mercredi 28 mars 2012

From Paris to Berlin

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About a decade ago, I spent a couple of weeks in Paris with my mother in the springtime. We rented an  apartment opposite the Comédie Française and in the evenings I would watch the crowds gathering outside the theatre before the play was about to begin, some people obviously coming straight from work with their briefcases and stylish suits and then later when it was all over, I would open the windows to hear snippets of their conversations as they came out. One evening we even plucked up the courage to go and see Gogol's Le Réviseur in French although the experience of sitting in one of those plush red seats is somehow more vivid in my mind than the production. Every day we saw the jewel encrusted entrance to the métro station on Place Colette and walked along the columns of the Palais Royal gardens which I would later see in one of my favourite films, Charade, with Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. Springtime in Paris is such a cliché but it turned out to the one of the wettest with raindrops positively bouncing off the pavement as we ran for shelter in Brentano's bookshop. In those days I didn't cook much and only have a few memories of what we ate: an onion soup I made in the apartment, coffee in the Deux Magots served by the rudest waiter, an exceptional tarte à l'orange eaten in the Luxembourg Gardens and most of all, croissants filled with goats cheese made by my mum that last morning, hearts filled with regret to be leaving. We ate them in the gardens on Ile de la Cité under the watchful gaze of Henri IV after a walk around the islands.

I'm telling you all of this because I spent one of the nicest weeks in Berlin when my mum visited me recently.
Our first walk together took place on the greyest of days through the bare branches of Treptower Park and I regretted not taking my scarf as the cool breeze blew through my winter coat. Chilled after more than an hour outside, I was happy to return to the café close to the Allianz building where they served the biggest piece of blueberry streuselkuchen I've ever seen.

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Cyclists stopped to take pictures of the Molecule Man on the river Spree and couples kissed in front of the part of the East Side Gallery in hommage to Honecker and Brezhnev.

There were the quiet moments at home, watching John le Carré's A Perfect Spy and eating homemade soup, mornings in museums, surrounded by groups of schoolchildren in the Pergammom and wandering through the deserted rooms of the Gemäldegalerie where I thought of Thomas Bernhard's Alte Meister.

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The sky was turning a delicate shade of pink as we looked down from the Kulturforum towards Potsdamer Platz. In Va Piano we perched on high stools and watched the passers-by until the pizza with spinach and cream was ready and afterwards regretted not having room for dessert. But we returned a few days later for tiramisù and strawberry cream.

At the ladies' night preview of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the woman in front of me talked about running an 8 minute mile and I found myself wondering what had brought the big group of Americans to Berlin and whether they would stay here for long.

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They had run out of spinach tart at the Kleines Schloss restaurant in Babelsberg but the delicate flavours of the carrot and ginger one were just perfect.Others sat outside by the river eating ice cream and suddenly it seemed like summer.

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That last morning a stiff breeze blew us in the direction of Bellevue through the Tiergarten and we stopped for elevenses at the Kaisersaal where they serve a perfect German cheesecake with quark and a truly decadent Sachertorte. I wondered how a whole week could go by so fast and realised there is no worse feeling than finding yourself travelling back from the airport late and night and alone.

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Perhaps the nicest thing about my mum's visit was being able to enjoy a nice and relaxed breakfast every morning. Red berry muesli with a chopped banana, rye bread with butter and orange and ginger jam, fresh blueberries, mugs of café au lait and bowls of plain yoghurt. I even made some banana bread one morning which tastes great alone or with a little butter at breakfast time or for afternoon tea with delicately whipped cream.

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Banana bread (from Meine Familie und ich - March edition)

For a loaf tin, around 30 cm long.


400g plain flour
200g ground almonds
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3 very ripe bananas
60ml sunflower oil
125g brown sugar
3 eggs
200ml buttermilk

1. Grease and line your loaf tin and preheat the oven to 180° or 160° for fan assisted ovens.
2. Mix the flour, almonds, bicarb, baking powder and salt together in a bowl.
3. Peel the bananas and mash them with a fork. Beat the oil, sugar, eggs and buttermilk together, either by hand or with a hand mixer and add to the flour mixture. Stir until fully incorporated. Add the mashed bananas and stir again. Pour the batter into the loaf tin and smooth the top.
4. Bake the banana bread in the oven for 60-70 minutes. If necessary, cover the top with foil after 30 minutes to prevent it from browning too much. When it's ready, remove the bread from the oven, leave to cool and then remove from the tin. It keeps for a few days in an airtight container and also freezes well.

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To finish this already long post, I'd like to tell you that those nice people from the Meininger hotel are offering you the chance to win a night in their really cool hotel and two free tickets to visit the Historiale Museum. I don't normally promote products and am not getting paid to do so here but when they wrote to me about this, I liked the idea that some of my readers might get a chance to come to my home city and of course, we could meet somewhere for coffee and cake. Full details can be found on this page and all you have to do is answer a really simple question which you can find the answer to by going on this page. The competition ends on 30th March. so get cracking!

lundi 5 mars 2012

The edge of spring

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Since we last spoke we've moved away from bleakest midwinter to the verge of spring. I swear I can feel it in the air, those tight buds on the trees that will open soon, the sunny afternoons that send all Berliners outside for a walk in the park or a coffee on the terrace. But I also wish the time wasn't flying by so quickly; already into the third month of the year which leaves around just three months before I pack up and leave. I'm a hopelessly indecisive person; put me in a huge bookshop with everything I could possibly want and ask me to choose something and chances are I'll come out empty handed. When asked what I'd like for Christmas or my birthday, my mind goes blank. It's the same with Berlin; so many places to revisit, so many I've never done yet and trips further afield to make. There's the sadness which goes with knowing this will be my last spring here as a Berliner (for a while anyway) and sometimes it overwhelms me a little. One morning in the past couple of weeks we had the craziest weather with heavy snow turning the city white. This was not the day to go out with my camera so I stood at my window, looking at the passers-by with umbrellas make their way through the large, wet snowflakes. When I feel sad I listen to the shipping forecast because names like Viking, Dogger and German Bight make me dream of seastorms and the lighthouse in Berwick-upon-Tweed decorated with penguins.

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 Luckily though there were also brighter moments; a dinner party for friends last week when I cooked this soup, made this curry and served this New York cheesecake for dessert; meeting up with an old friend again on the first real spring day and catching the last rays of sun over the Lietzensee. Re-reading Wind in the Willows, which I found last week in a classic Penguin edition with its orange cover and the wonderful Mad World about Evelyn Waugh and Brideshead. Watching the Artist and Kauresmäki's Man Without a Past . Making these blueberry muffins is also something special; light but satisfying, sweet but with a sourness as the berry bursts inside your mouth. I think of the Finnish idiom while eating them: Oma maa mansikka, muu maa mustikka. Home is a strawberry but a foreign land is a blueberry (both berries are sweet but the strawberry is the sweeter of the two).I hope to find more sweetness as the year progresses.

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Blueberry muffins (from Meine Familie und ich, March 2012)

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200g fresh or frozen blueberries
24 muffin cases
300g plain flour
1 sachet of baking powder
a pinch of salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
125g caster sugar
60ml sunflower oil
2 medium eggs at room temperature
200ml buttermilk

 1. If using frozen blueberries, allow them to thaw and drain any liquid. Preheat the oven to 180°C or 160°C fan assisted. Grease or line a muffin tin with 24 paper cases.

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2. In a medium mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. In a large bowl beat the buttermilk, oil and eggs together. Gently fold in the dry mixture, stopping when everything is just blended, then add the blueberries.

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3. Divide the mixture equally between the 12 muffin cases and bake in the oven for around 25 minutes. When they're ready, leave to cool a little before transferring to a wire rack.

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