Paolo Tullio: Pigging out, Berlin Style
National cuisines are often the first point of contact with a new culture. When we travel, if we want to learn a little about where we are, we try the local food. In our increasingly globalised world, there are always international outlets, such as McDonald's, for those who are too timid to try the national cuisine, and in just about every city there's an Italian restaurant if the cuisine seems a little too strange.
Most countries export their cuisine -- look through the Irish 'Golden Pages' and you can find food from just about every nation on the planet. In Dublin, you can find Mongolian, Nepalese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican and Indian food -- the list covers almost the entire United Nations.
But there's one significant omission, and it's not just in Dublin. There's one cuisine that doesn't travel, that you won't find outside its native land. The missing cuisine? German.
For the largest country in Europe to have no emissaries of its cooking outside of Germany is a little strange. Okay, it may not be one of the great cookery traditions of the world, but there are an awful lot of Germans and lots of them travel, so you'd expect to find a German restaurant outside Germany.
But you don't and, even more curiously, the local cuisine isn't that easy to find in Germany, either.
I was in Berlin this week, speaking at an International symposium on food organised by the European Centre for the Liberal Arts. I had a free evening and I was determined to find a restaurant that served German food.
That turned out to be harder than I expected.
A little investigation on the interweb found me Zur Letzten Instanz, Berlin's oldest inn, founded in 1621. Napoleon ate here, and so did Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as a host of other names that meant nothing to me.
It promised traditional German cooking, just what I wanted, and I set off with Herr Doktor Professor Bartholomew Ryan on the U2, the underground line that took us to Alexanderplatz, the centre of old east Berlin.
A massive communications tower dominates the square, built by the Soviets as a propaganda edifice. It looks imposing, but in truth served no purpose.
A short walk from here took us to the restaurant, which was already pretty full, even on a cold and rainy mid-week night. Inside, there's an old ceramic stove, lots of heavy wooden tables, a strong smell of cooking and an easy welcome with the entire staff speaking excellent English.
We found our table and next to us was a large table of Germans -- a good sign, I thought. I hate to stereotype, but the menu was pretty much what I expected it to be: lots of sausages and plenty of pig. In fact, the table beside us got their main courses shortly after we'd sat down and their plates overflowed with huge pieces of pork.
The way the menu is designed, it's not really possible to have a starter and a main course, as all the dishes are pretty big and filling. So we ordered the blood sausages and shared them between us as a starter.
They were what we'd call black pudding in Ireland, two quite large blood sausages served on a bed of creamy sauerkraut. I'm not normally a fan of sauerkraut, but this was very tasty, and the sausages went well with the traditional mustard that was on the table.
There was a wine list, but it was short and listed wines of no great quality, so we did the German thing and drank beer, specifically a beer called Berliner, which seemed appropriate given where we were.
Looking around at the room, it was easy to imagine that this was a scene that hadn't changed a great deal in the past couple of hundred years.
What was certainly true was that the efficiency of the service, given the large number of diners, was pretty impressive. But, then again, I'd guess you tend to get good at something if you've been doing it for nearly 400 years.
Helpfully, the menu is both in German and English, so for our main courses Barry ordered the shin of pork and I had the belly of pork. What arrived were two huge platefuls -- on Barry's plate a shin bone surrounded with perfectly cooked meat just falling off the bone, while on my plate there was a slab of pork belly about twice the size of what you'd be served in Dublin.
These were not subtle platefuls, but the pork on both dishes was expertly cooked and there was enough to satisfy the hungriest diner.
In fact, the portions turned out to be far too large for both Barry and me, and, despite our best efforts, about half of our plates remained untouched. You could say that what these dishes lacked in subtlety they more than made up for in quantity.
A couple more beers kept us chatting at the table, watching the other tables turn over incessantly. What seemed to be the norm was for groups to arrive, eat one large plateful each, and then leave. In moments, a vacated table was in use again.
We finished up with an espresso each and got the bill, which was €60.10. It's worth mentioning that this would be considered quite an expensive meal in Berlin, where prices in general seem surprisingly low by Irish standards and not just in restaurants.
Rents and transport costs are low, so Berlin has become a Mecca for artists and musicians, which makes for great night-life, with bars that allow you to smoke.