Wednesday, January 24, 2007

How Green Was My Week

Over the years, it's become something of a tradition: a visit to Green Week at the mammoth ICC convention center, perfect for combatting those mid-January blues. It's a huge celebration of food, a Berlin tradition ever since the end of World War II, with countries from around the world and all of the German states showing their wares.

But I think I'm over it.

I hadn't been in a couple of years, so this time I guarded my cash reserves so I could go there and, I hoped, pick up some cool stuff I couldn't get anywhere else, which is something that's always happened before. It was going to take a little more cash than usual; in the past, I'd either had a press pass or had friends in the restaurant business who were overwhelmed by freebie tickets from their suppliers. After all, the real reason for this event is so that German wholesale grocers and restaurant suppliers could make contacts with the agricultural export and processed food export divisions of other countries, although we normal consumers could always get something unusual to eat and sometimes bargains to bring back home.

Olive oil, for one thing. Back when quality olive oil was hard to find in this city, Green Week gave you the opportunity to sample oil from the entire Mediterranean, with Greece, and particularly Crete, selling a wide range of oils. My bet, though, was always the guy from Tunisia who showed up with oil from the same farm on which he grew the grapes for his (not very good) wine. Tunisia is Italy's dirty little secret: "Italian" olive oil only has to contain a limited percentage of grown-in-Italy oil to be so labelled. The rest is almost always made up of high-quality, low-price Tunisian stuff. Thus, I could buy a half-liter of pure Tunisian oil for five Euros, thereby saving myself about 15 Euros for a fancy label.

Another regular stop was the Irish stand, where I not only knew a couple of the people working there, but I could also pick up some actual Cheddar cheese with flavor. Yeah, it was Kerrygold, from some huge mega-corporation, but after the orange rubber which passes for Cheddar in Berlin, it was pure heaven, and never lasted very long.

Then there'd be serendipity: the year some Mexicans gave me a bunch of jalapeno and serrano chiles because they couldn't give them away to the Germans and were happy to see someone who knew what they were and appreciated them. The year I suddenly realized, in the middle of the exhibition hall, that I was out of coffee and almost immediately came upon the Cameroonian stand, which sold me some stuff that turned out to be delicious. There was the intensely smoky (and never again seen) sauna ham from Finland, the hair-raising and sweat-inducing Estonian mustard, the year the Portugese were unloading cans of tuna in olive oil for 19 cents. Before the pasta ladies started showing up at the Thursday market at Hackescher Markt (before there was a Thursday market at Hackescher Markt, for that matter), it was a source for high-end Parmesan cheese, and the guy always talked me into buying a salame soaked in Barolo wine, which could turn an ordinary pizza truly extraordinary.

But this year: nothing.

Well, almost nothing. The Tunisians had long ago stopped bringing wine and olive oil, and concentrated on herbs and crappy handcrafts, but this year, that same olive oil (with a much-improved label) was there, and was dutifully scored. As was almost-authentic Cajun sausage (under the name Knoblauch Knacker) from the Wattwurm Wurst guy, who shows up at various markets -- although not, alas, in Berlin -- around this part of the country. But something basic has changed in the way this thing is presented to the public, and not in a good way at all.

Part of the problem is alcohol. Green Week has always had a large contingent of vendors of beer and wine -- indeed, it's impossible to imagine a German food show without big displays of German beer and wine, with the former, at least, being done around bars dispensing the sponsor's product. And, of course, people drink it and become what the American alcohol industry calls "overserved." National stands always offer some sort of local schnapps, too, and people drink those on top of the beer. Late in the day at Green Week can be pretty nasty, especially in the men's bathrooms. But if you wanted something else, there was a wide range of stuff to eat. There was far less of that this time, and people were far more drunk at 3 in the afternoon than I'd ever seen them. And on a Tuesday, at that. (Always avoid Green Weekends). No doubt, behind the Albanian vodka, there were Albanian export guys selling Albanian lamb to German restaurant suppliers. But boy, was there a lot of alcohol.

Another part of the problem, sad to say, is Germany. The Republic of Malaysia, which is spending millions this year promoting its cuisine, a promotion I'd love to get in on, was absent. Fortunately, I had a real live Malaysian to consult on this, and he told me that the government gave up. "The Germans hated the food." Well, I can understand that: it wasn't Chinapfanne, that gooey, malodorous concoction so many Germans think is what people eat in that (broadly defined) area of the world. The Malaysians made the mistake of offering actual Malaysian food instead of Malaysiapfanne, and got rejected. Meanwhile, I stood by the Vietnamese stalls, which were cooking up Chinapfanne of some sort while waiting to hook up with a friend who was at the show and was going to meet me there, and I finally recognized the component of the dish that makes it smell so bad: overcooked cabbage. Germans, of course, have no problem with overcooked cabbage.

But it goes beyond the Malaysians and their hurt feelings. Other nations were missing as well. Israel, purveyor of loads of the vegetables and fruits in our markets during the winter, was absent, as, thank heavens, were their stinky Pfanne. Ireland, where I'd usually beg off a steak sandwich one of my pals was ready to cook up for me, and where I'd really hoped to stock up on some white sharp cheddar: missing, although Guinness was represented by two bars. France, which is usually promoting beef (which Germans barely eat), cheese (but not the higher-end stuff, just the heavily-processed fake Brie and so on you find in our supermarkets), oysters (which R in season!), and downmarket wines (wine "tastings" with an eye towards getting you to subscribe to regular deliveries are a big scam at Green Week): pas la. The United States of America, for heaven's sakes, which was usually willing to embarrass itself by a hotdog-and-doughnut stand, another place selling Samuel Adams beer, a wine-subscription guy selling Californa wine, and, uh, some company in Wisconsin that made pots and pans: outta here.

My take on this is that the world's exporters have more or less given up on Germany as a market for quality stuff. Of course, I didn't need to go half-way across town and spend 12 Euros to get into the ICC to postulate this: all I'd need to do would be to visit the "upmarket" food floor at Kaufhof in Alexanderplatz, but spending three hours on the floor of Green Week brought it home. The people who buy for the German mass market haven't yet discovered what I know to be a sizeable contingent of younger (ie, 30-40-year-old) consumers with more refined (or, let us at least say, less crass) tastes which are making inroads even here in impoverished Berlin. So they buy what they've always bought, and feed the masses with booze and Pfanne and stuff that looks just like traditional German food but which is jacked up with MSG (that's E 621 for you label readers, or Natriumglutamat). Meanwhile, the jungle telegraph among my friends passes along news of a new store where you can get some good things that were hitherto unavailable, a new restaurant that is good enough that it probably won't make it, a mail-order house which ships to Germany. In fact, I'll be posting some of this stuff as soon as the info reaches critical mass.

But Green Week? Nein, danke. Und...schade.


Olaf said...

Oh man, I used to love Gruene Woche. It really helped to break up those grey, wet, dark winters. Of course, by January, I was usually even attending Polish farm implement exhibitions (no kidding) at the Funkturm just to keep my spirits up.

Do they still hold the international travel show every year?

Ed Ward said...

Absolutely: the ITB is where everyone goes to figure out next year's vacation. I'd love to see it some day, but it's always in mid-March when I'm in Texas (as I will be again this year).

They have the whole farming contingent at Grüne Woche, too, but we missed that part along with the huge section devoted to Kleinkolonie living (little huts with gardens Germans retreat to on weekends for drinking and gardening) and the cookware show and the pets, if they're still doing pets. I bet you could have satisfied your Polish tractor jones if you'd gone.

Olaf said...

And something else I remember fondly from the Poles--Buffalo Grass Vodka, with a real blade of grass in the bottle.

Damn, I miss Berlin.

Ed Ward said...

Yup: Grasovka. Illegal in the US, if I'm not mistaken.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if Grasovka and Zubrowka are the same thing. Probably. Zubr means bison so it's bison-grass vodka. Vodka needs to be flavoured for it not to be utterly revolting. Aber illegal in the US? Why?

Ed, this is a bad thing about living in countries where the food culture seems to prioritise price over quality. Food in England has improved unrecognisably since my youth, but people are still obsessed with food being cheap, which, of course, puts pressure on quality. I'm going to Poland soon and can't wait. I have one Polish friend here and she says she forgets what real food tastes like until she goes home (or to Russia). I think our diet here is chiefly plastic anti-biotics.

Ed Ward said...

Grasovka is the same as Zubrowska because the Poles rightly assumed that the latter would be too hard for most people to pronounce. There's apparently some chemical in buffalo grass that doesn't pass the FDA's inspection. Please smoke some while you're over there and report back.

Everybody says the food tastes better at home, of course, but I doubt the Poles have it much better than we do. They're Catholic, and so more inclined towards feasting, and some of their land is better for agriculture, but really, the problem in Berlin is living in an impoverished city which has never been a place of great cuisine because of its religious/military culture and its poor soil.

Anonymous said...

I will drink and smoke there and report back. Do you want me to smuggle some bison-grass back across the border?

A Bavarian pal who used to live in Berlin said the food was noticeably worse here than in the south. He revealed this intelligence in front of two French guests of ours. I'm not sure they believed him.

Ed Ward said...

I think he was probably right for the same reason that Austrian food is better than the food in Berlin. Catholics tend to be more sensual, and this informs their feast-days, and leaks out into everyday cooking. Except for the American Midwest in the mid-60s, I don't think I've ever lived anywhere where the local cooking was as blah as it is here.

Anonymous said...

Ed - would you, could you do a yummy eats/restaurant in Berlin post? If you don't hate doing that kind of thing, it would be much needed! I am moving back to Berlin after four evil years in Frankfurt and this time of year always makes me hungry for really luscious beautiful food anyway...

Ed Ward said...

Well, a, it really depends on where in town you wind up. I can wax fairly authoritative about my own 'hood, somewhat less so about Prenzlauer Berg, and I know a few other good places around town, but some parts of the city -- Schöneberg, Steglitz, Charlottenburg -- I haven't eaten in in years.

Condolences about four years in Frankfurt, though.

Dr. Sardonic said...

Thanks for the heads-up on Grüne Woche. I had actually considered flying to Berlin for it at one point. Guess I'll be saving my pennies for next year's Salone del Gusto in Turin instead.

Ed Ward said...

Wait, is that, like, an Italian take on Grüne Woche? Be still, my heart!