Monthly Archives: September 2012


A recent trip to Hamburg lead to the discovery of a new delicious thing available growing free on the city streets: Holunder berries. Holunder is a species of Elder that is native to Europe. The English translation is Elderberrry or Balck Elder, but I don’t think they grow in the US. The Latin name however makes them instantly familiar –Sambucus nigra. It’s what the Italian schnaps Sambuca is made of. But Sambuca is flavored with anis, which overpowers the Holunder berry taste. So when Anne suggested making Holunder berry jelly together, I enthusiastically agree.

We went to pick up her kids from school and then walked to a long row of trees where the berries were growing. It had been raining earlier and it was hard not to get wet as we clipped big bundles of the berries -lovely, dark shiny clusters growing off a bright red stalk. In the spring, the same tree produces millions of tiny white flowers that Germans use to make a syrup that they sweeten with sugar and drink with carbonated water. They also make lemonade and even a sort of champagne out of it. My friend Claudia told me that her grandmother used to make Holunder flower soup.

Back home, we separated the berries from the stalks and cleaned them. Making the jelly was easy -you boil the berries briefly, strain the skins and add gelatin sugar to the juice, cooking it for  another short bout. The process can be quite messy though and by the time we poured the mixture into jars to cool, we all had stained finger and lips.

Anne sent me home with a jar with a beautiful label she designed herself -a circle of silhouetted mosquito bodies. I was back in Berlin before I tried the jelly for the first time, the jar opening with a promising pop. The jelly is a potent mixture of sweet and tart that is really addicting. Christian and I found that it goes especially well with lemon-ricotta pancakes, but it’s also very good in PB&J and just by itself on buttered bread.

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wwoof = world-wide opportunities on organic farms

Claudia and I signed up to go wwoofing for a couple days on an organic farm outside of Berlin, eager to see first hand how these things work and get our hands dirty helping the farmers. In exchange for our work we would get room and board -which the farmers warned us would be rudimentary, but we felt up for it and were really excited to go. We packed our bikes with sleeping bags and a change of clothes -just the absolute necessities and caught the S-bahn north to Bernau. We had no idea what to expect.

We arrived on a Sunday night and were surprised by the rather cool reception we got from the farmer’s wife. She was playing with the dirtiest toddler I have ever seen in my life, and told us to go find the farmer. This was a good chance to look the farm over, which was covered with greenhouses full of blossoming produce. The farmer soon pulled up with two cute Italian guys who were wwoofing there for three months. But the farmer told us he didn’t have time to show us around because there was only an hour of daylight left. He quickly gave us the task of disassembling a bed in one of the sleeping wagons. Then this handsome French guy showed up who would be woofing there for the week. This all seemed promising.

Just as it was growing dark, a young, sweet German guy showed up who had wwoofed on the farm before. He had taken a break to go to the Rainbow Gathering in the Czech Republic, and was now hoping to work on the farm for the next few months. He showed us around and explained the toilet situation -there was a bucket on the ground for liquids and an outhouse for solids. The solids would be mixed with other material and turned into compost over the next year. Claudia told me under her breath that she wasn’t sure it was a good idea to use human waste on crops meant for human consumption. But we figured a year might be enough time to make it safe. Maybe.

It was getting late and Claudia and I had not had dinner yet. The German told us that there’s lots of food in the pantry and always fresh baked bread around. We couldn’t find any bread but we grabbed some muesli, yogurt and fruit. We spent a long time cutting out the bad parts of the fruit before we were ready to eat -bruises, insect bites, mold, etc. All the dishes in the kitchen were really greasy too, nothing seemed clean. We were still keeping optimistic and knew one of the rules of the farm was no soap. Dishes (and bodies) were cleaned using clay and ashes. We graciously ate our muesli and then went to bed. We had to be up working by 6:30 am.

the rooster crows

The next morning was beautiful, the sun just rising as we were assembling in the yard. Several other guys had rode in from Berlin that morning, and we were now a crew of 15 -Claudia and I the only females. I had told the farmer I was pregnant so he gave me the easy job of weeding and loading dozens of salad seedlings onto a flatbed trailer. Claudia left with a group of the guys to go weed a field near the train station. We would all re-join for breakfast at 10:30 am.

Working by myself in the cool hours of the early morning on the farm was perhaps the highlight of my wwoofing experience. It was wonderful to be up and outside so early, and to be filled with purpose and drive. At 8 AM, the German wwoofer came and got me to help him prepare the breakfast. This is when things started to go downhill.

The German explained that we were only allowed to use produce that was deemed un-sellable or couldn’t be used in the CSA boxes they deliver to customers in Berlin each week. What was left over was old, misshaped and often rotting vegetables and fruit. I carefully picked out what I thought was salvageable, but found the German was picking up my rejects. And we still couldn’t find any bread, despite the promise of copious loaves floating around at all times.

Back in the cooking wagon (which was also where the German slept), we hatched an idea to make pancakes as a bread substitute. I returned to the pantry and found a half-dozen eggs but was intercepted by the farmer on my way back. He told me to put them back. No eggs.

Frustrated, the German pleaded with the farmer to let us use a couple eggs. No eggs, he repeated without explaining how a farmer with chickens -creatures famous for their egg-laying power, didn’t manage to have enough eggs to nourish himself, his family, his workers. Instead, he brought us some more limp chard and rotting tomatoes -and a partially consumed loaf of bread that was as hard as a brick. It had clearly been baked several days earlier and when I tried to cut of the brittle edges, the German stopped me and told me he would eat those pieces.

a farmer’s breakfast

We cooked for two hours on a wood stove, making a crazy breakfast out of what was available to us -warmed muesli with fruit juice, curried vegetables from the parts that were still edible, three day old bread with butter, salvia tea. When the crew returned from the field, they looked exhausted. Claudia’s face fell at the prospect of eating curried vegetables for breakfast. Muscles were reactivated to dish out the mueseli which had the consistency of drying cement. It was only 10:30 in the morning, but the sun was already quite strong and everyone looked tired. We ate in silence until there was short discussion about one of the Italians not feeling well. The farmer -also Italian, exchanged some word with him in their own language. I learned later that the two Italian wwoofers had only arrived three days prior. It seemed pretty clear that this guy was still adjusting to the back-breaking farm work, and possibly suffering from indigestion. But more on that later.

After breakfast, Claudia’s crew went back out to another field, this time to pull potatoes. The German and I stayed behind washed up what seemed like one million dishes. Although a sign above the sink specifically instructed that the dishwashing to be done with hot water, the German insisted on using cold. As I looked for space in the cramped wagon to air-dry everything, balancing the greasy plates and pans on top of a couple grimy dish towels, I thought to myself “no wonder nothing here is clean!” I then went to relieve myself in the “liquids” bathroom -now a hot tin pan of smelly urine behind a dirty-blanket door. I also noticed that the outhouse was gone. It had been moved to a platform directly above the compost, so that the shit would drop directly into the bin. I promised myself not to use the outhouse while I was there. Thy hadn’t built the stairs up to it yet anyway.

all in a day’s work

Then the farmer came to fetch the German and me and we hitched up the salad seedling trailer and drove to the a former beet field. Along side the field where the beets had been was a long pig pen enclosed by two rows of electrical fencing. The farmer explained to us that our task was to move the pig pen over to the beet bed, plow the earth where the pigs had been and plant the salad seedlings there. My jaw dropped. How could we possibly do this all in one day?

Moving the pigs was fairly easy -we built a temporary pen with another electric fence, luring them over with food. The farmer told us we had twenty-minutes before the pigs got restless -twenty minutes to move the entire pen over, including a large wooden house. Well, putting up the fence alone took close to two hours. Walking on the soft, uneven beet bed in the high noon sun was not easy. I didn’t seem to have enough strength to sink the electrical fence poles into the earth. Everything seemed so heavy and my stomach was hurting. I thought that maybe I should have gone to the outhouse, but now I was in the middle of a beet field with a bevy of pigs threatening to get restless at any moment. The German, who was working in his bare feet, got too close to the live fence and got a terrible shock.

But by “lunchtime” at 4:30 pm, we had succeeded in moving the pig pen and the farmer had plowed the field. The plan was to go back to the farm, eat and then come back with all the workers to plant the seedlings. I was definitely impressed by how much we had accomplished. The work was so much harder than I had ever imagined and there wasn’t a moment’s rest.

I want to die

Driving back to the farm, I was thinking that if I found the work hard, then what about Claudia who didn’t have the pregnancy excuse and had worked all day in the fields with the men. I found her in our sleeping wagon, lying on the bed and sick as a dog. She complained of a terrible headache and stomach pains and my head was racing with the myriad possibilities of what was wrong  -sun stroke, dehydration, food poisoning, exhaustion -or all of the above. Not to mention the beaucoup bacteria running rampant all over the farm. As I sat again in silence with the rest of the crew eating lunch, Claudia quietly crossed the farmyard towards the outhouse. There were still no stairs to get up there. One of the men rushed to bring her a ladder, but it wasn’t until  she was back at our wagon that the barfing began. “I want to go home,” she whimpered.

I quickly packed our stuff and we said goodbye to everyone. It was an awkward farewell, with no question of us every coming back there again. Plus the farmer was already trying to usher everyone out to the field to start the seedling planting. Some of the guys seemed genuinely concerned and rightfully disturbed by Claudia’s condition. It could just as easily have been one of them who had gotten so sick.

Claudia had a brief respite where she was well enough to ride back to the train station. But once we were on the S-Bahn back to Berlin, she got worse and worse. She told me that she had pushed herself too hard in the field, had tried to keep up with the guys and overexerted herself. “I want to die,” she said. But Claudia is a tough cookie and how she managed to get herself home and into bed that day is proof of that. She just had caught something really bad.

As I began to recount this experience back in Berlin, I felt furious about this situation and even thought about following up a friend’s suggestion to report the farm to the health department. After all, would you buy a CSA share from them after what you’ve read here? But now I am starting to feel like it was just a really strange, long day with unfortunate consequences for Claudia. Unfortunately I didn’t take a single photograph to document any of it.

Brust oder Keule

A couple weeks later, I took out a DVD from the library of the French film “The Wing or the Thigh”, a comedy from the ’70s about a food critic battling an evil business man trying to dominate the restaurant industry with mechanized factory-produced meals. Although the film focuses on preserving high French cuisine, I thought it was way ahead of its time in addressing the type of food issues that we discuss all the time today -local vs. global, chemical vs. organic, corporate chains vs. small and independent. There’s a funny scene where the critic played by Louis de Funes is forced at shotgun to eat a bunch of industrial food produced by his nemesis. He has to go to the hospital afterwards.

When I think back to my time wwoofing, I like to think of Louis de Funes in my place, making light of all the bad parts and turning it into a comedic adventure. But the irony is that the farm is the alternative that the film promoted. Unfortunately, a closer metaphor might be Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

Berliner Unterwelten is a really great organization that leads tours in all sorts of freaky, mainly underground places in Berlin: WWII bunkers, a Cold War nuclear shelter, the remains of an anti-aircraft tower, etc. I’ve already been on most of their tours, so I was happy to hear that they were programming several special tours for September and October. I convinced Uli to come with me on one in far West Berlin following the ghost of a four-kilometer long graveyard train.

In the early 1900s, Berlin’s population was greatly growing and there was also a need for more graves. The city began building a new, giant graveyard in Stahnsdorf on the far western outskirts of the city to accommodate the demand. Because it was so far away, an efficient way to transport the bodies was needed and by 1911 work began on railway line leading from Wannsee to Stahnsdorf.

In 1913, a large public opening celebrated the new line which thoughtfully had separate trains for the corpses and visitors. The graveyard was also a park and became a favorite excursion spot for Berliners. But a year later in 1914, the train was temporarily halted by WWI. This would be the first in many interruptions during  the graveyard train’s short lifespan.

When the Nazis came to power in 1930, the graveyard train was needed more than ever.  Albert Speer began implementing plans to build a new, massive north-south axis that would cut through Berlin, and he cleared the route of any cemetery in its way. 13,000 grave sites were re-located to Stahnsdorf, including that of Walter Gropius. S-Bahn service was also established along the line and new passenger stations were built.

Of course, train operations were again interrupted again by WWII. In fact, in 1945 the Wehrmacht blew up the bridge the train used to travel over the Teltow Canal, to prevent the Soviets from coming into Berlin. By 1948 however, the bridge was rebuilt and train service was restored.

But the post-war division of the city would have dire consequences for all traffic on the line, which had the unfortunate luck of traversing between Wannsee (West Berlin) and Stahnsdorf (East Germany) in its short four kilometer journey. By 1954, the GDR had set up a checkpoint at the Dreilinden S-Bahn station and border guards stopped everyone. Even the corpses were checked for fugitives and contraband. On August 13th, 1961 when the east/west border was officially sealed and construction of the wall was begun, all train traffic on the line came to a complete halt, forever.

Amazingly, you can still see parts of the graveyard line and the whole area is full of fascinating, historical sites -such as an old highway that was re-routed in 1969 (due to difficulties over automobile traffic entering West Berlin) and the former Checkpoint Bravo that was replaced by a new checkpoint built in Dreilinden. We also had lunch at the former waterway-border control along the Teltow Canal, not far from where the first West Berliner was shot and killed by GDR border guards. It was hard to imagine this place as a heated international border, but the trees and plants haven’t quite grown over all the remnants of this dark and convoluted history.


Near Jannowitzbrücke, hidden behind a city museum that hardly anyone goes to, is a small enclosure housing two Eurasian brown bears named Schnute and Maxi. Brown bears once ruled all of Europe but today there are only small populations left in the wild, the largest being in Russia. It’s not like the US where hikers are occasionally killed or even see bears in the mountains. There are just too few bears left to encounter here.

Yet the brown bear has been the enduring symbol of Berlin since the 13th century, and I was curious how this came to be. I found my answer in the children’s section of the library in Mitte and with my arms loaded with books for young readers, I blindly stepped off a raised platform and dropped three feet to the floor. Luckily no one witnessed my spectacular fall as all the youths were on the computers in the other room. I won’t be entering the children’s section again.

Berlin’s founding date is set at 1237 because that is the earliest documentary evidence that exists for the city (a handwritten document naming a bishop of Cölln). The earliest city seal in existence from 1253 didn’t feature  a bear but an eagle, which was the symbol of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, an important principality of the Holy Roman Empire that included Berlin. Then in 1280, a second city seal appeared with the Brandenburg eagle flanked by two standing bears.

File:Seal Berlin 1280.png

This is the first evidence of the bear’s relationship to the city and by 1338, the bear had taken center stage on the seal -though with the Brandenburg eagle tether to its neck.

File:Seal Berlin 1338.png

When Cölln and Berlin were officially merged into one city in 1709, the coat of arms featured the bear with a neck band below two eagles -red for Brandenburg and black for Prussia.

File:Coat of arms Berlin 1709.png

By 1875, the bear had lost the neckband and gained a wall-crown, signifying Berlin’s status as a free city. Today’s coat of arms still has these features.

File:Coat of arms of Berlin.svg

But none of this explains why a bear? Unfortunately, a fire in 1380 destroyed all the documents that could have definitively answered this question -but there are some interesting theories. One is that the bear was chosen in homage to Albrecht the Bear, founder of the Margraviate of Brandenburg in 1157. This would have been about the time that Berlin was first settled, but then why did the first city seal feature the Brandenburg eagle and not a bear? The settlement was probably not important enough at that time to get its own mascot.

Another theory is that the bear was chosen to create a canting or singing arms, because the German word “Bär” (bear) sounds phonetically similar to the first syllable of Berlin. But linguists have shot down this theory having found no etymological connections between the two words.

In fact, Berlin was settled by Slavs so the prefix “Ber” may have nothing to do with German. There is however an old-Slavic word “berli” that describes a rigid net submerged in the water to catch swarms of fish. It could be that the first settlers built plenty of berlis in the Spree, and that they themselves became known to others as the “Berline,” thus spawning the name Berlin.

While the latter seems the most plausible origin of the name, it doesn’t explain the connection to the bear. Whatever the reason, the Berlin Bear remains. The bear pit behind the museum was built as a present to the people of Berlin on the city’s 700th birthday.  A far cry from the fierce, upright emblem of the city’s coat of arms, Schnute (who I believe is pictured below taking a bath) was named the official Berlin Stadtbär (city bear) in 2007.

Like hunters and gatherers at the end of summer, Claudia and I are thinking ahead to the less fertile months of the year. On Saturday, we went to the green market at Kollwitz Platz and bought up bags of over ripe strawberries, wasp eaten pears and apples and other fruit at closing time prices. We weren’t looking for beautiful, perfect peaches. We wanted to fruit to transform into winter stores with Claudia’s food-dehydrator.

“In two weeks, none of this will be available anymore,” Claudia pointed out as we cut the fruit into rings and slices to lay out on the drying racks. Both of us have read Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, MIneral, Miracle,” an account of an American family’s year eating local. One chapter is devoted entirely to their efforts in late summer to turn their garden’s harvest into food that will keep through the winter. In Italy, Paola told me that growing up she often helped her mother with the process of sealing jars of their homegrown tomatoes for later use.

I had never really done any food preserving and was surprised at how straight forward the process is. You put the sliced fruit on the drying racks, set the temperature and let the machine run for 14+ hours. It dries the fruit at a low heat so that much of the vitamins are preserved. Longer drying will make the fruit crunchier, shorter will make it more pliable. Some of the bananas and apples we dipped into lime juice before laying on the racks, but that was really the only prep besides slicing that we did.

I came back the next day to see the results. The fruit had shrank quite a bit while drying, but there was still plenty for us both. The dried fruit looked so beautiful -especially the almost lacy, transparent strawberries. It was hard not to pop them in our mouths as we packed them into plastic bags, but thinking about how much I would enjoy eating these strawberries in January was all I had to do to seal my resolve.



There’s no Labor Day in Germany to mark the official end of summer, but our trip to Italy kind of substituted for a season finale -though it also marked many firsts. First swim in the ocean, first sweltering 100 degree day, first juicy tomato… now I understand perfectly why so many Germans head south on holiday. It was great to have a week of really sunny, hot days -a shot in the arm to make the transition to winter a little easier.

Our NYC friends Joe and Paola were living in Abruzzo for the summer and they invited us to come visit. Paola grew up there and we stayed in the apartment where she spent every summer with her mother, four siblings and various other family members and guests. Alba Adriatica is a big summer destination for Italians from all over the country and it felt very festive. The apartment was right next to the beach and we went swimming every day, joining hundreds of people who waded in the shallows and tanned under bright colored umbrellas.

Joe and Paola showed us tons of fantastic places in the area, including an ancient hermit’s cave dating back to 3000 BC and one amazing restaurant after another -often in the little medieval towns perched in the hills above the beach. We got to meet some of Paola’s family and friends and were invited to an unbelievable lunch made by her mother. Over several hours, we slowly ate multiple delicious courses, chatting all the while and taking breaks for naps (actually, just me who napped).

Christian and I also did some hiking by ourselves in the incredible Gran Sasso mountains. Many of the peaks are way above the tree line and the landscape is quite surreal. We even saw the mountain where Mussolini had been briefly imprisoned in a hotel, then rescued by a daring group of Nazi pilots in 1943.

The entire trip was incredibly relaxing and it was really nice to be with New Yorkers again. Thanks to Joe, we got caught up on all the election news and gloated over the rather bad luck that the Republicans had that week (Todd Akins, Hurricane Issac). I became really sad when it was time to say goodbye, thinking about how long it would be before we would see Joe and Paola again, and almost jealous that they would be returning to NYC by the end of the week. But the grass is always greener and I was really just glad to have lived in a place where I could make such interesting friends and that now we could meet up again in other wonderful corners of the world.