Hamburg's Town Hall square and First World War Memorial Column
In this blogposting....
* Robinson’s German Journey: Day Nine
* AGM XXXIII
Do your worst...
ROBINSON’S GERMAN JOURNEY: DAY NINE / PART TWO
THURSDAY 29 MARCH 2012
It all seems to have started with the frikadelle; a large, thick patty made by mixing minced beef, soaked stale bread, eggs, chopped onions, salt and pepper. Slapped into a pan of hot fat and served up with vegetables and boiled potatoes (though never in a bun, which came much later) the frikadelle was cheap and filling, and became one of the staples of Hamburg’s working classes.
With increasing affluence, it would normally have disappeared into the vaults of some gastronomic museum somewhere - the sort of oblivion where hazlitt, tripe, faggots and black pudding belong, if the world was a more reasonable place. But, as everyone knows, economic history threw a spanner in the works; the humble frikadelle was taken to America by emigrants from Hamburg, lost its stale bread, eggs and chopped onions, shrank dramatically and became the hamburger we all know and despise to this day.
What I wanted to sample, though, was the real thing - if I could find it. And I’d already been pointed in the direction of the station’s food hall - which sounded like an unpromising place to find some folk-food.
But I’d reckoned without Hamburg Central Station. It’s a compressed version of the city it serves - big, breezy, brash and busy - a great place to hide from the Ice Age that was developing outside. There are two, double-decker alleys of shops running across it at each end - and they weren’t the usual, overpriced, rip-off piles of tat we’re used to in English railway stations, either. Amongst them I found a specialist, home-designed and handmade jewellery shop, a model railway shop of intriguing density, a modern-art photographic studio and one of Hamburg’s biggest and best bookshops.
(I called into the bookshop later and - emboldened by conceit - bought a book in German. It was written by a footballer called Moritz Volz and was all about the years he spent playing in England. It's called Unser Mann in London and I don't understand any of it.)
The book I bought - and will probably never read
All this and a food hall, too.
It was a Hamburg institution and I could see why. You could go all round the world in eighty mouthfuls. Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Argentinian, Dutch, French, Vietnamese, Thai - I counted sixteen outlets and gave up. None of them seemed to be of the usual, multinational Nando’s/Yo Sushi/Subway type, either. They all looked like small businesses - and they all looked mouth-wateringly cheap.
And there, with a queue of ten cold and hungry Hamburgers, was my shangri-la - the best hamburger bar in Hamburg. And, served the way Mother Nature intended, they are surprisingly simple and unadorned. No hateful, sloppy gherkins in sight. No lukewarm lettuce or tomato. Just a large, inch-thick meat patty - qv - still with its eggs and stale bread intact, and served in a big, wholemeal bap. You can put mayonnaise or ketchup on it - or, if you’re a real prole - both.
I had both.
The cold had made me hungry, or at least that’s the excuse I’m sticking to for having two.
While I was wolfing my hamburgers I noticed the proprietor of the cake-stall next door smiling graciously and indulgently at me. As I wiped the last traces of ketchup off my shirt, I walked over to her. She was what you might call a well-turned-out middle-aged lady with a hairdo not unlike the Queen’s and an unnervingly seductive smile. Like everyone else I’ve ever met in Europe, she knew at once that I was English without my saying anything at all. That’s when I realised I even eat Englishly.
She asked me, in English, if I had enjoyed my hamburgers. Blamelessly, her accent was heavily German - and of the local, ‘Low German’, kind. Deep and throaty and reassuring. When she asked me if I’d like to try her franzbrötchen, I almost asked her to marry me. ‘Everyone in Hamburg‘ she said ‘eats a franzbrötchen at least three or four times a week’. Which seemed a good enough reason to me.
A franzbrötchen like Lisbeth serves up
The name means ‘little French cake’ but no-one seems to know why. In truth, they do look a bit like baroque croissants, but the similarity ends there. They’re heavier, gutsier and much sweeter, filled (as they are) with cinnamon, raisins, almonds (sometimes) and sugar.
Just to make sure that I liked them - and to spend five more heavenly minutes with Lisbeth (for it was she) - I had two. And another coffee.
Despite what the puffed-up and comfortably coiffured citizens of Munich might think, there’s no doubting Hamburg’s status as Germany’s second city. It bellows its importance at you from street-level to its striking and bespired skyline.
This is not just Hamburg; this is the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg - a reference to its mediaeval status as one of the Holy Roman Empire’s major ports and trading centres. The Hansa League of cities, of which Hamburg was a founder member, was an unbelievably wealthy and powerful force in northern Europe for over 400 years and Hamburg doesn’t mind wearing this heritage on its collective sleeve, cocking a snook at what it obviously perceives as other, less prosperous and less powerful cities like Frankfurt, Cologne or Stuttgart.
It’s self-consciousness doesn’t seem to blow over into conceit, though. It’s one of those places - grand and monumental and thriving - where visitors can understand its citizens’ pride and join in.
Hamburg - the Venice of the North
And they like you joining in here. In the large and stately square that befits a Town Hall of such obvious opulence, I was accosted twice. A group of high-school girls on some kind of assignment - all smiles and miniskirts - asked me a range of extraordinary questions like how would I improve Hamburg or what were the main things I disliked about it. I told them - not untruthfully - that there was nothing I would change and that I liked their city a lot.
Two or three minutes later, a couple of university students asked if they could take a photo of me because I had a beard. This sounded deeply suspicious, like one of those ludicrous secret messages being passed to entirely the wrong person; ‘the moon is full and the cauliflowers are ready for picking’.
They explained that their mission that day was to find men with beards and photograph them in twos (as if that explained everything). So we hung about looking unsavoury until another bearded fellow appeared. He was a butcher from Lübeck called Stefan and he was obviously as gullible and as easily manipulated as I was. The students took a picture of us which I did not have the presence of mind to ask for a copy of. By the time I did have the presence of mind, the students and Stefan had disappeared and it was the past of mind.
I wandered smilingly north, toward the Alster. This edge of the square is formed by a canal, the First World War Memorial Column and an arcade of fashionable shops and eating-places. It looked and felt welcomingly Venetian in this chilling weather.
Everyone smiles a lot in Hamburg.
On my way to the metro, I decided to call into a church that lay en route, just to see what it was like. It had one of the largest and oldest organs in Germany. It also had one of the spookiest curates I’m ever likely to meet. He followed me round the empty, echoing church and kept sidling up to me, whispering things in Low German. I didn’t understand anything he said - or exactly how Low his German was - which is probably just as well.
I decided to seek further shelter from the atrocious weather by taking my customary journey on a bus or metro to its destination, just to see where it went. When I looked at the map in the metro station, my mind was made up at once. One of the termini of metro Line 1 is Poppenbüttel.
I’m still not sure why I find the name so uproariously funny; no-one else does. But I knew - I just knew - that I had to go there. So I did.
Just to prove that I was actually there...
It was quite nice, in an ordinary, Poppenbüttel kind of way.
By the time I'd returned to my hotel, it was snowing.
Our next AGM will take place at 1100 on Thursday 21 June at Birkheads Nursery, between Sunniside and Stanley.
A splendid time is guaranteed for all. I don’t know how we do it.
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