We visited family for the holidays in Berlin and Hamburg, with a quick stop in Prague. Maybe there’s no place like home for the holidays, but then I’ve always felt more comfortable and at ease on the road than at any address where I receive paychecks and bills. Plus, the itinerary included the small apartment in Berlin where my aunt and uncle have lived for the past forty years. Few places feel more like home. It was a nice escape from the usual consumptive hustle. Charlie Brown would be proud. Plus the food was amazing. In addition to gaining a dozen pounds and straining the bottom three buttons on every shirt I own, I also experienced a few things that were inspiring, puzzling and delicious. Here are some of them:
The Best currywurst in Berlin
Currywurst is a Berlin original, and while it can be found anywhere in the city, the best, according to the resident expert (who also happens to be my Uncle Manfred), can be found at a stand near the U-Bahn station in Stieglitz called Zur Bratpfanne (To Frying Pan). Currywurst can now be found beyond Berlin. I once saw a food cart in LA that claimed to serve authentic currywurst. It wasn’t, but it was still tasty and they get points for trying.
It’s a simple dish…sausage either whole, spiraled or cut into slices, smothered with a thick sauce and usually served with French fries. It was invented by a woman named Herta Heuwer in the neighboring Charlottenburg district after the war, and the unusual flavors of the namesake sauce were the product of postwar shortages. Local laborers clearing the bombed out rubble took a liking to it and the rest is history, or maybe it’s just another food origin myth.
The special thing that Zur Bratphanne does (in addition to turning a kitchen utensil into an infinitive) is offer quality sausage and take extra care with the sauce. The sausage has a finely ground texture, and you can get it with or without skin. The former packs a great crunch, but the latter is interesting because the skinless sausages develop a delicate, crusted outer layer during roasting. The curry sauce is molasses-thick, the consistency of concentrated tomato pace (its primary ingredient), and it’s served in such volume that it smothers both the sausage and any fries you chose to have on the side. All in all, it’s quite addictive, which is why we had to stand in line for ten minutes, with dozens of diners braving the cold to line the little shelf surrounding the cart or eating right on the top of nearby trash bins.
Maybe it sounds exotic, something that hunters eat, but in Germany it’s fairly common to eat venison for a holiday meal. You can even get venison ‘schinken’ or prosciutto-like cold cuts. My aunt and cousin served roast venison backstrap with a simple brown sauce. It was rich with a bitter, nutty flavor that was complimented nicely by fresh pears and gooseberries. With a choice of noodle or potato dumplings it was a lovely meal. Makes me want to eat more deer at home, though I’ve learned that I’m too lazy to hunt. I’m sure I could order some from a butcher here. Much of the farmed venison comes from New Zealand, for whatever reason. Bambi, I’m sorry but you’re quite delicious.
Dinner for One
Germans do some unusual things during the holidays, such as hiding pickles in their Christmas trees. They also put their shoes outside their doors in early December to be filled with coal or candy depending on their behavior over the past year. But even stranger than eating foot-scented candy is the New Years Eve tradition of watching a short film called Dinner For One. It plays continuously on television, and they watch it ever year and know every word by heart. What makes it strange is that the film is all in English other than a brief introduction in their native tongue. It’s about a butler who serves an annual birthday dinner for an elderly woman. All of her friends have died, but the butler still sets places for them and he pours them each a round of wine, which he drinks himself, getting progressively more intoxicated throughout the evening from the quadruple helping. It’s amusing if not funny. I watched it twice and that was enough for a lifetime. Why an English-language sketch comedy from the 1960s is a German holiday tradition is puzzling. You can check it out here if you’ve got seventeen minutes to kill.
If you want to impress a German, drop this line on them: “Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?” They’ll respond with, “same procedure as every year, James,” and you’ll instantly be on the inside track due to your knowledge of this baffling and arcane custom.
Refugees in Templehof Airport
While our politicians fearfully decry a plan to bring an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees (tired, poor huddled masses be damned) to the States and Virginian suburbanites are hyperventilating over an Islamic calligraphy in a world geography class, the Germans have allowed more than a million refugees into their country. It’s cost Mutti (Momma) Merkel no small political capital, but what struck me is the way that the vast majority of the people I spoke with across the political spectrum seemed to think it was necessary, if not always preferred. The images of drowned children left a deep impression on them.
There are hastily constructed tent cities and container colonies everywhere…in gymnasiums, sports fields, empty lots and even the old, shuttered Templehof Airport, designed by Albert Speer. Just think: five thousand refugees have found sanctuary in an old Nazi building. The recent assaults in Cologne are stoking anxiety, but the people I talked with seemed to agree that Germany should do something to help. While our Statue of Liberty, the Mother of Exiles according to the Emma Lazarus poem, is being put out to pasture, the Germans are beginning to build permanent housing for the world’s least-wanted people.
I went to Christmas Eve church service in Hamburg, and was moved by the minister’s message (or at least the 75 percent of it that I could understand). His sermon wasn’t the usually saccharine recounting of the Christmas story, but a lecture on fear. He reminded us that fearfulness is not a Christian value and it’s certainly a poor guide (remember what happened seventy years ago?). He concluded by reading a passage from the Koran about Mary and Joseph, reminding the congregation that Muslims worship the same God (no matter what Wheaton College says) and maybe these strangers aren’t so strange after all.
Imagine if a Christian minister read from the Koran on Christmas Eve here in the States.
How could I not know these existed? As fan of all things breaddy, I should be ashamed of myself. We found these toasted sesame-covered rings in a cafe in a trendy mixed-Turkish neighborhood of Kreuzberg while visiting my cousin. Simits are larger and thinner than bagels, and they have a creamy, nutty flavor thanks to the seedy crust. A grape molasses glaze gives them a note of sweetness, making them an ideal breakfast bread. The outer shell with its toasted seeds provides a substantial crunch, but the inside is delightfully soft. I would eat one (or five) of these every morning if I could find them fresh. I tried to make them following this recipe, but they came out a bit hard and a little too bagel-ish, probably because I didn’t braid them as suggested. Those that I sampled in Berlin weren’t braided, so I’ll need to work this recipe over a little more and report back if I meet with any success.
If you need evidence beyond the welcoming of refugees that Germans are assuming the mantle of Leaders of the Free World (emphasis on free), then all’s you need to do is look out the window of a cross-country train. We rode the hyper-efficient Deutche Bahn from Prague to Dresden, Hamburg and Berlin. The ticket machine asked if I wanted to pay three extra Euros to ride carbon free, so I did. Evidently this is a popular program.
What you see when you look out the windows of a train gliding silkily and swiftly through the German countryside are rows of windmills and solar panels, the latter seeming a stretch at a latitude where the winter sun rises after eight in the morning and sets before four in the afternoon.
But something must be going right, because Germany now gets more than 27 percent of its energy from sustainable, carbon-free sources, most of the growth happening in the last decade. It’s an astonishing rate of transition.
Climate change is real, yet only one major political party in the world questions its existence or the fact that our consumptive ways are driving the shift. I’ve talked to scientists and subsistence fishermen all over the world who know that it’s happening and that we’re running out of time to act. But the Germans are acting, and signs of their Energiewende are everywhere, from the solar arrays alongside the railroad tracks to abandoned nuclear plants on the horizon.
Finally, the main reason we went to Europe: Christmas markets. They’re splendid. They’re filled with food and hot spiced wine, honey wine, grog, all of the above available with an extra shot of something strong if you need it, which I mostly did. There are booths of food and crafts and crowds of people. The markets are a tad garish with all their lights and pine boughs and crowds, and from what the locals say they’re growing bigger, more commercial and ubiquitous every year.
But I think they’re wonderful and if we had some here I’d go every year. My favorite was the small neighborhood market in the church square above our metro stop in Prague.
Our favorite market treat (aside from the wine) were the Trdelniks in the Czech Republic. These are simple dough treats, tubes of sugar and cinnamon smothered goodness. They’re made with dough that is rolled into strips and wrapped around a metal tube and slowly rotated over a wood coal fire. Holding this steaming tube fresh from the fire before your face on a frosty evening certainly has to be one of the great pleasures of the holiday season. Add to that some carols from the Czech Christmas Mass and you have something glorious, another reminder of why traveling is a great reminder of what a magical place is this struggling, crowded blue and green orb that we all must share, this our only home.