travel: food, drink and inspiration in Berlin

kreuzberg

When you think of Berlin, perhaps you think of the Wall, the Reichstag, or Checkpoint Charlie. Every city guide will mention those, and with good reason – they are must-sees. But Berlin is also a paradise for creatives, dotted with artisan coffee shops, funky bars and galleries, cutting-edge restaurants, eye-grabbing street art, green spaces, museums, food stands and flea markets. The spirit of reinvention and possibility permeates every corner of this city. Whether you’ve got a week or a weekend in Berlin, if you want to be inspired, you’re in the right place.

kadewe-leuchturm-notebooks

Stationery lovers will be in heaven at KaDeWe, Europe’s second largest department store after Harrods, where there is a whole floor of notebooks, cards, paper and every writing implement you can imagine with which to pen a masterpiece. We spent ages trying to pick which colour Leuchturm notebook we wanted! And foodies, make your way to the sixth and seventh floors where you’ll find the food hall to end all food halls.  

cookies-cream-berlin-experience

Cookies Cream leads the way in the ‘cordon vert’ trend, serving edgy and extravagant vegetarian food – expect dishes like apple gyoza served in celery, walnut and thyme broth, and yellow beetroot gnocchi with olives. What’s more, you’ll feel like you’re in a spy film trying to find the hidden entrance to the restaurant in the car park at the back of the Westin Grand Hotel! We had the set menu which was a bargain €55 for four courses and included all their signature dishes. It was a meal to remember. We still talk about it.

schillerburger-berlin

Even your burger comes with a side of philosophy in Berlin. We thought the best veggie burgers were at Schillerburger, full of mustard and pickles in traditional German style. They have branches dotted all over the city. We frequented the one across the street from our favourite bar! 

coffee-and-cake

If you’re a cake lover, Berlin is your city. Kaffee und kuchen (coffee and cake) is a German institution and any neighbourhood café will have something freshly baked and delicious – espresso bar Café µ in Friedrichshain served a carrot cake that was even better than my grandmother’s; The Barn in Mitte is a world-renowned coffee roastery whose flat whites are strong and essential pre-shopping refreshment before you hit the arty boutiques of Schönhauser Allee; and even vegans don’t miss out, as Goodies Vegan Café has a sumptuous selection of cakes as well as excellent coffee.

hops-and-barley-beer
hops-and-barley-bar-berlin

Friedrichshain is my pick of the trendy neighbourhoods. The streets are lively and colourful, practically every block of flats has a mural painted on it. After a walk and browse through its many unique shops (no chain stores in sight here), unwind with a halber liter (a bit over a pint) of one of the beers or ciders at Hops and Barley, where they brew everything on the premises. Their pilsner is incredibly tasty, with a zesty citrus flavour.

 Don't forget to visit a photo booth! They're great fun.

Don't forget to visit a photo booth! They're great fun.

Getting around is a cinch – Berlin is a cycle-friendly city and you can hire bikes very easily to zip around on. There’s also the U and S Bahn trains, which will get you from the outer neighbourhoods of the city into the centre of things in about 15 minutes. It’s also one of the most walkable cities in Europe. Wear comfy shoes and don’t forget your Fitbit!

michelberger-hotel-berlin

We liked staying at the funky Michelberger Hotel – a former factory complex, where the décor is a delightful eclectic mixture of vintage and warehouse hipster. I wouldn't recommend staying in the loft room, however - it was a rickety wire ladder to get up to the bed, which was too much like a mattress on the floor for my liking. Which was a shame, as the rest of the room was very comfortable. Worth double checking when you book that you have an actual bed! But otherwise, there’s an excellent bar and restaurant on site and the hotel is mere moments’ walk from the East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall and, if you’re in town to catch an international music act, the Mercedes Benz Arena. I would stay here again quite happily.

 Berlin Wall, East Side. 

Berlin Wall, East Side. 

 

One thing’s for sure, you’ll be plotting your return to Berlin before you’ve even left - however long you spend there simply won’t be enough.

Have you been to Berlin? What are your top tips for enjoying this wonderful city?

summer couscous salad

couscous-salad

You know how you go through phases of not eating something for years - perhaps a decade - and have written it off in your mind as a bit boring, but then you rediscover it and think "why did I ever stop eating this?!" That is the story of me and couscous.

Twenty years ago, when I first tried couscous, I thought it was the best thing ever. My uncle made a lovely dish with it, lightly spiced, full of fresh herbs and studded with dried apricots. My favourite dish at a local trendy restaurant - Rockefellers, I think it was called - was their roast vegetable couscous salad. Every time I cooked it myself at home, I pretended I wasn't a bored 17-year-old living at home with three rowdy younger siblings, but some sophisticated trainee journalist in her Sydney or London apartment (clearly I thought trainee journalists living in such places were loaded). But like so many things, I had it so often that I got couscous fatigue. After a few disasters where it ended up clumpy and gross rather than fluffy and perfectly cooked, I threw in the towel and hadn't bought couscous since. 

I'm on a mission to clean out my pantry at the moment, dragging all the packets that were flung to the back when they were hopefully bought in 2014 or 2015 (eek) out to finally fulfil their culinary destiny. I found a packet of couscous, amongst the packets of kombu and nori when I was going through my making seitan from scratch phase, and felt a pang of nostalgia. Why not, I thought. 

It has also been uncharacteristically hot here this past week or so. For the first time in my 11 years here, London is experiencing a proper summer. Not just one or two hot days and then cloudy grey skies for the rest of the season, but full on 29 degrees every day for well over a week now. It's a miracle. I'm loving it. 

So any meal that involves not having to turn the oven or stove on is a winner during a heatwave. But there's only so many baby gems and packets of rocket and watercress you can eat. So this is where couscous is a GODSEND. All you have to do is boil a kettle. 

And after eating this salad, it's safe to say couscous won't be off my menu any time soon. Couscous and I are friends again and I couldn't be happier! 

It's seriously sensational. You can make this for a barbecue, as part of a mezze where you serve several salads, or just have it on its own. Cook the whole packet so you can pick at it all week during the heatwave.

Summer couscous salad

Serves 10 if served as a side, makes 5 generous portions if served alone

500g couscous
4 tablespoons olive oil (plus extra if needed)
800ml vegetable stock made with boiling water and stock powder

Rocket, as much as you have/want
Watercress, as much as you have/want
2 large pieces of roasted red pepper (out of a jar), chopped
Cherry tomatoes, as much as you have/want, halved
Sugar snap peas, as much as you have/want, halved
3 tablespoons capers
200g feta cheese, crumbled or cut into small cubes
1 fresh red chilli, finely chopped
1 small bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 small bunch dill, chopped
Salt and pepper

Dressing:
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons basil pesto

Place the couscous in a large bowl, preferably a clear glass one so you can see once all the liquid is absorbed. Add the oil to the top. Boil the kettle and make the stock. Pour the stock on top of the couscous and oil, stirring briefly to combine. Cover the top of the bowl with cling film and leave for 15 minutes, until the liquid is absorbed and the couscous is cooked.

While you're waiting, prepare the salad vegetables, feta and dressing. Put the dressing ingredients in a clean empty jar, put the lid on and then shake until well combined. Set aside.

Once the couscous is cooked, stir it well with a fork to make it all lovely and fluffy and break up any lumps. If it's too dry, add a little more olive oil. Once you're happy with it, turn it all out into a large, shallow serving bowl.

Add all the salad vegetables, capers, herbs, feta, chilli, salt and pepper and stir well to make sure everything is mixed well together. Finally, dress with the dressing and give it one final toss. 

It will sit happily if you have other parts of your meal that you're waiting on, otherwise dig in! It also keeps brilliantly and makes a great portable lunch for the office.

couscous-salad-2

Seriously, I will happily make and eat this every day for the rest of the summer if it means we can have more weather like this. Alleluia. It only took 11 years but thank you weather gods for giving London a proper summer at last! 

super easy baked eggs

baked-eggs

I wrote off baked eggs from my repertoire a few years back, as I'd had nothing but disasters with them. I think, looking back, it was simply a case of not knowing the strength of my oven (they do tend to vary from flat to flat!). But I've recently been converted, mostly because I wanted a brunch dish that just made serving two people at the same time easier, rather than turning my stove into an omelette station every Sunday morning. It's a bit depressing when you finally sit down to eat yours and your partner has already finished theirs! Baked eggs alleviate this problem, furthering marital togetherness. Try them and I'm sure you'll be a convert! 

Super easy baked eggs

Serves 2

8 cherry tomatoes, halved
6-8 tablespoons of greek or natural yoghurt
1 teaspoon pul biber (Turkish chilli flakes or Aleppo pepper: use plain chilli flakes if you can't find it)
A spoonful or two of crumbled feta per portion
A handful of fresh basil and thyme leaves per portion
2 heaped teaspoons sun-dried tomato pesto
2 large eggs
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 180 C. Boil the kettle.

Butter two ramekins. Divide the halved cherry tomatoes, yoghurt, pul biber, feta and herbs between the two, stirring until just mixed. Place a heaped teaspoon of sun-dried tomato pesto on top, then make a small indent in the centre. Break in an egg and then season.

Once the kettle has boiled, place the two ramekins in a deep baking tin. Pour in enough boiling water to come roughly halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Very carefully place in the oven and bake for about 12-15 minutes but keep an eye on them....you want them just set and the yolks still runny. They can turn from undercooked to overcooked in mere seconds! 

Serve both portions immediately with crusty bread/toast. Preferably in the garden. 

weekenders on our own

Just a perfect day
Problems all left alone
Weekenders on our own
It's such fun
- Lou Reed

Sometimes the best days are the unplanned ones. 

shoreditch-street-art-a-nahu

We expected rain, being stuck indoors, winter still blowing its frosty breath over the city. Instead, it was pleasantly overcast when we met our friends at Old Street tube and took the scenic route, through the streets of Shoreditch which are like galleries with vast, colourful murals everywhere you look, to a cafe for the best vegan burger in London:

essential-vegan-burger
cassava-chips
street-art-broadway

 

Then we walked around Columbia Road, past Hackney City Farm where we saw baby goats frolicking in the grass, and then up to Broadway Market where we stood elbow to elbow with East London's hipster population jostling for vintage clothes, killer brownies, raw milk, giant cheese toasties, coffee and sourdough bread. I came for Frida.

 Actually, I think it's meant to be a blend of Frida and Diego!

Actually, I think it's meant to be a blend of Frida and Diego!

 

Then we walked back to Haggerston along the canal. The sun came out and we unpeeled ourselves from our coats with glee. We made a brief stop at Proud East for probably the best Virgin Mary I've ever had:

virgin-mary
phil-and-lisa
phil-and-tom

Refreshed, we walked further along Regent's Canal up to Islington. The air was cold but the sun was out, and I could smell the sweet perfume of violets on the banks, wood-fired stoves in the canal boats, and coffee from the riverside cafes. We saw a group of friends drifting along the river in a floating hot tub. I took note of the company for future reference!

We wandered through Camden Passage, as the stallholders began to wrap their unsold wares in newspaper and box them up, and there was still a queue at the Breakfast Club. We stopped for a pint in the Camden Head (our new favourite place in this part of town).

tom-camden-head

When a day turns out to be unexpectedly fun, in the gentle company of true friends with whom you can just be yourself, with delicious food, refreshing beverages, the weather surprisingly fine and the promise of spring hovering on the horizon.....these are the days that I live for. 

leftover easter* chocolate brownies

chocolate brownies

I'm sure most of you are thinking..."leftover chocolate? Are you crazy?! When does that ever happen? Thank you Phil, rub in my lack of self control!"

Oh, dear reader, I meant nothing of the sort. But if you're anything like me, you might have found yourself over the holidays with chocolate that perhaps wasn't nice enough to eat on its own but could be transformed into something magical via the wonder of brownie batter!

If you're going to have it, make it worth your while. Nothing irritates me more than wasting calories/points/tastebuds/time/money on food that just doesn't satisfy or deliver. And I abhor waste as well. So if that's you too, here you go, you're in luck!

Leftover chocolate brownies

125g unsalted butter
150g caster sugar
80g cacao powder
4 eggs
90g fine '00' flour (the kind you'd use to make pasta)
Pinch of salt
Approximately 100g chocolate-box chocolates 

Preheat your oven to 180 C (fan). 

Melt the butter, sugar and cacao in a bowl (not plastic!) over a saucepan of simmering water until combined and the butter has melted. It will look gritty, but fear not!

Beat in the eggs one at a time. Then add the flour. Beat well (use an electric mixer if it all gets a bit much!). 

Pour into a 20cm square cake or brownie pan and dot the chopped chocolates evenly on top. Bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes. You want a skewer to come out almost clean, but not quite, as you want to keep everything moist. A dry brownie is a miserable thing. You may need to bake for a little longer if your oven is a little cooler than mine.

brownies

Allow to cool and then devour, marvelling at your genius!  

* Full disclosure: I made these in January after the chocolate coma that is (usually) Christmas. Any chocolate you want to use up will work well!