Monday, January 31, 2005

Green Week Again!

About the only thing I regretted about my trip to France last week was that I might miss Green Week. Green Week (aka the Grüne Woche) is a Berlin institution that's been around since just after the War, a trade show for the grocery and gastronomy businesses which is also open to the public. It's a beloved event, because there are still people around who remember that it was possible to go there and get a free glass of milk and free samples of various kinds of food they might not see in their local stores -- at least not yet.

Today, it's another thing entirely. They've added on a gardening trade show, a pet trade show, a houseplant trade show, and a trade show for people who have Kleingartenkolonien, the little patches of land on which you can put a small shed or cottage and plant a garden. But the food show remains the heart of the thing, and the exhibitors come from around the world to show off stuff they think Germans might want to buy. In addition, the federal government puts up a huge exhibition in a hall where each German state shows off its regional specialties. Guess where most of the eating takes place.

In a way, it's wonderful: I've gone nearly every year I've been here, and come back with stuff I've loved. At one point, it was possible to get Tunisian olive oil, which is the best in the world: lots of the "Italian Extra Virgin" olive oil you buy is actually grown in Tunisia, but is packaged in Italy, where a legal loophole allows them to call it Italian. Unfortunately, the guy who was selling that stopped participating in the Tunisian stand, and I miss him: the stuff was not only good, it was phenomenally cheap. Then, a couple of years ago, I discovered Wattwurm, a company which makes long, skinny sausages that look like the shore-worms that swarm on the beaches here. The Wattwurm sausages didn't interest me as much as their Knobi-Knackers, which work just fine as Cajun sausages. Not as good as my old pal LeJeune makes in Eunice, but good enough. Some friends discovered Estonian mustard, which must be the most eye-watering mustard around. Then, the Estonians stopped selling it, although they'd put a tiny dab on your plate if you ordered one of their grilled sausages. You could get sharp cheddar at the Irish stand, a product notably missing here. And there were often other things that showed up, like the Finnish "sauna ham" we found one year, which was amazing -- and which never appeared again.

But in another way, it's depressing. It was particularly interesting to compare this year's with what I found just lying around in Montpellier's supermarkets, which were far more international than this year's Green Week. There's no getting around it: Green Week follows the Darwinian rules of capitalism: if people don't want it, they can't sell it. If they can't sell it, it doesn't get offered again.

It's also depressing because, as I've written before in an article a number of years ago, it shows how the Germans tend to reduce everything to a Pfanne of one sort or another. Pfanne means "pan," of course, but in practice, it means a gluey mass of stuff steaming in what looks to be an oversized wok. You have your Chinapfanne, your Asiapfanne, your Pilzpfanne, at every street fair, Christmas market, and in many snack bars. At Green Week, it gets ridiculous. There was a Kangaruhpfanne at the Australian stand, several other Pfanne at the Israeli stand, and variations of the Asiapfanne at the Thai, Korean, and Vietnamese stands. By reducing national cuisines to easily-understood stereotypes that Germans can accept, all of that cultural difference which other societies actually find interesting gets smoothed over. No wonder there are so many Thai sushi joints in Berlin!

And, because small nations can't afford to keep coming back if the Germans don't buy their stuff, real finds have become increasingly rare. Large nations, too, stop coming out of what must be frustration. The Americans once were represented by a doughnut maker, Samuel Adams beer, and some German wholesaler shilling for cheap California wine. (What was really cool was that the organizers invariably set them next to the Iranian stand, so dark looks shot back and forth over the figs and pistachios, the doughnuts and hot dogs). They were nowhere to be seen this year, although the Iranians had not only pistachos, but saffron. Japan, too, was missing, probably because they gave up trying to prove that Japanese people eat things other than sushi. South America was mostly missing, as was Africa (I once bought some coffee from Dahomey, I think it was, which was so good I found myself wishing I'd bought more).

So yesterday's visit was the shortest I'd ever made. I had some goals, but I was also on the lookout for bargains, since it was the last day of the event. I did manage a huge chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano, lots of Wattwurm Knobi-Knackers, a salami soaked in Barolo wine (this goes very nicely on pizza), and a tube of Estonian mustard after two years of their refusing to sell me any. I don't know what was different this year: I just asked nicely and they said yes. I got a tin of paprika from Szeged, where my friend Ray lives, and it had a little cookbook tied to it. (I just hope this isn't the stuff with the aflatoxins in it that was in the news just after last year's harvest). I also scored a nice bumper sticker from the Ukranian election, a big orange flag behind a picture of a father and son and the word TAK! in big blue letters. Nice historical souvenir.

But three hours later, I was walking back to the subway. No Irish stand this year, so no cheddar. No Tunisian guy (the Tunisians mostly sell incense and handcrafts), no surprises at all. Of course, what's on view isn't the real story: behind the scenes, as at any trade show, the attendees are talking to German grocery chains and food wholesalers and restaurant purveyors and setting up the deals that'll show up on the German food scene over the next few months. Free samples vanished years ago, so I was hungry at the appropriate time later in the day, and I wasn't interested in drinking until I got sick, which is probably the most notable non-professional activity at Green Week. It was okay, but not nearly as good as the one I attended 11 years ago, or even five years ago.

But you know what? I'll go next year if I'm here.

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