Well, well, back in action! I hope you missed me (but not too much).
I had a fabulous trip, not least because sharing an obsession with food is the best medium to encounter interesting, genuine, and generous people. Aiming to discover a little more about regional food systems in other countries, I managed to connect with people who were able to answer (most of) my deluge of inquiries, and I’d like to share those learned tidbits with you.
Beginning with Germany. Food in Germany, especially Berlin, is extraordinarily cheap. There are quite a few particularly good Turkish food joints (namely falafel, döner, and gyros) because of the large immigrant population in Berlin. I also had a ball at the Turkish markets, tasting hummuses and other dips, spinach potato pastries, and buying up spices, persimmons, and tea. Europe is so close to the rest of the world, which sounds a little silly but is still challenging to actually comprehend. And it makes globalization of food, as an archetype of culture, much more apparent.
Yet I didn’t find people to be more knowledgable about the food system in Germany compared to the U.S. Many people I talked to knew more about the American food system than the European one, because there’s been a strong food movement in the U.S. to expose the evils of industrial ag, and although similar problems also exist in Europe, they aren’t as high-profile. Similarly, the dearth of vegetable consumption is not a purely American phenomenon—as with most issues, there are some people who pay attention and others who do not. In particular, we’ve helped more consumers connect to their food by sharing stories, good and bad, of food producers—something that I’m not sure is being done to the same extent elsewhere. The moral of that story is that even though I think of Europe as being more progressive than the States in many ways, we’re actually doing pretty well for ourselves here. On the other hand, there’s still lots more to learn, and I was only there for two weeks, so I remain a little biased.
I visited a small town with a sustainable agriculture university, Witzenhausen, to learn more about food sustainability in Germany. Similar to my own community in Maine, it felt like an enclave of conscientious food consumers, cooks, producers. Touring a grocery store with my host (a student at the university) was an informative joy—grocery shopping is one of my favorite travel activities, because ordinary experiences can tell you so much. Like finding eggs on the shelf instead of in the fridge (which has to do with cleaning regulations). Germany has a few different food labels: there’s “bio,” or biological, which corresponds roughly with organic in the U.S.; and then there another higher-level category, Demeter (after the Greek goddess of agriculture), which indicates more ecological and sustainable practices. Demeter is definitely more expensive, but in general there isn’t as high a cost differential between organic and non-organic in Germany, I think because of the subsidy structure.
History also affects food production. One of my guidebooks (Rough Guide to Berlin) informed me that sauerkraut was invented because King Frederick of Prussia established state monopolies of salt, coffee, and tobacco, and forced the citizens to buy large quantities of each commodity—so sauerkraut came out of the need to use up a lot of salt. I haven’t been able to verify this anywhere else, but I like the general concept: necessity, otherwise known as oppressive policies, is after all the mother of invention.
At the end of my Germany adventure, I tacked on a trip to Copenhagen, because I’ve heard a lot about the city and flights were cheaper (Wow Air, by the way, has super cheap flights to Europe—as long as you don’t mind packing super light and not even being served water (for free anyway) on the plane ride). And I was glad I did. Denmark has started to become known for the “New Nordic” cuisine, which is focused on local/sustainable/seasonal produce, and I was in food heaven. Much of the movement is thanks to the innovations of Noma, named the best restaurant in the world a few times. I heard some skepticism about it (serving moss and live ants, apparently), but many points for originality and the utmost care in sourcing and foraging. Chefs from Noma have then gone off and created their own restaurants throughout the city and spurred innovations of their own. I did eat a fancy new Nordic dinner one night, which consisted largely of foam sauces and thinly sliced vegetables. Fun, although I would have been more impressed if they had mixed it up a little more (four courses of foam gets a little old).
The other dish Denmark is known for is smørrebrød, basically a pretty open-faced sandwich, the most traditional with pickled herring. Also delicious, although the pickled herring was somehow sweeter than I expected. The first day I was there I went to Copenhagen Street Food on Paper Island, and was quite overwhelmed with the array of fresh vegetables, meat samples, and delicious smells. It’s fabulous. The Danish government actually subsidizes organic food, which makes it much more prevalent (although ends up encouraging monoculture organic, rather than real sustainable system change). Food is also generally very expensive (along with everything else) in Copenhagen, although pretty much all the social services are taken care of for you (thanks, tax money!).
Maybe someday I’ll move to Denmark and participate more actively in cuisine inventions and learn more about the benefits of paying taxes. Although, part of what I liked about Denmark is that it reminded me of Maine. For now I am thrilled to have triggered more food for thought and met some wonderful people, but I am quite happy to be back in my own kitchen, and my own world.