Berlin's Best Weekly Markets
Shopping with Locals and Basking in the Atmosphere
|Fruits and Vegetables in Prenzlauerberg. Photo © Beebe Bahrami.
When I turned a corner in the Schöneberg neighborhood’s biweekly market, Winterfeldtmarkt, a mountain of chanterelles stood before me. I came to a halt. This was one of my ideas of heaven—many involve culinary delights—and I wanted to stand there indefinitely and take in the ephemeral glow of each just-hunted fungus. Never mind that my fingers and toes were stinging with a seeping cold; it didn’t stop the vendors from setting up their tables and tents in below freezing weather twice a week on the square. The chanterelles shared the table with a small basket of black truffles and a medium sized heap of morels.
I was in Berlin with my husband Miles in November. Temperatures never left the 30s (Fahrenheit) and yet the city’s weekly markets without fail continued to set up and sell local, fresh produce, handcrafts, and specialty foods for the season. Granted, it was an unusual cold spell for November. But I learned through it that no matter what the weather, these markets went on without missing a week; people have got to eat. In this new capital city people still shop like their predecessors, buying just enough for a few days and then returning to buy more fresh ingredients later in the week. These year-round markets cast a warm, colorful glow on an otherwise gray, frosty winter palette.
Even in those plummeting temperatures I could smell the pungent leather, peat, butter, must, and sage smell of the riotous collection of mushrooms before me. The chanterelles (pfifferling ) had a lamp-lit-within glow with shades of amber, ivory, and shimmering brown. Their elegant necks swept upward in a seductive gesture to capture one’s attention. I was broken out of my reverie, planning mental meals—wild mushroom pasta, mushroom bisque, sautéed mushrooms in olive oil and garlic, decorated at the last moment with thinly minced sage leaves—when my husband Miles whisked over with exploding enthusiasm. He had just purchased for a mere ten euros a beautiful and sturdy rectangular Vietnamese basket with leather handles and navy blue and aqua stripes, solving the one problem that kept us from taking the market by storm.
In our enthusiasm to take in the weekly neighborhood markets in Berlin, after renting a place to stay in the eastside neighborhood of Prenzlauerberg, we were initiated to the environmentally sane German practice of not offering plastic carry home bags for food purchases. Oh, they exist, at an extra charge. Germans are blessedly the most earth conscious people I’ve ever encountered and plastic bags are not an item to take for granted and expect when shopping, unless you are ready to pay a few centimes for one.
I pondered what effect on our coastlines, our highways, and our landfills such a simple custom would have. What if we all bought beautiful sturdy baskets and took these to the supermarket each time we went shopping? It is a custom I love and one that quickened our need to find a strong basket to be like other Berliners, to carry home our edible treasures.
I also pondered the apartment that we had rented for our time in Berlin, through Fine & Mine, an agency specializing in short and long term rentals (see below, in More Info). The collection of buildings in which our apartment resided had at its center a recycle center. There residents were expected to sort their trash—paper, plastic, glass, metal, Styrofoam, cardboard, and cartons—into labeled receptacles. There was even an urban compost can where all vegetable peels and egg shells should go. What was left, which was often one-eighteenth of the original, went into a trash can. I saw this alone as a fantastic contribution to sustainability, a critical aspect of Slow Food, organic food, and basic good living.
Miles carried that blue and aqua striped basket, swinging it merrily. Behind him, a few stalls down, I could see the basket seller, pyramids of striped baskets from the ground up towering near her head. She was like her baskets, wearing a striped wool cap with matching knobby hand knit scarf. I was then distracted again from the chanterelles by the sight of a husband and wife team making extra hot espressos for market goers. Their machine stood behind a case of beautiful trays of apfeltorte (apple cake), nutty breads, chocolate-filled and fresh raspberry-filled croissants, muffins, and dark grained breads. I sidled up to their counter and put in an order for a milchkaffee (coffee with steamed milk) for Miles and me and a blueberry muffin, an apple cinnamon muffin, a dark chocolate brownie, and a carrot cake muffin to share, feast, and sample. As I warmed my fingers and satisfied my taste buds with freshly baked goods, I cast my eye over the market scene. Greengrocers were singing spontaneous songs extolling the virtues of their produce to pull in customers. Miles wondered off to the leather worker and purchased a leather belt that was measured, cut, and fit to him. Nearing Christmas, a greens seller offered decorative mistletoe, holly, hawthorn, and another variety of cut branches with glossy green leaves and white berries I have yet to identify. I had noticed on the walk to Winterfeldtmarkt that homes and restaurants were using these organic items on tables and doors to create a festive feel.
As I took in the market’s warm glow the temperature plummeted three more degrees, bringing snow. Granted, the tomatoes were hothouse grown and from the Netherlands, but those mushrooms, the whole grain breads, the eggs—deep yellow-orange yoked and from happy chickens—made gray northeastern German winters warm from within. Each neighborhood has its own biweekly lamp, sending a golden light across the frost lined streets. In addition to foods, these biweekly markets also offer handmade crafts, from one-of-a-kind sweaters and handbags to homemade beeswax candles and wooden children’s toys.
In a city that is always changing, where clubs and cafes are listed in a guidebook and gone in six months, the weekly neighborhood markets will hold constant; they’ll be there year after year, twice a week, with the most current foods available, nourishing a city that is reinventing itself at light speed without forgetting its bone-chilling dark past, nor its splendid light-inspired past and present.
|Wine shop on Bergmanstrasse in Berlin. Photo © Beebe Bahrami.
Berlin is a big city, spreading out into diverse districts and suburbs from its center, known as Mitte. The best way to get around is to take the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn to the desired neighborhood and then explore it on foot. The U-Bahn is the city’s main subway. The S-Bahn covers outlying areas and is a good way to get to the city’s outskirts and suburbs.
The U-Bahn covers the city well and you will be able to find a stop near just about anywhere you need to go in Berlin. You can purchase tickets at the subway stop from a ticket window, if open, or a machine on the platform. Tickets need to be validated (punched) at another machine on the train platform before boarding. No one will check your ticket each time but random ticket checks do occur, and quite frequently (with a fine to the empty-handed). So, it is a good idea to both buy a ticket and to validate it before boarding. There are also buses and trolleys.
In addition to food markets, there are a few flea markets throughout town that likewise offer a fun and insightful view into the life of Berlin. They are well worth visiting, if anything, to gain a contemporary perspective of the city’s past relics, much like an archaeologist on a dig or a historian in a manuscript library. You might even find a treasure you have to take home, one as old or as kitsch as Berlin.
Most flea markets are easily learned about in a guidebook on the city, but my favorite flea market so far has not been widely divulged to travelers. It was in the neighborhood where we rented our apartment, Prenzlauerberg, right along where the old Berlin Wall ran through and separated this eastern neighborhood from the west. I like the flea market there, held every Sunday, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. because it reflects the east-west shift still in progress. When my German failed me and I asked if a merchant spoke English, several people shook their heads, no. Spanish? No. French? No. But Russian, yes. Called Flohmarkt am Mauerpark, it is as the name implies the flea market on the edge of Mauer Park, the park next to the old Wall. The flea market is right along where the Wall once stood, now an open space with hodge-podge stands and kiosks filled with old record albums, clothes, household goods, furniture, musical instruments, jewelry (including Balkan amber), homemade preserves, and a hot coffee stand with baked goods to fortify oneself while in the quest for the ultimate bargain. The nearest U-Bahn stops are: Eberswalderstrasse and Bernauerstrasse.
A Sampling of Weekly Markets in Berlin
Berlin is a city in palpable daily change, be it from the new graffiti that goes up overnight, illuminating new cultural undercurrents, to the opening and closing of myriad cafes and bars, to the unstoppable creative zeal of the artists and musicians who flock to this city on the rise because of its desire to bust out of old, dark definitions and reincarnate into a more wholesome and humanistic center in the world. In this world of rapid growth and flux, the markets are an anchor. Every week they are there to fuel and sustain their city’s immense energy.
Every neighborhood has a weekly market. Below are some of the more famous markets, famous perhaps for their riotous color, be it from the fruit and vegetable stands or from the panache of its sellers and buyers.
Winterfeldtmarkt on the main square known as Winterfeldplatz in the Schöneberg district operates every Wednesday and Saturday. In addition to the foods, if there were a Slow Clothes movement parallel to that of the Slow Food, you would find excellent examples here. In the heart of the market is a woman who makes one-of-a-kind clothing pieces. I bought from her a woman’s top in a cobalt blue heather wool fabric, with flaring sleeves and princess seams along the torso. It was tailored with such precision and beauty and when I looked closely at the stitch work I saw it was all done by hand. Then the maker, and designer, I learned, told me it cost 35 euros. I was sure I misunderstood her and expected to pay more. She insisted it was a good price for her. Now I am spoiled; like a locally grown, seasonal vegetable, once you wear something like this, mass produced versions are unpalatable.
Another woman sells everything elderberry from her own trees : elderberry wine, juice, and preserves. She joyously expounds the antioxidant qualities of her beloved berry and gives out samples of the juice. It is refreshing and a little less tart than pomegranate juice but has a similar feel of intense fruit and vitality.
Concerning seasonal foods, as I was there in November, there were winter mushrooms, root vegetables, leafy winter greens, edible gourds of every imaginable variety cut into more manageable and portable pieces upon request, woven garlic and dried straw flower wreaths, every possibility of fruit and berry jams and jellies, wild flower honeys, myriad varieties of German and Polish sausages, red currents ready to turn into special sauces (to accompany wild boar, for example), and mountains of free range eggs.
The nearest U-Bahn stops are: Büllowstrasse, Kurfürstenstrasse, and Nollendorfplatz.
Türken-Markt in the Kreuzberg neighborhood, sets up along Maybachufer, a street that flows parallel to the Landwehrkanal, a lovely tree lined canal with bridges and swans. This market, often referred to as the Turkish market, is a wonderful way to see the Turkish influence and presence in the city with its eastern Mediterranean delicacies, such as Turkish olives and cheeses, breads (including a mouthwatering yeasted flatbread with black caraway seeds), huge oyster mushrooms, spices, herbs, shallots, and dried fruits. The fresh ginger root at one of many vegetable stands had a vibrant aura like none I’d ever witnessed and I could understand why it was considered both a delicious cooking ingredient as well as a health food (some believe ginger enhances digestion and circulation). There was a jovial rotisserie chicken vendor, selling his golden and crispy rotating chickens like hotcakes. A Turkish fish vendor handed me a list of his fish: the left column listed the names in Turkish and the right in German. The middle column noted the prices per kilogram. (Herring, German hering, is known as tirsi in Turkish. It’s a useful list as it seems that seventy-five percent of the vendors and fifty-percent of the buyers are Turkish.) The Türken-Markt operates on Tuesdays and Fridays, from 12-6 p.m. The nearest U-Bahn stop is: Schönleinstrasse.
Marheinekeplatz Markthalle in Marheinekeplatz in the Kreuzberg neighborhood is open on Monday-Saturday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. It is a covered market, offering a reprieve from the cold outdoors in winter. It is like walking into old Europe, with merchants selling fresh produce, fish, German cheeses, wine, eggs, and sausages. Dogs wait at the entrance for their human companions and the smell of baked goods coming out of a warm oven match the sound of an espresso machine making a hot elixir and pick-me-up. The nearest U-Bahn stop is: Gneisenaustrasse.
For More Info
1) Rental agencies, known as mitwohnzentralen, are a good way to forego hotels, have a kitchen in which to cook market fare, and save a lot of money for truffles and wine rather than spending it on hotel rooms. We went with local agencies, though airbnb and homestay.com offer many options in Berlin, as they do across much of the blobe. Our experience with Fine & Mine was excellent. There were many other rental agencies who also responded to our queries efficiently and professionally, with photos and prices on several rentals via email. We settled on Fine & Mine because they came closest to offering exactly what we wanted.
2) If you are like me and love mushrooms and you read German, you will want to check out their website. (Pilze, means mushroom; the site’s name is “Pilze, Pilze, Pilze” just to really convey their enthusiasm for the subject. It is rife with everything about mushrooms expressed through a hearty enthusiasm that I’ve best seen among Germans when they speak about locally procured foods.)
3) A great English source on German food covers the world of locally and nationally harvested and produced foods, wines, and beers (including an article “Only Germany can provide a beer that’s good for every personality!” I like the implied health benefits of beer in the title.) It is the official website for the German Agricultural Marketing Board.
4) Every January there is a week long International Green Week in Berlin with events focusing on food, agriculture, and gardens.