What does a Berliner eat? We were about to find out!
What is a typical Canadian ingredient? This simple question, posed to me by a tour guide in Bern, Switzerland, caught me completely off guard. I absolutely choked and couldn’t think of a single response. We were walking around the city and the conversation had drifted to food (as it inevitably does with me). My guide enthused about her favorite Swiss ingredients but I couldn’t think of anything to say about my own.
About an hour later, I bluntly interrupted the conversation to triumphantly blurt out “maple syrup!” Yep, it took me all that time to think of the most obvious answer in the world. Clearly I needed to up my local food game and it took a tour in another German speaking city – this time, Berlin – to give me a blueprint into what recipes and ingredients can mean to a region.
Food journalist Dirk Engelhardt runs a food tour unlike any other that I’ve experienced. For one thing, it’s a "full belly" tour – there’s no sharing of samples or small plates here. We’re talking full bottles of beer, massive plates direct from the menu, and mighty servings of cake. It’s more of a neighborhood supper crawl, where each stop gives you another full course. But generous portion sizes aside, the real stars of the tour are the venues.
Berlin is a decidedly diverse foodie town. It’s the vegan and raw food capital of Europe, it’s home to Little Istanbul and the largest community of Turkish people outside of Turkey, and you’re just as likely to find Indian or Thai food at a corner restaurant as you are sausage and cabbage. But what constitutes a proper Berlin dish?
I’m not talking just traditional German food, the culmination of centuries of tradition from all the different regions of the country. What does Berlin contribute to that mix? What does it offer to the German food legacy? What have Berliners been eating for the past one hundred years that no one else in Germany really does in quite the same way? I suspect most Berliners are as stumped by these questions as I was when it came to naming Canadian ingredients!
But this archaeological quest of food evolution is Dirk’s passion and he is the only one in Berlin offering food tours that focus on authentic, traditional Berlin cuisine. There’s no curry-wurst or sauerkraut within a mile of his plates.
So what was on the menu? Quark, for starters. Quark is a soft, spreadable cheese made from fermented sour milk and will likely please anyone who enjoys cream cheese, ricotta, or crème fraiche. Versions of quark are popular throughout Europe but it really seems to shine in Berlin. We had it seasoned with herbs and spread over homemade bread before our main meal, and again at dessert when it was a key ingredient for traditional German cheesecake. Our verdict: delicious!
Also on offer was the adorably named Hopple Popple. As someone on my Instagram feed commented “I had no idea they serve this in restaurants. In a private home, Hoppel Poppel means that you throw all leftovers from the week in a pan and mix it with egg”. They’re essentially correct!
Hopple Popple is hearty comfort food at its finest. It’s seasoned potatoes, fried up with eggs, onions, (and maybe cheese?) and small chunks of what Dirk described as pickled meat – kind of like a cross between the end pieces of a roasted ham and bacon. On the side, there were pickled veggies and a huge salad. I didn’t make it through even half of my plate – and that’s with Ryan looking over my shoulder, stealing generous bites.
It was delicious, filling, and nutritious and, while it was nothing like anything I had ever tried before, it reminded me so much of the various potato hashes I had growing up. I think all potato, onion, and egg dishes must have a secret kinship with one another. I can just imagine how every family has their own special variation on the tradition and it was clearly the kind of dish whose ratios could be easily adjusted to accommodate full harvests and lean times alike.
While Ryan wasn’t shy about stealing bites of my food, it wasn’t like he was going hungry with his plate. He had a heaping platter of beef goulash, complete with homemade spätzle noodles covered with butter and herbs, with a large side salad. When we frowned at Dirk and quizzed him on what goulash was doing on the menu at a 100 year old Berlin restaurant ("Hey, this is a Hungarian dish!") little did we realize that we were at the starting point of a massive pan-European goulash precipice.
German goulash? Why not!? Hungary is by no means Europe’s only goulash producing nation and after trying it first in Berlin, we would go on to sample it in Bratislava (both a classic and a chicken version), several times in Prague (including making a pork version at cooking class), at Frankfurt airport (surprisingly tasty) and, of course, in Budapest (where “goulash” is more of a soup than a stew.) Each region makes things to their own unique; though similar, recipe and Ryan declared the plate he had in Berlin to be the best of all. The sauce was so incredibly rich and savory and he cleaned the plate.
The goulash and the Hopple Popple came from a restaurant with an equally charming name – Max und Moritz. The restaurant is over 100 years old and features entertainment - a harmonic quartet was performing while we were there! Talk about tradition! But the tour doesn't just visit old fashioned venues. It has a modern twist as well.
We visited a beer store specializing in locally produced brew and got a brief lesson on the Berlin beer scene. Speaking with the staff about the emergence of the craft beer industry, the changing attitudes towards beer brands, and even seemingly innocuous things such as local preferences for bottles versus cans was a fascinating discussion.
I am not much of a beer drinker, something that has always worked out well for Ryan on previous food tours as he would always inherit all my discarded samples. But this wasn’t the case in Berlin, as we found a beer that perfectly suited my taste. And again, no samples here – everyone got a full bottle to enjoy. Germany is synonymous with beer and gaining some valuable local insight into the changing beer scene was a highlight of the evening.
Our tour concluded with a final stop at another 100 + year old establishment, Kuchen Kaiser. I had the aforementioned apple cheesecake made with quark, while Ryan had an absurdly delicious custardy-cake concoction. What I loved about this spot (aside from the obvious: cake!) is that we were free to order any kind of cake our hearts desired. You NEVER see that on food tours! Chocolate lovers would have been in heaven and there were several less-sweet varieties of fruit based cakes as well. We topped off the evening with coffee and delicious mint tea (made with a fresh fistful of mint leaves).
While I loved the “full belly” tour concept and really, really loved the focus on true Berlin cuisine, what made the evening so worthwhile and memorable was chatting with Dirk. He truly appreciates and celebrates German cuisine and all the nuanced differences among the regions. We had a great chat about the wonders of a special herb based sauce from around the Frankfurt area that’s nearly impossible to get in Berlin, as well as the struggling tradition of home gardens in a city that’s increasingly strapped for space. This guy knows his stuff!
Dirk is a wealth of knowledge of what to see, do, and eat around the city and we were so incredibly touched that, prior to our arrival in Berlin, he sent us an email with a list of his favourite restaurants in the city. It felt like a tour that was designed for one evening really guided us throughout our entire time in Berlin and, in our adventures in the following days, we kept seeing things that he had mentioned to us and we suddenly had a real sense of the city.
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