Berlin nights

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After hours of strolling in the heat, the cold glass of sour buttermilk was just the thing we both craved to quench our thirst. The clean, pure flavour and its thickness cooling my throat lingered with me long after we pushed back from the table, said goodbye, and walked home, sandals slapping gently against the sidewalk.

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Muck had told us to bring dessert, so I sifted through my recipes cookbooks searching for something to make, both relishing the task and feeling indecisive as I always did…

I could bake a cake, something simple and rustic, topped with fruit. But in Germany, cake was eaten mainly in the afternoon served with a cup of coffee or tea. And although I used to bake cakes for dinner parties in New York, the idea of a slice of cake after dinner no longer appealed to me…

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I thought about slicing peaches and slipping the wedges into wine, but the truth is that good peaches were not so easy to come by in Berlin….A pavlova sounded pretty good too: marshmallowy mereingues topped with whipped cream and berries.

But pavlova felt too fussy for this languid afternoon. I leaned back on the couch and closed my eyes, hearing the faint hum of traffic from the outdoors and thinking about our day. I remembered the buttermilk we’d shared, creamy and sour. It occurred to me that buttermilk and berries would make a perfect summer dessert…

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The panna cotta was simple to make, but when the time came to unmold the set cream from its ceramic mold, I struggled to loosen it from the sides. Max came into the kitchen just as I was starting to lose my cool and ended up helping me, the two of us giggling at the panna cotta’s luxuriant wobble as it settled into its serving plate. Then I spooned the juicy berries and their syrup all round the panna cotta, almost obscuring the creamy mound. As Max drove us to Muck and Jurgen’s house, I held the serving plate gingerly in my lap as the fruit slid precariously back and forth.

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Out on their deck at dusk, we ate pink-fleshed lake trout poached gently in fennel broth, small boiled potatoes, waxy and sunflower yellow and dusted with chopped parsley, and a little salad of soft greens studded with toasted sunflower seeds. There was a cold bottle of Riesling and a sharp and creamy horseradish sauce mixed with grated apple for a bit of sweetness to dollop on the fish…

The table soon fell quiet and as our spoons scraped against the china and I saw the light draining from the sky, my life suddenly felt so complete, so rich and full and just as it should be, that I almost lost my breath.

Luisa Weiss, My Berlin Kitchen

Your email back, however

Synaesthete would like to meet

Other synaesthetes describe their experiences as pleasant whilst for me it is a constant sensory overload…. pick up any cheap paperback that uses too many mixed metaphors and that is my day to day, with all attempts at clarity squandered by confusing, muddled leaps of imagery. I see fireflies when a tyre screeches, smell fried onions when I step on an upturned plug…

Online dating marked a huge step. At first I found the profile I created absolutely disgusting. Reading through it, the paragraph smelt of tar and vinegar and was full of sticky, tooth-chewing words. I had no hope of response to such a squalid, acrid thing, and imagined that anyone to whom it might in any way appeal must have some kind of perversion I did not want to share. You must understand that it was not just that I did not have high hopes, I actively dreaded who would be interested in such a thing. I gave it to my doctor to edit, and he gave me two thumbs up, but I could tell by his tweedy, neoprenaged vowels, he was just being kind.

Your email back, however, smelt like a sea breeze: that was all it took. I didn’t have to read about the interests you listed, your hobbies or your star sign. It was that sea breeze smell, cutting through the snow and mown grass, that convinced me this was a chance I had to take. I organised a meeting.

You chose a spot at Piccadilly, within sight of Eros and the Criterion. I like Piccadilly Circus; the exhaust fumes and the chatter present me with a fresh inky blue, it’s almost precisely the colour of the line on the Tube map. To me the flashing neon adverts are a barbershop quartet suffering the giggles, which pleases me, and the tourists’ interbraiding accents cause a firework display of neurological responses. The taxi drivers’ swearing is accompanied by different shades of silver, squeaky and lickable.

As I waited, the rain made a pink overture against my jacket. And your colour, when you introduced yourself? You must not be insulted, but you were blank. A soundless, tasteless, brilliant blank.

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From “Attrib. and other stories by Eley Williams”, a book I’m rushing to buy after hearing this extract read aloud on the Backlisted podcast.

The art of an interview

That’s when I would find out that yes, they did get their PhD in physics, back when women were barely allowed in college, and as a matter of fact, it was them who single-handedly oversaw the Capitol renovation, and technically they do they an individual birthday party for every single person in the city every year, but they have so much help, you know? Besides, everybody loves a birthday, and it’s just no trouble at all to throw one.

Inspiring tales from Kelly Williams Brown, who’s also written a long-form essay on the rodeo queens (even harder work than the beauty queen circuit), and a spot-on spoof of House of Cards.

I like these women best though – this is how my school raised us to be.

Sharpening the edges

There is something poetic about this September salad of two vine fruits. The last of the tomatoes, heavy with sun, with the first of the grapes, the onion and vinegar sharpening the edges like a heavy pencil outline.

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I’ve posted quite a lot about / from Rachel Roddy recently, but sometimes you just find writing that slots into your head and gets you. I can think of at least two friends I want to give her cookbook too, whilst the recipes posted online with the Guardian satisfy me.

The lemon cream is typically southern Italian, and therefore thickened with a little flour, which gives it an old-fashioned and homely feel, especially if you are used to more elegant, butter-rich lemon curds.

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The mix of lightly-worn food history and anecdote reminds me a lot of Nigella Lawson in her glory days, and she knows how to turn a phrase:

You know how we are often reassured that the fussiness of anchovies will slip away like an obedient manservant, leaving just the wonderful seasoning? This is not the case here. The anchovy flavour remains indignant, its fishy saltiness producing golden crumbs that shout “I am an anchovy breadcrumb!” There no doubt, if you hate anchovies, you will hate these breadcrumbs. If you like anchovies, I suggest you make this for lunch tomorrow.

A language of the gods

In those days not many language teachers played gramophone records to their class, but Mr King did. They were old and very precious to him and us, and he kept them in brown paper bags in a satchel that he put in his bicycle basket when he rode to school.

The blog’s most proflific researcher (aka my mother: sorry there’s no pay-rise this year, but I’ll give you Christmas off that zero hours contract) found me John Le Carre’s address on why we should learn German. You can hear both the novelist’s view, and also an entirely genuine pleasure at learning.

What did they contain, these precious records? The voices of classical German actors, reading romantic German poetry…And I discovered that the language fitted me. It pleased my Nordic ear.

In between musings on the connections and sympathies that come from learning language, and an appreciation for the fierce attention to truth that German can provide, there’s still time for a joke.

You’ve probably heard the Mark Twain gag: “Some German words are so long they have a perspective.” You can make up crazy adjectives like “my-recently-by-my-parents-thrown-out-of-the-window-PlayStation” And…you can turn for relief to the pristine poems of a Holderlin, or a Goethe, or a Heine, and remind yourself that the German language can attain heights of simplicity and beauty that make it for many of us, a language of the gods.

Three cheers for this speech! I’m still grateful every day for the amazing – and eccentric! – German teachers I had. They gave me so much, even when my language was learned rather than instinctive: fun, new authors, a way of understanding my own language, and friends.

Seduced by Naples

I first saw Naples when I was working as a babysitter in Rome. It was winter.

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The beginning of Rachel Donadio’s Seduced by Naples, a great piece of writing from 2013. The Instagram feed that fed this to me talked of the slap of realising it’s only an hour from Rome by train. I’m goggling at a holiday that would cover both.

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Even today, you can tell that Naples was once a Greek city. It is the quality of light, which is clearer and stronger and feels more ancient and essential here – and in all of Magna Grecia, the Southern Italian regions that were once Greek colonies – than the light of Rome, with its softer pinks, or the steady, subtle light of the Italian north, with its countless shades of grey.

paintings by James Wilson Carmichael and Renoir

Blog of the week & Mexico City

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I’m still completely absorbed by Sybille Bedford’s¬†A Visit to Don Otavio, and these passages (dinner; setting up a hotel) show why. If it fuels your fever, you really must see Ben Pentreath’s blogs here and here. Normally I dial in to Ben’s pastoral idylls on Mon mornings, but these posts from his travels carry some heat.

You must learn your lines

Obedient daily dress,

You cannot always keep

That unfakable young surface.

You must learn your lines –

Anger, amusement, sleep;

Those few forbidding signs

Of the continuous coarse

Sand-laden wind, time;

You must thicken, work loose

Into an old bag

Carrying a soiled name.

Parch then; be roughened; sag.

And pardon me, that I

Could find, when you were new,

No brash festivity

To wear you at, such as

Clothes are entitled to

Till the fashion changes.

Phikip Larkin, Skin

Nourishment

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As usual on a bank holiday, I spend a lot of time lying on (not in) my bed, still in my pyjamas, reading and planning lots of meals.

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About 9pm I might start cooking some, getting to bed at 2am the next morning a bit too tired and irritable and completely mis-setting my body clock for the rest of the weekend. I am also very happy for finding new voices and stories.

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This time it was Rachel Alice Roddy, whose tales of Testaccio and Sicily grabbed me (photos from Rachel’s Instagram above; link to blog here). For those of you around, head to Stoke Newington Festival & other sites in London this month to hear her talk about cookbook as memoir and taste her cooking.

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Rachel’s feed then led me to Hanna of ¬†Building Feasts, whose supper clubs look divine, and whose weekly round ups include both makeup and books amongst the food. Both Hanna and Rachel feel like direct links to Nigella Lawson, whose writing and sheer enjoyment of food can’t be faulted.

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Finally, here is the great idea of Kino Vino, pairing a cuisine and a film. Little Vera and Russian dumplings are still to come, as is a pairing of I Am Love with Rachel’s cooking. Full circle.

Top two photos my own; Building Feasts & Rachel images from their Instsgrams.

Beekeepers and Dostoevsky

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A party of six settled at the next table, all countrymen in homespun, rawhide footgear and sashes, but two in broad-brimmed hats of plaited osier, the others in cloth caps…untroubled smiles and good-humoured wrinkles round their eyes and the corners of their mouths. Anyone would have felt calm and happy in their neighbourhood. Appropriately, as I divined…they were itinerant beekeepers travelling up and down the region and tidying up the hives for the winter.

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One of many gentle passages in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s conclusion to his trilogy of his walk from Holland to Turkey in the mid-1930s, The Broken Road. I also liked his description of reading in bed in a loft above a wheelwright’s shop on a rainy day (“Dostoevsky ever since, and even the mention of his name, evokes a momentary impression of rain and fresh-sawed wood.”), or meeting the hotel-maid Rosa, who treated him to a nannyish scolding for wet shirts and lost belongings, and whom he treated in return by taking her to a showing of The Blue Angel, which evokes memories of her time in Vienna as lady’s maid to a grand hostess.

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