04 December 2017

Christmas Markets and Tannhäuser in Berlin (Dec 1 - Dec 4)

Christmas markets have flooded the city. Vibrant and colorful they are delightful distractions from the chill and grayness. Stepping outside with temperatures now close to freezing has become an exercise of willpower. The lure of twinkling lights, mulled wine, hearty hot food, baked goods, and interesting crafts yank us out of the toasty apartment. Thankfully. Otherwise, I'd be like Eliza in My Fair Lady, "sitting abso-bloomin-lutely still on my sofa, with lots of chocolate for me to eat."
Many of the markets are set around historic monuments creating a picturesque overall impression. Like this at the Kaiser Wilhelm Church at Breitscheidplatz, the scene of last year's terrorist attack.
Now concrete barriers line all market perimeters. This striking church, damaged during the WW II, is flanked by a pair of towers with stained glass facades, and is now a memorial of war and destruction.

The Austrian themed market at Schloss Charlottenburg has quite a "wow" factor. After browsing the many holiday and winter crafts we escaped from the chill. In a sheltered, toasty cafe we indulged in apple strudel served with custard and steaming quince punch.

Der Hahn ist tot

Every Friday evening we seem to discover a new excellent restaurant in Berlin. This city's gastronomic scene is truly impressive. Der Hahn ist tot (The hen is dead - a line from a French nursery rhyme) blends French, German, and Nouvelle Cuisine in their dishes. Their thrust is hearty, healthy, rustic, homestyle cooking featuring bold, satisfying flavors. And these attributes featured abundantly in each of our 4 courses at this restaurant on Friday evening (Dec 1). Creamy sweet potato soup with bread that tasted like it came straight out of the hearth.A salad of crisp greens sprinkled with pomegranate and toasted pumpkin seeds.

For mains, a parsnip chestnut ragout, featuring roasted parsnips and chestnuts in a brown, umami rich gravy and pumpkin potato mash. Dessert was a spicy baked apple stuffed with walnuts and served with custard. We gorged on this utterly delicious meal in an interior that felt like a French farm kitchen filled with animated diners. Traditional French décor and a combination of long wooden tables and small tables, allowing for both communal dining and privacy. A perfect ambience for a damp, frosty winter evening.

Opera (Dec 2)

Why were we underwhelmed by Tannhäuser on Saturday evening? Was it because of the breathtaking production we'd seen at the Met in New York two years ago? (The conductor was James Levine - how terribly sad he's fallen from grace too!) Could it be that the last eight richly rewarding operas we attended at Deutsche Oper Berlin, elaborate, inventive performances displaying the city's avant garde nature, primed us for something stupendous? The opening scenes of Venusberg during the overture held promise. Such elegant choreography as the knight, Tannhäuser, descends from above into the world of carnal pleasure. After that, for most of the opera there was no stage scenery. Sparse, minimalistic. At times there was an army of grey clad knights suspended over the performers. At other times there were devils hovering over the scene. Yes, we get it. Medieval Christianity's idea of good and evil. To yield to natural instinct is evil. Purity, and the ability to suppress primal desires are good. In the opera's final scenes the stage turned bewilderingly into a hospital scene, filled with patients on white beds. What was the point?
But the music, oh the music, so sublime, the singers exhibiting mellifluous voices. The Rome Narrative and Venus Song arias were splendid. And really, isn't Wagner all about the music?

28 November 2017

Berlin Weekend (Nov 24 -26)

Friday, November 24

After a spate of chilly days, temperatures rose a bit at the end of the week. So a Friday pre dinner stroll on the Ku'damm with Julia and Fabian was fun and pleasant.(Daryl stayed home fighting the beginnings of a cold.)
This elegant boulevard, Berlin's Champs E'lysée, is all lit up for the festive season. Twinkling lights around enormous 3D metal figures, adorning Christmas trees, and strung across the street provided a cheerful atmosphere. A welcome distraction from the early onset of darkness. Sunset is now at 4:00 PM. We peered into high end designer stores and scoffed at the absurdity of actually making purchases at these places.
Dinner at Nabucco, an authentic Italian restaurant near our apartment, was delightful. A friendly Italian waiter served up crusty bread and olives as soon as we were seated. Fabian's browned goat cheese drizzled with honey accompanied by a salad of vegetables and fruit was a hit. My tagliatelle with fungi porcini and Julia's ravioli were faultless.

Saturday, November 25

The chill returned on Saturday morning. Our local farmers market lacked its usual vibrancy. Fewer vendors, fewer customers, but still rewarding to browse and make purchases. White asparagus from Peru - plump, healthy spears at €1 a bunch - were impossible to resist. I thought "global" and helping the Peruvian economy felt right! Other purchases included deep orange persimmons, tender baby brussels sprouts, and juicy mandarins. For dinner I roasted the asparagus (after removing the outer fibrous layer of each individual spear) and OMG (!) the creamy, delicate taste was incredible!

Sunday, November 26

A €15 Sunday brunch at the upscale vegan restaurant, Kopps, convinced us that this has to be the best place in Berlin for this popular weekend tradition. A staggering assortment of meticulously prepared plant based cuisine displayed on two tables promises overstuffed tummies when you crawl out the door. On the cold foods table there were cereals, vegan yogurts, fresh baked breads, "cheese" and "meat" slices, fruit, spreads, and dips. Hot foods consisted of soup, tofu scramble, chili, polenta fries, grain salads and an assortment of vegetables. Thoughtful creativity and high quality in full evidence. Sweet stuff included pineapple pancakes with accompaniments and a few types of cakes. I served myself really small portions of pretty much everything. So why did my tummy feel like it contained all the meals for an entire week?

Hours later, when we could actually function again, it was time to head out to Deutsche Oper Berlin for Giacomo Meyerbeer's Le Prophete.

Photographer: Gregory Kunde (from Deutsche Oper Berlin website)
Of course we expected to love it. The music itself is so delightful and in the hands of a world renowned company and a highly esteemed director, Olivier Py, we were sure to spend four hours witnessing something extraordinary. Intrigue is already embedded in Meyerbeer's multilayered libretto, encompassing so many themes -- a love story, a complicated mother-son relationship, a despotic count, religious manipulation by corrupt anabaptists, the oppression of women, and power, power twinned inevitably with corruption. Beautiful, innocent Berthe is in love with Jean, a humble innkeeper. A cruel count denies her permission to marry, and imprisons her. Three conniving anabaptists sway Jean into believing he's a prophet. His power corrupts him, turning him against Fidé, his devoted mother. Berthe escapes and plots to kill the cruel Prophet who had taken over Munster and who, she believes, had killed Jean. Arriving at the palace with explosives she discovers the truth that leads to her suicide. Jean turns remorseful, seeing death and destruction of the palace with all its inhabitants as the only solution.
In this production, more layers were added to make this 17th century story relevant today. No time to let your mind drift and just focus on the music. The stage was constantly moving, revealing multiple scenes on different levels of the dull grey buildings. A constantly changing panorama revealing themes of abuse toward women, debauchery, suffering, poverty, manipulation, the greed and cruelty of powerful men, and crowds swayed by populist messages. And the ending was changed. We saw no deaths or explosions. But the crowning of an autocrat sent chills through us. An elaborate production with a huge cast of maybe 200 actors and singers.

And that brought to an end another exciting Berlin weekend!

21 November 2017

Truffles, Museum Barberini, Beethoven (Nov 17 - 19)

Friday, Nov 17

In Berlin it feels like winter has really arrived. I rarely notice any blueness when I look up at the sky. The air bites back. Hat, scarf, gloves and a warm coat are essential when you step out. Sipping piping hot chocolate while walking is pretty helpful.

Kicked off the weekend at Francucci's, an elegant Italian restaurant in Charlottenburg, a ten minute walk from our place.

Devoured their legendary house made pasta served with generous shavings of white truffle. Heady damp forest aromas whacking the nostrils before your tastebuds catch up. Lekker! The exquisite pizza blanketed with thin grilled slices of eggplant was satisfying too. Italian reds - full bodied, but fruity - matched well. For dessert, a velvety tiramisu, drenched in liquor, clearly the product of an expert. Digestifs of grappa and limoncello helped settle our tummies and gave us time to reflect on the explosion of flavors we'd just experienced.

Sunday, November 19

A culture filled day, starting with a visit to the Barberini Museum in
Potsdam. Julia's birthday present to me ready to be redeemed two months later. She'd had in mind the current exhibition: Behind the Mask: Artists in the GDR
What a treat it turned out to be! Julia's pampering actually started the evening before in Michendorf. She prepared a dinner feast starting with creamy white asparagus soup made with local asparagus that she froze back in the spring especially for us. The taste so overwhelmed us all, especially Fabian, we gulped each heavenly spoonful in silence. When the veggie schnitzel, roasted potatoes, romanesco and broccoli arrived, we dove into serious topics. Homelessness, poverty, immigration. A 2010 Chianti, dry and robust, went well with the meal. Dessert was a scrumptious homemade cheesecake - the German version made with quark, not cream cheese. Herrlich! But ... I digress ...
The Barberini Museum, newly opened, and situated in the Old Market Square facing historic buildings that had been bombed and rebuilt, is a Potsdam treasure. On this chilly, drizzly Sunday, we were warmed by the many thought provoking works displayed in a welcoming space. East German artists in the years between 1945 and 1985 employed extraordinary creativity to express themselves under authoritarianism. Many used abstract self portraits sporting provocative expressions. Influences of Old Masters and other significant painters could be seen in various arresting works. The Palace of the Republic gallery was the highlight with its recently restored mural sized works newly on display for public viewing. It evoked works by the great Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera and Orozco. Rich depictions of strong political themes, messages, symbols, dichotomies, peasant life ... impossible to take it all in one visit. The third floor provided magnificent views of Old Market Square down below -- St. Nicholas Church, the Roman obelisk, and the Old Town Hall, with the gilded statue of Atlas holding the world on its dome.

From visual art to classical music ... Back in Berlin we experienced another sumptuous building early Sunday evening. The Pierre Boulez Saal is a new concert hall in Berlin. While the faćade is an existing old building that blends with the other structures in the Gendarmenmarkt area, the interior is completely new, designed by Frank Gehry. A first glance of the auditorium immediately reminded me of LA's Disney Concert Hall also designed by Gehry. But the Pierre Boulez Saal is like an improved version with an oval shaped seating arrangement, tiered above the stage. It feels intimate, as if designed just for chamber music. Two achingly beautiful Beethoven concertos were performed by the renowned pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. He used the piano that bears his name because he had it especially made for him. Hi son, Michael Barenboim, accompanied him on the violin, and Kian Soltani played the violoncello. A third, inaccessible to us, contemporary piece by Borowski was also performed.

So Sunday was certainly a full day of cultural immersion.

Fittingly the weekend ended with a truffle meal. This time, at home, with a black winter truffle acquired from our neighborhood Saturday farmer's market. (There are always new, irresistible things at this market. The French cheese vendor now has Mont d'Or which we bought and will have soon.) I was astonished when I opened the refrigerator on Sunday evening. I was hit by the overpowering earthy aroma of the truffle even though it was wrapped in a paper towel and stored in an airtight container. Turns out the smell is actually stronger than the taste. So inhale deeply as you scarf down truffle!

13 November 2017

Wagner, Etc.

Lohengrin at Deutsche Oper Berlin (November 9)

What's it like to watch a Wagner opera in Berlin? Four intense hours of Lohengrin stirred up predictable emotions.
Photographer M. Lieberenz from Deutsche Oper Berlin website
It felt a tad intimidating to sit among people who'd been fed this music since infancy and could probably hum every note. In contrast to the jovial Italians years ago at Verona's Arena, who smiled adoringly and applauded uproariously during a performance of Turandot, here at Deutsche Oper Berlin I felt an intensity around me. Rapt eyes following every action, symbol, nuance. How is this producer handling the opera's messages of nationalism and political ambition? A sister, Elsa, wrongly accused of the murder of her brother by a knight seeking the throne. A charismatic knight in angel wings, arriving on a swan, exploiting love and a vulnerable, innocent Elsa to further his ambitions. Ortrud, the pagan witch, plotting Elsa's fall. And the constant reminders of war, wars from different eras, starting with the prelude when the curtain opens to dead soldiers (World War 1?) strewn on a field and grief stricken female relatives searching for loved ones. Lashings of rich, moving music throughout, but this opera was way too long, with boring stretches in the middle. The tenor, Klaus Florian Vogt, was breathtaking in his effortless handling of the demanding arias. His unusually youthful voice was captivating. This despairing story of manipulative rulers and ruthless politics and ever present wars, a story repeated throughout history, combined with its German nationalism, evoked discomfort at frequent intervals. It was, after all, a favorite of Berlin's most notorious resident. I'm reminded of Stephen Fry who explained in a documentary why he loves Wagner. This is a quote of his from The Guardian some years ago:

You can't allow the perverted views of pseudo-intellectual Nazis to define how the world should look at Wagner. He's bigger than that, and we're not going to give them the credit, the joy of stealing him from us.

Other Stuff ...

Yes, it's stollen, photographed before the whole darn delicious thing disappeared! Despite much effort to suppress Christmas craziness until November 26 (after the Day of the Dead), food shops in Berlin are packed to the gills with tempting ways to give you cardio events! Every bakery has its version of stollen, desperately trying to convince Germans that Dresden, from whence this cake originated, does not hold the number one spot for taste and quality. All week we've been pigging out on this marzipan stollen that Daryl brought back from the famous Café Frisch in Heidelberg. I'm afraid, when this baby is gone, it will promptly be replaced by a local version. Then another ... and another ... We'll be experts when next you see us! 

On Saturday, a chilly grey day, we spent the afternoon with Julia and Fabian in Michendorf. It's so amazing that an easy 25 minute train ride from our Charlottenburg place in the city gets us out into this peaceful village. Lots of forests and a large lake make the area perfect for long walks - when the weather is pleasant. But, on Saturday we stayed indoors. Daryl helped assemble an infra red sauna and Fabian, when his help was no longer needed, got into a deep, political conversation with me. This eleven year old has always been precocious. The recent gun violence in America was on his mind. Why do Texans love guns? What is the Constitution? Why was President Obama's pick for the Supreme Court not selected? So I had to give him a condensed lesson on American politics. From politics we switched to the developing world. I told him about the women's empowerment volunteer program I'll be doing in January in South Africa. This impressive kid found it interesting, asked questions, and could have gone on with the conversation. However, we had dinner reservations and had to catch our train back into the city.

It was our second time at Lucky Leek on Saturday evening (Nov 11). Our first time was a few years ago on a previous Berlin visit, when it hadn't yet received a Michelin star. This was my TripAdvisor review that first time:

Lucky Leek in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood has to be the trendiest vegan restaurant in the world. A very yummy amuse bouche served on a slate platter promised a meal to savor and remember. And yes, our high expectations were well rewarded. Just studying the menu brought us immense pleasure. Carrots and Hazelnut Praline. Caramelized Feta Cheez. Braised seitan filet. Austrian dumplings. How to choose? The menu is small, changing every week according to what produce has been just harvested. Too bad we were in Berlin for just a week. We sat on the terrace, enjoying chilled local beer and cuisine that made us feel like royalty. Because it was midsummer and the weather was blissful, there was quite a lively atmosphere in the area. So we had it all - ambience, fine food, and attentive service.

Saturday evening's experience was different. A bracing November evening meant a toasty indoor ambience. Instead of chilled beer we had a wine pairing more suited to the comforting flavors of cold weather cuisine. We were pleased to see that they've maintained their high standards. A set menu showcased an impressive variety of autumn vegetables prepared with exquisite flair. Bold flavors inspired by cuisine from all corners of the globe provided heft and immense satisfaction.

We ended the weekend at The Story of Berlin museum which took us through 800 years of the city's history. Multimedia rooms showed us Berlin's growth from a medieval trading center to a bustling metropolis and how major world phenomena like the industrial revolution, the wars, Fascism, and the Cold War shaped it. 
A tour of a nuclear bomb shelter built in the 1970's was a head scratcher.. Only 1% of Berlin's residents could be protected in the city's 16 shelters? 

Winter is here!!! Temperatures in the 40's Fahrenheit. Snow is forecast for next week. Brrr!