I stop by another pâtisserie window and am enchanted. I’ve never seen such exquisite petits fours. A man standing next to me says, ‘Quels petits miracles!’ We gaze with childhood wonder through the window at the bite-size berry tarts, hazelnut macarons, lemon meringues, others with marzipan and chocolate fillings – explosions of flavour with glazed icing or fondant. Some have powdery snow or slivers of almonds or chocolate on top. Still others I could not recognise retain a mystery of their own. Time to rest with a cup of coffee, tea or hot chocolate, while a pleasurable morsel melts in the mouth. But not yet! I move on towards the Provençal market stalls, enticed by the mouth-watering aromas and speciality tastings of the local produce. Small orange, lemon or lime flavoured muffin-like cakes turned out of a shell-patterned mould made famous in Proust’s writing, petites madeleines, catch my eye. I indulge but later still step inside that pâtisserie shop to taste its little mille-feuille miracle.
Once the importation of spices and chocolate began, European pastry cooks excelled in creating beautiful treats, not too creamy, not too large to break the calorie barrier. There are of course the tortes but the little delights are the best and not overwhelming. Patrons developed a coffee house culture gloriously persisting today. It provides opportunity to marvel at the skill of using ingredients, enjoy the eating, convivial atmosphere and décor while the aromas waft about you. You can’t resist; you are ready to enjoy every possible experience. The coffee houses are all different and almost as complex as the confectionery creations they sell.
‘Greetings! Where would you like to sit? Our selections are here, at the Konditorei buffet. Please place your order. I will bring it to you.’
You sink into a carved chair or leatherette booth. Look around. Everyone is busy. The ritual has started. From the selection you choose a tea this time. You go over to inspect the cakes. Strudel, Linzertorte (raspberry tart), Black Forest Cake. What haven’t I tried? This time you go for the orange and almond.
Having spent a lifetime in the sciences I make it a serious activity while travelling in catching up on the fine arts. Lately, my friend and I travelled with two art enthusiasts in Germany. We planned our route to take in the Christmas Markets, museums, art galleries and concerts not forgetting as many cakes as possible.
Germany, despite great destruction, almost total in parts, by wars of the 20th century, has restored many of the buildings in their former style. It is a relief to see that skyscrapers and steel and glass apartment blocks have not invaded the old squares and inner city. And it was a pleasant surprise to find huge collections of art have survived. Exhibitions are challenging day, or half day, viewing events. The experiences are certain to leave an impression and some appreciation of the various movements and developments in European art. Germany has been at the crossroads of trade and thus a fertile ground for intellectual ideas and naturally, cultural appreciation became, and still is, infused into the education of most people. It has vibrant cities of modern dimensions as well as providing glimpses into history and life of centuries past. When the energy lags it is time to stop viewing and contemplating. We go down to the gallery shop to buy a book or a favourite postcard to retain the thrill of a particular discovery, then off to find a coffee shop. What better way to recover from such spiritual and visual highs than to indulge, as often as possible, with cake?
The Hamburger in Berlin was a former engineering workshop, then a railway station for the Hamburg connection and now houses modern art. Its displays are challenging: the first ‘exhibit’ one may miss: it is a soprano, who I initially mistook for an attendant wandering about the floor, but then looking around I think, where is the sound coming from? And there she is. The visitor is forced to grapple with new ways of thinking. After much contemplation upon Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Beuys, I find myself walking through a long tunnel of almost total darkness, except for a few flickers of glow-worm lights. I wish to escape this experience quickly. It is definitely time to find the coffee shop and unravel some of the mysteries of the new expressionism. We have to find our way past some pigeons on the tiles (artwork of course) and a lime green sculpture of waiters in various poses carrying precarious trays. The actual waiter offered his services in a similar style to the lime-green sculpture; perhaps he had posed for the artist. Bending, a bit obsequious, he was most obvious in his insistence of a tip of at least one or two euros. Still, the lemon meringue was light and the chance to sit down, such relief! Perhaps next year there will be a sculpture of people like us, battling with mental exhaustion from such modern artistic objects, as we guess their gallery’s objectives and ponder the meaning of life.
Berlin itself has over 150 museums and some 800 galleries. An entire island is dedicated to just four with must-sees such as the bust of Queen Nefertiti, even if she has one eye, Babylon’s blue and gold gates of Ishtar and the huge Greek Temple of Milita. It is a miracle that these multistorey structures have survived, faithfully removed from the battles of their lands of origin. I feel confident that museums are the best haven for them. Nevertheless these exhibits also suffered the bombings of WWII. The fired tiles decorating the Ishtar Gates have been put back together from rubble, piece-by-piece, shard-by-shard, an incredible feat of conservation. Outside, there are bullet holes still on the sandstone facades of the museum, reminders of the immense destruction that occurred during WWII.
Nearby is Berlin’s Dom (cathedral) where a plain woodcut of the nativity scene and a tall fir tree with plain white lights are the only Christmas decorations. Quiet reflection amidst a hint of pine oil from the live fir tree and I feel it is Christmas. My first visit about a decade ago was memorable; someone was playing Bach’s toccata and fugue, the sounds of the organ filling the space with power and resolve. I hope I can experience some music here again this time. I spy a counter selling tickets to Bach and Vivaldi concerts and head for the queue near the door. At last with tickets tucked away, I negotiate the maze of the church’s crypt to the basement café and order a coffee and not so fresh, sour cherry waffle with a little heap of cream.
Our three-day museum pass, effective for consecutive days, required more than coffee and cake on the second day. It was lunch consisting of pike followed by a wheat ale. On the third day, it was a hearty fish soup, and another ale. I was museumed out, but only for the present. It was time for a change of pace.
A visit to KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des westens), the Selfridges or Harrods of Berlin, is to see the art of design effortlessly meet every human need from clothing to food, but the culinary delights are unsurpassed. The 6th floor where my mother and I had lunch some 30 years ago is now the expanded delicatessen level. Amongst its walnut panelled alcoves there are counters with stacks and wheels of cheeses from all over the world; they pride in the provision of 800 varieties of sausage, live fish in tanks, intimate nooks of bottles of vintage wines that may be tasted, counters of cakes, breads, ingredients for every dish, for every occasion. In addition there are counters to satisfy your immediate appetite. I spy a free bar stool and select a light meal – a curry Wurst (a German pork sausage sprinkled with a mild curry powder and ketchup, a modern signature dish of Berlin) served with fries and a litre of ale from the tap. The Wurst was not particularly exciting but at least I can say I tried it. I’d go for the local sausages at the Christmas Markets anytime. It’s quite remarkable how thirsty one becomes in the heated buildings; the ales are wonderful thirst quenchers.
We make a return visit on another day and explore the ladies’ designer clothes and shoes, the glorious dinnerware, and the mannequin displays, making a photographic record of the colour and range of luxury goods that the mind could not register fast enough. This time we find KaDeWe’s Winter Garden – a new rooftop deck with booths and counters for lunch. Drifting from counter to counter I finally make a selection of a freshly cooked schnitzel, a salad and bottle of ale (I don’t know the labels, just chose a light one), and a raspberry tart to follow and it’s off with my tray to the cash register to pay. Everyone dining here looked happy, enjoying the food, atmosphere and company.
It is time to work off lunch. Berlin’s signature church that was bombed into a ruin in 1943, and is remaining a ruin, is nearby, in the centre of the city. Its spire, like a broken knife blade, is wrapped in scaffolding this visit, being made safe from tumbling, crumbing stones initially placed in position in 1895. The mosaics and few remaining archways in a crowded memorial hall are a reminder of destruction. It feels inert, dead to its former life. At its side is a new church with a spacious floor plan and I am transfixed as I look toward the altar. Daylight shining through the rear window of blue glass bricks falls behind a golden sculpture of Christ with outstretched arms in kindly blessing of all who have suffered, perhaps more so in this war-torn city. We take a taxi home, enjoy a hot peppermint tea and recline in bed to watch ‘The Nutcracker’ ballet on TV. No need to go out tonight.
Particular works of art are very moving and that feeling never really goes away. One such artist’s work was Käthe Kollwitz. We first stumbled on a sombre, very poignant dark bronze sculpture of a woman nestling a child on a grassy strip as we came back from the Dom. A much larger collection of Kollwitz’s art is located in a small gallery in the centre of Berlin. Her art depicts women and children in wartime, speaking silently of their suffering. After contemplation of several levels of her art in the gallery it is definitely time for coffee and cake at Reinhards’ nearby.
Reinhards’ has a special cake counter, Kuchenbuffet, where one is invited to go and look and where the decision-making is very difficult. This evening we have a reservation for dinner in a little family establishment where the staff wear knickerbockers. It will be fun and we don’t wish to spoil our appetite for later. Instead we decide to linger over our selection and observe the people at Reynard’s. It is winter and couples are dressed up in layers of clothes. Coats are left to hang off the peg near the door and we wonder how trusting people here are – that they will get their own coat back! We hang ours over the chair and cause a traffic jam. Galleries and museums all have a Garderobe – a cloakroom – they guard the coat – that is quite different. It is a relief not to have to carry all those possessions, especially the coat, while viewing exhibits. Internal heating is luxurious and coats definitely must come off.
We decide to share our various chosen morsels to widen our taste experiences. In silence, we let them circle around inside our mouths, guessing the flavours, sensing the textures, then allowing them to go down slowly. Some aromas follow through to the nose and linger there.
I observe a couple next to me in animated discussion, I don’t catch all the conversation – the topic sounds complicated and besides my German is limited. He is dressed in smart camel tones, well groomed, she in turtle-neck sweater and skirt, black, but somehow her hair needs attention. Then he finds something of interest in the paper (as usual in cafes, the newspaper is on a pole, a great idea that helps keep the sheets straight); she looks out of the window. My thoughts return to the matter at hand; where are we going next?
Our knickerbocker dinner happens to be on New Year’s Eve and we have an early sitting for Silvester dinner. St Silvester was an early Pope who became a saint and his feast day, 31 December, is celebrated as New Year’s Eve. Our festive table is ready, silver sparkling stars sprinkled in a perfect swoop to leave a wavy pattern. Three courses come as a kind of degustation experience, lots of care in preparation, servings minimal with lots of flavour and textures, but not over-filling. By now we have taken to photographing our meals in order to better remember.
The night of another Vivaldi concert has arrived, this time in the Konserthaus. We sip a Gluhwein and take a whirl around the Christmas market outside buying small gifts for others and ourselves. We cross the road and spy a Hofbräuhaus. Schiller and Goethe whose statues stand outside the Konserthaus wouldn’t mind – they spent a lot of time eating and drinking as I had learned in Leipzig. Tonight the oven-baked pork knuckles look amazing but huge so it is perch again washed down with a litre glass of their own brewed ale. And pretzels to nibble with beer, of course!
After the concert it is off to Fassbender and Rausch. The families began as separate chocolatiers in the mid 1800s and their establishment is now a tourist attraction, with their chocolate restaurant occupying a brightly lit corner building. We had passed it on many occasions except now we lost our sense of direction and do twice as much walking on our poor feet to find it. On the lower level are splendid constructions, in chocolate of course, of the Brandenburg Gate, Eiffel Tower, and individual chocolates in exquisite shapes – toy soldiers, bears, squirrels – all kinds of animals and fruits. Upstairs a restaurant caters for cuisine with chocolate garnishes but we select hot chocolate with espresso, amaretto and cream on top served with a slice of orange cake. Our window seat under their green and gold sign looks out onto the street. We feel it is the best seat in the establishment though it is an uncomfortable bar stool at a high, inadequately small table.
The Gendarmenmarkt, a district named for the location of the former barracks district, became the private banking quarter of Germany’s tumultuous years of the early 20th century in Solssens’ novel ‘A Princess in Berlin’. Today the department store, Les Galeries Lafayette, has a branch here. Whereas in Paris one travels right to the top of the building for crème brûlée here the eating occurs downstairs under the Eiffel Tower replica. Again, one circulates, and circulates until the mind is made up, sits down in an area and orders a selection from the nearby counter. An ale for thirst while downing a salmon salad; then another circulation until one finally makes up one’s mind which cake delicacy to choose. Some just fit in the palm of the hand, fruits, very little pastry or cream. No need to count the calories, I can have another one later.
Almost every city and town in Germany has a Christmas Market with a wide selection of quality craft items, decorations for the tree, gifts and treats particular to the region. Gingerbread stalls and shops overflow with spicy aroma and cookies of all shapes and sizes, iced, and not iced; everyone has their idea of how much spice to add. Snowballs, the traditional speciality of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, are a mixture of nuts and fruit held together by dough and rolled into a tennis ball size confectionery. They are a disappointment, mainly because they are dry. I prefer my own Christmas fruitcake, with its fruit soaked for at least week in port and brandy, and with brandy poured on top when it emerges from the oven.
Dresden’s speciality is the Stollen, traditionally, also dry, nothing like the light and fluffy kind my mother used to make. We try a slice from a loaf with almond marzipan inside and almond pieces and icing sugar sprinkled on top. My mother’s recipe was made with a yeast-butter-egg dough spiced with cardamom to which she added sultanas. It was moist, light and fragrant; a sweet bread that could be cake.
In Leipzig the coffee house tradition is a long one with numerous coffeehouses carrying the patronage of past great writers, composers and philosophers. I sat with an apple strudel and my china cup of coffee where Robert Schumann had discussed his music at the Arabian Coffee Tree. Upstairs is a coffee museum where I discovered they learned to drink coffee in 1711. There is a fine wood carving of a Christmas scene in the curtained window. I take photos of the décor. My mood fused with the environment but soon the chatter of my friends broke the reverie. Perhaps the great minds that sat here didn’t come to be alone, but to share and discuss. My mood leaves me and I return to the immediate, yet my eyes still wander over the portraits of the masters on the walls looking out from under the varnish.
After a galloping visit to Leipzig’s Stasi Museum one needs to wipe one’s brow of worries about devious inventions and spying devices with a visit to the Café Riquet-Haus with its two stone elephant heads above the door. The décor here is art deco and the array of cakes and pastries is enticing. In the mid 1700s the company imported tea, coffee and spices and later introduced cocoa, English biscuits, jams, alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and goods from Japan and China. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is said to have come to drink coffee and discuss chocolate. However our discussion turned to the choice of cake – cheesecake today.
It is said that the Auerbachs Keller inspired Goethe to locate Faust’s first visit on his travels with Mephisto to this venue. On our visit to the restaurant downstairs we enjoy roast goose, red cabbage with apples and fried potatoes – typical Christmas fare we enjoyed more than once over the festive period – washed down with an ale. We declined the choice of dumplings, the size of tennis balls, having had an earlier experience of them, finding them overwhelmingly filling and tasteless. One of my friends tried the dark beer, a stronger brew. Martin Luther, while studying to be a monk, often came here for lunch and now there is a dining room named in his honour: wood panelled, with chandeliers and painted vaulted ceiling. Directly above on street level we pop in to listen to piano music at Mephisto’s coffee bar. All is not innocent. We get a puff of cold air swirl down from around Mephisto’s portrait above us on the wall; a hollow laugh follows. Unbeknown to us we were given the table where the thrill occurs but we are already dreamy after sipping coffee fired with a dram of cognac.
In Wittenberg Lutherstadt – yes, Martin Luther has a town named after him – we visited Tante Emma’s, a cosy tearoom with period furniture and photos in frames, even a pair of bloomers hanging on a linen cupboard. The friendly staff lingered explaining the menu. Christmas woodcarvings and lights decorated the windows and we remained in the warmth taking in the atmosphere. Surprising how the cold makes one feel tired. A group came in for a festive function, welcomed by the whole staff. This conviviality was catching and added to the enjoyment of food in many places. We return to planning our tour of the town while apple cake slips down.
Erfurt was a major merchant town for the blue dye from the woad plant, before synthetic dyes were invented. It probably was the source for blue dye for the textile that came from Nimes in France, later to be known as denim. The old town has a bridge over the river covered with two rows of merchants’ houses, now boutiques. Our town walk needs a pause and we enter a square. We had come across the word, ‘wild’ on menus – it means game – but we are not staying for lunch. There is much yet to see and taste.
Perhaps I have been under a spell all the time of Konditorei delights barely held together with a little pastry. These little miracles are a distillation of an idea, proof of vital combination of ingredients, a concentration of inspiration, labour, and love, nurtured over many hours and perfected after many extended attempts to finally produce a delicacy that provides sensational pleasure and enjoyment to café goers.
And the pale wheat ale was never too alcoholic. My first taste of German beer was 40 years ago on my first visit to Europe. It was summer, it was hot and people didn’t carry bottles of water in those days. Desperate for a drink (to quench my thirst, that is) I stopped by a counter at Frankfurt Railway Station and asked for ein Bier. The pilsener came in a tall elegant V-shaped glass, was golden in colour with a good depth of froth on top. It was a wonderful thirst quencher, not too bitter, only slightly cool, and the alcohol level, light. There is such a variety of beer in Germany from barley to wheat fermentations. They all come with a layer of froth, or head, on top, releasing the aromas, adding to the enjoyment. Wines are not the only drinks that have a ‘nose’.
I would never have thought that a trip on culture and art would also have become one of cakes and ale. But why not! Über cool!