Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Berlin: poor, sexy... and too much for just one long weekend

Arriving in Berlin for an unseasonably warm spring break, the stark contrasts to London are a welcome smack in the face. From the clear and still twilight, and the verdant pockets on every street, to the happy shiny locals reclining in parks on picnic rugs with Berliner Pilsner – around Lambeth’s open spaces we’re more familiar with the drinking schools downing Carlsberg Special Brew. For this never-been-homesick ex-pat Melbournian, the similarities to Australia’s second city were sneaky and a little unnerving: three million-odd inhabitants feels positively villagey and street art is the dominant urban feature; cycling is less a political statement and more just a practical way to get from A to B; and black is the sartorial go-to tone for the locals in neighbourhoods like Mitte and Kreuzberg.

Kaiser Karl looms over the East Side Gallery

It’s not like Berlin as hipster epicentre and capital of cool is a big secret; it’s been crowned the new NYC for its cheap rents and appeal to college graduates, creatives and musicians and, predictably, as the city’s gentrification has pushed the working classes further into outer suburbs, it’s created a palpable ‘anti-tourist’ vibe in pockets of the former East Berlin which makes it even more appealing for the young and edgy.

Hipsters, take note: street graffiti in Kreuzberg

Instant accommodation upgrade
However for Londoners wanting to experience an inaugural Berlin experience it’s easy to put it off, since it’s comparatively freezing in winter and blistering in summer, and boasts too many must-dos to squeeze into a Bank holiday weekend. Given you’ll want five days minimum – we had seven days – forget hotels and hostels and sub-let an apartment through
Air B’n’B – a slicker version of Craigs List or Gumtree, where hosts and travellers build profiles and rate each other for added security. If you’re used to London rental prices and hotel tarriffs, sub-letting in Berlin will be a pleasant shock to the system. We stayed on the vicinity of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, where chic neighbourhood café-bars dot every street corner (perhaps the Brixton equivalent would be a betting shop...) and you could have squeezed half a dozen dossers into our 1BR apartment (obviously we didn’t – we were on holidays, right?).

Apartment block in Prenzlauer Berg

Get your bearings in style
I’m all for the kitsch appeal of an open-top bus around Westminster, but Berlin calls for something a bit more DIY and grungey. If you're interested in a city’s living history – a.k.a. bars, gig venues, art and design hot spots, sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll... – the Alternative Berlin Tours’ free tour should be top of your ‘to do’ list. It’s a walking tour interspersed with a few U-Bahn rides and points out the squats, street artists, reclaimed community hubs and ethnic enclaves that characterise modern Berlin. Guides point out all the remnants from Berlin's chequered past that you'd only notice after years in the capital. It’s “free”, but guides well deserve a €10 tip at the end - and a drink if they finish the tour at Yaam reggae beach bar - especially since they'll happily mark their local recommendations on your map.

Tommy-Weisbecker-Haus: squat, community centre and music venue

You can't sit around being a drunk/hungover hipster the whole time you're in town, but there are options for tourists who hate history, museums and antique architecture. Fat Tire Bike Tours’ all-in-one bike tour does exactly that – providing historical context in situ (on your own super-comfy cruiser) and explaining everything from the Third Reich and World War 2, to Checkpoint Charlie and the Cold War - not to mention cruising through the city’s lush Tiergarten and chilling in a beer garden. No matter if your only understanding of the Berlin Wall comes from Scorpion’s Wind of Change (and that’s nothing to be ashamed about, *cough*), once you do get your head around the whole East/West Berlin-Berlin Wall thing, you’ll understand why you never understood it in the first place.

Shop for vintage one-offs
Given its history dotted with political upheaval, a cultural predisposition to design precision, and its contemporary “sexy but poor” reputation, Berlin’s flea markets are a treasure trove of random gems. Prices are, predictably, cheaper than anything you’d find in Paris’ Puces de Vanves or the Camden stables in London. If you’re a shoe-loving lady with 41-42 size feet, you’ll be in heaven. I’ve never seen such a range of vintage footwear in big sizes.
The Flohmarkt in Mauerpark (Prenzlauer Berg) runs every Sunday, with stalls selling vintage clothes, shoes and collectibles, plus new clothes and jewellery most likely made by a Central St Martins graduate who’s moved to Berlin for the cheap rent. I scooped the vintage find of a lifetime here on Easter Sunday: a purple, yellow, red and green leather bomber jacket – think early 90s Cross Colours – complete with padded appliqué shapes, for €35. Just down the road there’s another Sunday flea market in Arcona Platz. It’s smaller – definitely not so overwhelming for half-hearted thrifters – but boasts some great art and antique vendors.

Tempelhof Park: Berlin's revamped airport

Get on yer bike
In May 2010, Mayor Klaus Wowreit – he of the infamous "Berlin ist arm, aber sexy" quote – opened the former Tempelhof Airfield to the public, in doing so creating the city’s biggest park. Hiring a bike and cycling down to Tempelhof – an easy 20mins from Alexander Platz – ticks a ‘tourist attraction’ box as well as well as hanging out like a local. After WW2 Tempelhof was Berlin’s gateway to the West – Allied planes delivered supplies to stranded West Berliners, and East Berlin refugees could depart for West Germany without controls (this will all make sense once you’ve done the Fat Tire Bike Tour, trust me).
The 355-hectare space is testament to Berlin’s knack for reclaiming bleak industrial spaces into community hubs – the runways now buzz with cyclists, skaters and joggers, you’ll see some pretty impressive barbecuing on the grass, and it hosts international trade shows and events such as the Berlin Festival.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The most boring-sounding baked goods in the world (let’s call them "mini carrot cakes", shall we?)

I was doing the hard sell on a Tupperware container of these at the end of our roller derby bout on Saturday night and, while they were appreciated by the considerable vegan contingent, I did have flashbacks to St Mary’s primary school shared lunches in the 1980s. There was always one poor kid whose mum forbade Coke and Fanta, only allowed carob in the house and sent the kids off with sultana and carrot sandwiches when everyone else was bringing fairy bread and yo yos to the class break-ups. It’s hard to make “carrot, sultana and bran muffins – oh, and they’re vegan” sound enticing to normal people who think a bacon sandwich is a good way to start the day. BUT – and this is a big but – these muffins are pretty damn good. The bran and carrots make them really moist – they’re more squigey than cakey inside – and they get a lovely crust which makes them really morish. Apart from a tuna sandwich at 6pm, half a dozen of them sustained me all day long and well into the bout afterparty. I'd go as far as saying they contributed to the Steam Rollers' impressive win over the Ultraviolent Femmes, but more on that later. They weren’t half bad the day after, either – making a nice change from usual ‘healthy’ muffins which transform into cardboard projectiles within 24 hours.

(Obviously I was too busy preparing for the Steam Rollers' bout on Saturday to photograph my baked goods... I think we can all agree Carrot Top pumping iron is a much more inspiring visual than anything I could have created in the kitchen, right?)

I found this recipe via the usual route I use when deciding on a whim (at 9pm on a weeknight, of course) to do some baking. Google ‘vegan bran carrot muffins’, give preference to anything Australian (hey – it’s annoying having to convert to celcius and metric) and then discount all the ones posted by bloggers who sound like recovering anorexics. Umm yeah no – apple sauce is not a legit alternative to oil for keeping cakes moist, OK? Anyway, the recipe I based mine on was apparently based on two by vegan demigod Isa Chandra Moskowitz. Enough said.

The first time I made them I grated the carrots with the big grater but they were a little too julienne for your standard cupcake dimensions. Second time around I used a smaller grater (the one that still give you some curl on your grated parmesan) and could probably have squeezed out some carrot juice but that would have required me to use the sieve which was currently holding all the dry ingredients, so I didn’t. Unlike standard muffins, which will almost double in size during cooking, these don’t expand too much from batter to finished product, so you’ll want to fill your muffin tins about 80 per cent full to get a nice shape. If you were totally desperate to blag these as cakes rather than a semi-legitimate healthy breakfast alternative you could probably even ice them with some lemon icing (I’m talking about the basic ‘icing sugar+milk+lemon zest+tiny bit of melted butter’ icing, don’t start going crazy with that butter frosting shiz because that’s just getting ridiculous). Or, if you’re of the bacon sandwich persuasion, just eat the iced cakes for breakfast. They’re vegan – you’re already kicking goals.

Vegan carrot, sultana and bran muffins
1 ½ cups wholemeal flour (I used one with added wheat and barley flakes, linseed and sunflower seeds; once all the flour was sifted I chucked all the crunchy bits into the bowl too)

2 tsps baking powder

½ tsp baking soda

2 tsps cinnamon

2 tsps powdered ginger

¾ cup bran (I crushed up bran flakes cereal because I couldn’t be bothered buying bran specially for this)
1 cup rice/soy milk
⅓ cup vegetable oil

1 tsp vanilla extract (didn’t have it, didn’t matter)

⅓ cup brown (‘light muscovado’) sugar dissolved into ½ cup hot water
2 cups grated carrot

½ cup sultanas

1) Preheat oven to 200 degrees celcius, grease your muffin tin.
2) Sift flour, baking powder and soda, and spices; add bran and make a well in the middle.
3) Mix wet ingredients together, and add to the dry ingredients. Mix till just combined (remember: over-mixing is the best way to turn fluffy muffins into rubber tennis ball), then add carrots and sultanas.
4) Bake for 20 minutes or until sultanas are burning on the top. (Normally I’d say do the skewer test – if it comes out clean, they’re ready – but it didn’t work too well with these because they were still a bit gooey fresh out of the oven but firmed up nicely after 30 mins.)