Tag: Germany

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Defeating the human survival gene

There’s a restaurant in Old Street, North London, called the Bavarian Beer House. Look, here it is:

If you’ve ever been to one of those sad, half-arsed, desperate-and-yet-at-the-same-time-can’t-quite-be-bothered apologies for an Oktoberfest that British events companies occasionally excrete onto the heads of an unprovoked public, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is no point going to a Bavarian Beer House in North London.
But unlikely as it sounds, in this case you’d be quite wrong. It’s run by Germans, staffed by Germans, has beer imported from Germany, serves truly authentic German cuisine, and the waitresses all look like this:

I first encountered the people there when I met head honcho Sabine von Reth while we were both defending our national honour in Market Kitchen’s Beer World Cup. I then went there for lunch, and we got chatting about beer and food matches, and last Tuesday I went back for a free meal, going through the most popular dishes and recommending which of the various lagers and wheat beers worked best with each one.

If I get around to it I’ll write up those recommendations – and they should be on the menu in the BBH quite soon. It was a very enjoyable evening and I’d heartily recommend a visit to anyone. Good food. Good beer. Great service.
But I wanted to talk about one particular dish. It’s a dish – an ooze, a concoction, a form of matter – that worries me. No, more than that – it scares the holy fucking crap out of me. And that dish is Obatzda.
Here is a picture of Obatzda:

Yes, it looks like cat sick dressed with red onions. It’s the most revolting-looking food I’ve seen since the Heinz sandwich paste my dad used to give me to take to school. There is no reason whatsoever why anyone should feel moved to put this in their mouths. And yet for some reason, Germans do, and the first time I went to the Bavarian Beer House, I did too.
When you put it in your mouth it has the consistency and character of wet concrete. It’s all so badly wrong, and then your tongue takes a tentative look and it’s oooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…….. ooooooooooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh yyeeeeeeeeeesssssss……. mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm………….
Turns out it’s not made of cat sick. It’s made of Emmental cheese mixed up with cream cheese, butter, herbs and onions, served with pretzels.
When you swallow the first mouthful, you feel it coat and line your oesophagus on the way down. A second mouthful, and your heart sits up in your chest like a meerkat sensing a hawk. The third settles in your stomach like wet sand. After the fourth, your heart tries to make a run for it, hammering on your ribcage, pleading tearfully to be let out.
And yet, you just keep going. And going. And going.
I was eating it for, I’d guess, about forty minutes. I had to ask for extra pretzels. I was eating steadily, methodically, workmanlike, and after those forty minutes I had made no impression whatsoever on the bulk of the thing sitting in front of me. But still, I kept going.
This… substance is not right. It’s uncanny. Sinister.
Think about it: humanity has had a long and violent history getting to where we are today. Some of the most celebrated stories we tell each other are about our triumphs over adversity and gritty will to survive. We’re resourceful, ingenious, determined and strong, but most of all we have a survival gene, a sixth sense that alerts us to danger and helps us avoid it.
When I was a teenager I went abseiling down a cliff face. Eight people went before me. I was roped and harnessed up, and I’d seen them roped and harnessed in similar fashion enjoying the descent. And yet I simply could not make my body take that final step off the cliff top. In my brain I knew I’d be safe, but my body simply refused to obey my brain and would not act on the instructions being given to it. Primally, it knew that to step off a sixty foot high cliff would result in certain death, and so it refused to do it. Eventually I think I tricked it by leaning back ever so slowly, until by the time it realised what was happening there was nothing it could do.
So why – if our survival instinct is so strong – would anyone ever have more than one mouthful of Obatzda? In a brief moment of clarity and strength that just happened to coincide with a pretty waitress passing our table, I just managed to blurt out a plea for her to take it away – I think I may have fought her for the plate as she did so. But if that hadn’t happened, I’d still be there now, munching away methodically at this never-ending pile of foul-looking slop, for the rest of my life – which wouldn’t actually be that long.
It doesn’t even taste that nice. I mean it tastes very good, but it’s not the taste that’s making it so addictive. It’s something deeper, something chemical. In the mouth it releases endorphins that instantly make all the pain and anxiety of existence go away. It cradles your head in invisible cheesy hands, strokes your cheek and shushes you, telling you not to worry about the sudden chest pains and pins and needles that seem to have developed in the last few minutes.
If any ingestible, addictive substance should be banned, it’s Obatzda – so potent, it completely overrides the human survival gene.
It goes really well with the Erdinger Hefeweisse, by the way.

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On Saturday night me and Mrs PBBB and our Welsh rellies went to Alexandra Palace for the fireworks.

We’d seen an ad for a German Bierfest in the building itself, and decided to check that out for a couple of hours beforehand.
We were promised authentic German beer, authentic German sausages, and authentic German music. I still have flashbacks to my time at Oktoberfest five years ago, like a Vietnam vet, only in a good way. While there, I realised that it wasn’t a celebration of beer per se, but a celebration of communion and friendship that had beer at its heart. For three days we were up on our seats forming conga lines and toasting people we had only just met, and the oompah bands – never something I had previously listened to voluntarily – drove the atmosphere and buzz in each tent as adeptly as any superstar DJ.
It didn’t take long to realise that Ally Pally wasn’t going to be quite the same.
At least the beer was Paulaner. And I wouldn’t have minded the £4 a pint price tag if it hadn’t been served in the cheapest possible plastic glasses, with no sign of the characteristic thick, foaming head it should be served with. (If you didn’t want decent beer, you could have had Fosters for £3.60). Attractive bar staff served us at our tables, which was good. But the flimsy glasses and their lack of experience meant the only way for them to carry the beer was in cardboard carriers of four pints each. As they walked they tended to swing these, leaving trails of spilt beer in their wake.
The tables and benches were incredibly flimsy and clearly would not have supported anything other than sitting politely.
The ‘authentic German food throughout the venue’ turned out to be one stall selling Bratwurst and sauerkraut for £6 a pop – or piddling Herta Frankfurters at £3 a go. The other alternatives were overpriced and frankly inedible looking authentic Bavarian pizza, or the authentically Bavarian Fine Burger Co.
The oompah band played none of the big hits from Munich, the tunes that really get the crowd going. They came from Ipswich, and alternated with an authentic Bavarian Irish folk band.
The whole thing was a bit mystifying – why go on about how authentic it’s going to be and then not even try?
And why can’t the English organise something like Oktoberfest? I caught myself at one point thinking, “Ah, but there’s thousands of people here. You could never have proper glassware, proper service, proper food, proper chairs and tables at an event this size. You just wouldn’t be able to police it properly and guarantee people’s safety”. And then I remembered that Oktoberfest does exactly that – this gathering was small compared to any one of the giant tents in Munich, which managed to serve more people better food at better table in proper glasses.
I was feeling decidedly grumpy, pissing off the others with my inability to just accept it for what it was.
And then, we went outside and the sky lit up, and for half an hour cynical middle-aged beer writers and small children alike went “ooh”, and “aaah”.
And I realised that sometimes – just occasionally – the best thing you can do is shrug and say, “So what? It’s only beer.”