardi 22 mars 2011

Shades of grey

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Berlin sometimes seems to reveal itself in shades of grey, from the thick clouds that gathered in the morning, the structures of some of the buildings and later the silvery rays of the moon, bright enough to illuminate my apartment when I tiptoed through it in the early hours of the morning. Sunday began with an early start, walking briskly to the nearby underground station to catch a train to Alexanderplatz. Almost the whole of last week had been full of raindrops and large puddles in the streets making it impossible to take photos outside. I had been wanting to have one last glance at the Haus der Statistik, soon to be torn down to make way for a modern housing complex and a shopping centre. It has a reputation for scaring the drivers who enter the nearby tunnel and for obvious reasons. A large imposing building with streaked windows which crows peck at, boarded up entrances and barbed wire, a decaying ruin of the place where men in grey collected information about their citizens for the East German government. It's not a place you could ever love, yet I couldn't help feeling sad at the thought of it making way for something equally ugly and heartless. Abandoned for three years, it apparently no longer meets the requirements of a modern office building so it perfectly fits the plans of a government keen to erase all traces of the old East. A coffee cup still remains on the side where a shop selling Russian products called Natascha's once was. Looking up, I can still pick out the neon strip lighting on the ceiling and am mesmerised by the endless lines of venetian blinds that cover most of the windows. I imagine the masses of empty stacks which once contained so many files which their creators must have hurriedly tried to shred when news filtered through that the Wall had fallen, people who believed that "Feind ist, wer anders denkt", the enemy is the one who thinks differently.

Eventually I turned my back to this building, knowing it may be the last time I ever see it and walked towards Unter den Linden. The gleaming disco ball of the TV Tower was hidden in the clouds, the figures of dry Neptune fountain seemed even more naked without their veil of water splashing over them and the benches all around were deserted. This was one of the first places I visited in Berlin, making my way past the elegant buildings of Berlin's most famous street, the old fashioned and deliciously kitsch Opernpalais where I once had coffee with Abbie and chose from one of the huge selection of Viennese Torten in the glass case, the beautiful library, nicknamed the Kommode because of its ressemblance to a chest of drawers and the Opera house, now closed for refurbishment where I saw Péléas et Mélisande. Pushing aside the thick green curtain of Café Einstein (not to be confused with Einstein Kaffee, the chain), I left the greyness behind and took my place beside the window and the slits of its half opened blinds. It was still early and the tourists hadn't yet arrived. Opposite a middle aged man with glasses was finishing up the last of his breakfast; croissants, jam, fresh orange juice, coffee and the group of people on the next table were discussing whether it would be wrong to eat cake before midday before deciding on the famous Apfelstrudel. I did the same and ordered a tall glass of latte macchiato to go with it. The piece of strudel turned out to be the most indecently large I've ever had and the coffee was just perfect. What I love about this place is not only the atmosphere of a real coffee house where people read newspapers on wooden clamps in different languages and you sit on brown leather chairs, but also the fact that everyone is friendly, even at busy times. I remember my first and only visit to Les Deux Magots in Paris where I was greeted with contempt by the waiter. After drinking an overpriced hot chocolate under the watchful gaze of the wooden Chinese figures who give the café its name, and asking for the bill, I then had the nerve not to leave him an extra tip in addition to the service charge already included. He looked down at the exact amount I had put on the silver tray and excalimed "Formidable!" very loudly. I left and vowed never to return.

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Karl Marx Allee

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An old East German mural

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Haus der Statistik

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Everything must go

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Haus des Lehrers

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Unter den Linden

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Die neue Wache

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The Kommode library

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Café Einstein

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The famous Apfelstrudel

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I finished the day in the Bar jeder Vernunft where Abbie had kindly invited me to see the wonderful Pigor and Eichhorn. Outside lines of pale lights were strung up between the bare branches of the trees in the twilight, still cold even in March. We managed to get seats close to the front and had a supper of breaded herring with Bratkartoffeln and the charmingly named Schnuckeldönschen, canapés on pumpernickel bread in the warmth of the marquee before the show started. Sundays should always be this good.

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Bar jeder Vernunft

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Molly's wonderful oatmeal pancakes

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If you can't have breakfast at Café Einstein, you could always make Molly's oatmeal pancakes which are the perfect start to Sunday and later on, you also make Mingou's amaretti which I took for my students last week. No other biscuits have ever disappeared so fast.

Mingou's amaretti (original recipe in French here)

2 egg whites
a pinch of salt
175g ground almonds
50g flour
150g icing sugar
2 drops of bitter almond extract
icing sugar for coating the biscuits

Preheat the oven to 180°C

1. In a large bowl, beat the egg whites with the pinch of salt. When they start to become stiff, add the icing sugar gently so you get a mixture like meringue.
2. When the meringue is smooth and shiny, stir in the flour and ground almonds with a spatula until the mixture is homogenous.
3. Add the bitter almond extract.
4. Mix again until the dough forms a ball.
5. With a teaspoon to help you, form little round biscuits and dip them in an another bowl with icing sugar, passing them from one hand to the other to get rid of the excess sugar.
6. Put them on a baking sheet covered with non stick paper, at least 2cm apart and flatten them a little.
7. Bake in the oven at 180°C for around 10 minutes; the amaretti will be slightly brown. The biscuits should be crunchy on the outside and chewy in the middle.