I was in Berlin recently for the marathon. Having to be well behaved on both a Friday and Saturday night in that city, walking past the invitingly scruffy bars and going to bed early instead, is probably harder than the run itself, which is held quite inconsiderately on a Sunday morning. Still, it’s always fun spending all those hard-earned health credits afterwards.
It’s a city I know well, so it was more a case of catching up with friends and taking it easy prior to running than sightseeing (you get to see enough of those during the race as it is), so I mainly bimbled around flea markets and food markets. No holiday is ever complete without checking out the local fruit and veg talent. Well, no holiday of mine, anyway. I frequently come back with seeds from something interesting. Here are a few things that caught my eye.
First thing of note were these roots, which look like parsnips but aren’t. They are given the umbrella title of Hamburg parsley (they might even have been the specific variety ‘Berliner’ but the stall-holder wasn’t sure). The tops, which here have been removed, are the giveaway: they are basically a coarse flat-leaf parsley and can be used to flavour stews and casseroles. The taste of the roots falls somewhere between carrot, parsley and celeriac: still sweet but not as cloying as parsnip. It is one of the ingredients of borscht in Poland and Russia.
There were plenty of root crops generally, as you might expect in Germany with winter on the way, and brassicas too, including some fine early-season Rosenkohl, which I mention purely to justify the dreadful pun in the title. I like the German language a lot and have always felt that in comparing the buttons of the Brussels sprouts to roses, German does justice to what is a very beautiful plant.
Many of the residents in parts of the Kreuzberg and Neukölln districts are Turkish in origin, something that is reflected in the different seasonal produce on sale there – properly hot chillies, bitter gourds, figs, pomegranates, aubergines and prickly pears. I regret not buying some prickly pears because I can’t really remember what they taste like, only that I liked them and that I will never pick one up carelessly again, since it took days to get all the tiny spines out of my hand afterwards. They are the fruit of a cactus called Opuntia, some species of which are surprisingly cold hardy. Seeds of those could be fun to track down.
Now, I realise that these ceps aren’t vegetables but I have to include them because I love wild mushrooms. They were picked in Denmark, apparently, which is not as crazy as it sounds, since the border is only two hundred miles away. I found these at a farmers market in Prenzlauer Berg. Baskets of boletes and other high-end produce are more prevalent these days, which in its own small way reflects the rapid wider gentrification that has taken place in recent years. There is much debate about this. Many feel that the nature of the city’s soul is changing and that its creative edge risks being dulled in the process.
As you walk around the city you do see people growing food in all sorts of opportunistic spaces – tomatoes and peppers on roof-tops, salad on balconies, even herbs round the feet of trees, hemmed round by little picket fences to keep dogs from watering them. This squash plant was thriving in a scratty bit of ground outside a café in a fairly shady courtyard. Maybe my glasses are rose-tinted but there just seems to be less of a culture of mindlessly trashing things here.
Gardenless apartment living may be the norm but some people do have allotments. These garden colonies can be found all over Berlin, often nestling alongside railway tracks. They are fenced-in but open to the curious during daylight hours. Food production is an important function but they also serve as a kind of country retreat in microcosm: almost every plot contains a little summerhouse and lawn where people can relax, have barbecues and even stay the night. Filled with fruit trees and flowers, they form an important part of the city’s green space.