For me, food and memories are intertwined – hot, crispy potato cakes from the fish and chip shop next door to my Nana’s florist shop, eaten surrounded by bunches of gypsophila and fragrant carnations; the metallic tang of tinned asparagus spears, rolled into flattened white bread spread with mayonnaise as hors d’oeuvres for my parents dinner parties (it was the seventies – I make them with fresh asparagus now); sitting on squares of newspaper to eat dripping red icy poles; mastering an omelette and living on them in my early twenties…
Luisa Weiss’s memoir, My Berlin Kitchen, describes her food memories, beginning when she was a child, as she was shuttled between her Italian mother, who lived in Berlin and her American father, who lived in Boston. Weiss was born in Germany, and when her parents separated , it was decided that she would spend the school year in Boston and the holidays in Berlin. While this system worked well enough for many years, Weiss was homesick for Berlin. In her twenties, she had a stint in Paris, and then landed a a dream job with a publisher in New York. But still Berlin beckoned.
Regardless of where she was living, cooking became ‘crucial’ – “…it couldn’t shrink the Atlantic Ocean or lessen the six-hour time difference. But it made my world a little bit smaller.” She goes on to say that by summoning the foods of her loved ones (whether they be in Berlin, Sicily, Boston or Paris), her kitchen became her sanctuary, and the stove an anchor.
Distance means nothing when your kitchen smells like home.
The book is divided into 41 chapters, each devoted to a particular memory, and each finishing with a recipe. I can attest to Weiss’s recipes, as her cookbook, German Baking, is my trusted source for cakes (I am not a baker so when I do bake, I need a reliable recipe). I am also a long-time reader of her blog, The Wednesday Chef.
Weiss’s descriptions of people, places and events are filled with warmth and honesty, and her memories of particular delicacies – Pflaumenkuchen (plum cake), elderflower cordial, Spargelsalat (white asparagus salad), Hannchen Jansen torte (gooseberry cream cake), and Flammkuchen (Alsatian flatbread with bacon and creme fraiche) – sparked my own memories of my visits to Germany.
There is a story in between the delicious descriptions of food! Apart from finding a place to call home, the book charts Weiss’s relationships, and is a beautiful reminder of how food draws people together.
Not only did my Sicilian uncle teach me how to cook, he taught me how to feed people too.
4/5 A delight for all sorts of reasons.
German Christmas baking is the stuff of legends, and with good reason. There are no simple drop cookies to be found in this cold, dark place (well, there might be a few, but those are for weaklings) and there is nothing about traditional German Christmas baking that is easy. These doughs were muscle-busting affairs, leaden with molten honey, chopped nuts, and heady spices… The baker has to have not only strength and fortitude, but patience too.
When I was quite little, Christmas baking always involved making Lebkuchen – nothing to do with choosing something German, but instead because the recipe was in the Women’s Weekly The Big Book of Beautiful Biscuits cookbook, and my mum deemed them ‘festive’. The Women’s Weekly version were cut in heart shapes, had a spot of jam and a layer of chocolate – alas, I couldn’t find that recipe, but this one will serve you well.