It has reached the point that if I see another slab of cold meat sliced infinitely thin, or another piece of smoked fish, I shall die of surfeit.
I formed a theory in Berlin: that German food, at least its up- scale variety, is based on the German breakfast, a meal that would destroy a lesser man. I remember reading in Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks of the three breakfasts in succession that were eaten, each larger than its predecessor.
They seemed to have been cumulated in my hotel. On one counter lay an enormous variety of fruit; on another, a dozen different breads and pastries; on a third, a half-dozen kinds of ham and an equivalent choice of other meats, not to speak of fish and cheeses. Here, a hatted chef did whatever you wanted with eggs; there, steaming vats contained shish kebab and Chinese rice- baskets.
In short, a profusion of things, any one of which you might like but which, arrayed like this, was profoundly unsettling. One thought, what if a single stomach chose to absorb all this rich stuff, this ostentatious display of wealth and fear of starvation, all at once? With that thought, I nearly lost my breakfast.
But wealth is at the heart of the German meal. It is not just that they are rich, but that when they sit down to eat, they have no conscience at all about that wealth. I am no puritan, God knows, but it is disquieting to see the widows of Berlin (and Vienna) tucking into pastries as though there could not be enough whipped cream and chocolate in the world to supply their needs.
The food I ate during the week could best be described as both very expensive - a decent meal in a good restaurant with a bottle of not-very-special wine can set you back pounds 100 - and futilely rich. German cooking seems to have little idea of simplicity: the best is smothered in excess. No meat comes without its obligatory sauce (running, as this is Germany, to those hugely opulent words that go on for a whole line of text), its heap of potatoes, its oddly tasteless vegetables.
The funny thing about eating out in Berlin, however, is the contrast between restaurant fare and the humbler, sometimes positively spare fare that one eats in a Berlin home: oxtail and goulash, or meatballs, spicy soups, sensible bread and the miraculously varied sausages that give Germans their sobriquet and make our own seem so pale and tasteless.
I confess I soon ducked out of the official lunches and into the local Imbiss, or food kiosk, where I bought my Bratwurst mit Kurry-Sauce and my little brotchen, on occasion washing it down with a schnapps and beer.
But I remain puzzled, for Germany produces extraordinarily good ingredients. Its beef is prime, its lamb lean and delicious, its pigs unbeatable (except by Texas pigs). Why this culinary mishmash, this gross overstatement, this absence of a true German cuisine? The finest asparagus plants in the world (to my mind) grow in the sandy soil of Brandenburg: why has nothing been done with them?
The answer has to do in part with that breakfast complex - the idea that you cannot eat unless you eat more than enough, and nothing is left well enough alone. Another part is the fact that Germans work harder than most, and once upon a time this was physical labour. The nutritional needs of that earlier time remain embedded in the German consciousness, even when the hardest work available is getting in and out of a Mercedes.
But the real reason, I feel, is that Germans profoundly distrust being German. They are the world's greatest admirers of everyone else. It may be that Goethe went to Rome to rediscover antiquity and light and colour; I think he went, too, because he found Italian cooking so good.
Most Berlin restaurants are either avowedly ethnic (and sometimes quite good, despite a German tendency to overcook any and all meats) or amalgams of German complication and foreign flavour.
Asking in one restaurant for a typical Berlin meal so that I could write about it, I was looked at by the head waiter as though I were slightly mad, and then apologetically told that his chef probably could not produce one, for what he really did was create French cooking. Not being French, the result was unfortunately French only by repute - French by being fancy, but German by tasting exactly like every other Franco-German dish I have ever eaten.
I have a few words of advice for travellers to Germany. The first is to come with a well- stuffed wallet, for even the simplest things are exorbitant (a glass of mineral water between speeches set me back pounds 2). The other is to eat as simply as possible. There are two ways of doing this: the ubiquitous steak house, with its phoney American (or sometimes Turkish) decor and menu, and the depressing-looking local full of natives with giant moustaches, loud talk, the smell of beer and clouds of smoke.
I do not say you will eat well, but you will eat passably, for less money, and certainly amply. And eschew any menu written in French.Reuse content