In England, you can stroll into a supermarket and pick up almost anything from star fruit to various Indian pickles, Quorn products, tortillas, short crust pastry and frozen, well, everything really.
Here, I’ve had trouble at various times locating; canned chick peas (which are currently stocked in the exotic foods section at the Kaiser’s in Schönhauser Allee Arcaden, and are sometimes available in supermarkets, sometimes not), passion fruit, Mexican food products that I can buy without ending up in the same financial predicament as Italy, Weetabix, mint sauce, maple syrup, frozen sweetcorn, sweet potatoes, decent tea like PG Tips…Things that I consider pretty basic, but are obviously not.
So now I consider recipes very carefully before deciding whether hunting down the ingredients in a manner comparable to cave men of the Ice Age is actually worth it. And, when guests from England come over, I request gifts of self-raising flour, salt and vinegar crisps and dark-chocolate covered Digestive biscuits.
When I was a child, we used to visit India with suitcases stuffed with Cadbury’s chocolates and cheddar cheese, but this stopped several years ago. “We get everything here,” they said. And they did. Deutschland has not yet reached the same level.
The Bavarian loves it when visitors come bearing gifts. My cousin recently brought with her four packs of Chocolate Digestives. We finished them in one week. (That’s 1.6 Kgs, and around 8000 calories.) I say we, but mostly it was The Bavarian, who stuffed a whole one into his mouth at a time, as one would a Pringle. If anyone out there has attempted to stuff an entire Digestive into their mouth, you’ll know that it’s almost impossible. Even The Bavarian, who has a big mouth and a talent for stuffing as much as possible into it, was struggling. I watched him for a while, to see whether he would catch on to the fact that these things had to be nibbled, or dunked into tea and bitten, but after while I felt it was my duty to intervene.
Me: Why are you eating them like that? They’re not Pringles.
The Bavarian: Because they’re only safe from you once they’re in my mouth.
In our flat, it sometimes feels as if we’re living during war-time, when luxury goods are in short supply and people resort to hoarding or gorging whenever they get their hands on some. I like to think that The Bavarian’s paranoia is not caused by my voracious appetite, but by some kind of collective consciousness inherited from being born in a nation that has suffered two world wars; when his grandmother passed away, they found stacks of food stored not only in the kitchen but in wardrobes and under the bed.
Despite the fact that most supermarkets are useless, they seem to be opening up at the same rate as Bubble Tea joints in Prenzlauer Berg. Within a mile of where I live, there are no less than fifteen supermarkets. This year, Prenzlauer Berg saw the opening of Germany’s biggest Vegan supermarket (Veganz, Schivelbeiner Straße 34, 10439 Berlin) and Kochhaus (Schönhauser Allee 46 10437 Berlin) .
Kochhaus’s products are organised around recipes. At each table you will find a suggested dish – carrot and ginger soup, spaghetti carbonara etc – along with all the ingredients you will need to make it, a little card to take home with the recipe on it, and any equipment you may need – so in the case of the soup, this would include serving bowls and a hand blender.
At first I was flummoxed as to why anyone would shop here…it’s über-expensive (on the board at each table, it tells you the cost per dish per person, which averages out to about 4 or 5 euros, for which you might as well save yourself the hassle and eat out in this city), and restrictive – you can only buy stuff that relates to the dozen or so recipes they suggest, everything is sold in small quantities measured out for two or four servings, and there is only one choice of product per table – so if you need salt, you’re going to have to pick the only bottle of salt on the table, which is pink and from the Himalayas and has been blessed by the Dalai Lama and is therefore more expensive than gold.
On the surface, this supermarket can be seen as a symptom of just how far Prenzlauer Berg has moved from its poor Socialist past, but essentially, being given just one choice of product per item harks back to the days of shopping during The Wall.
According to Barry Schwartz, who gave an interesting talk at TED about the paradox of choice, the official dogma of all western societies – that if we are interested in maximising the welfare of our citizens, the way to do that is to maximise individual freedom, and the way to maximise freedom is to maximise choice – is paradoxical because people don’t actually like having too much choice. It produces a) paralysis – a study of voluntary investment plans showed that for every ten mutual funds the employer offered, the rate of participation went down two per cent – and b) if we overcome paralysis and make a choice, less satisfaction, because the more options there are the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option you chose.
This is all very well and good, and maybe the people of Prenzlauer Berg are happy with less choice, but it probably means that we won’t be seeing any Chocolate Digestives in the aisles any time soon 😦