Hold the knockwurst, stuffed dumplings, heavy sauces and strudel with mounds of whipped cream. During my recent visit to their city I discovered that Berliners would rather be fit and healthy than plump and sluggish. To my surprise, the health-consciousness and concern about sustainability in both their personal and professional lives seem to take precedence in this young, vibrant and stylish city going through a cultural and ecological metamorphous.
Berlin is one-third greenery and water. Everywhere I turned, I saw lushness, scenic river paths, and signs and storefronts advertising organic products. And it didn't stop here. I stayed at a sustainable hotel and visited a green-conscious clothing and gift store as well as one of Europe's largest organic markets.
My timing was perfect. I arrived just days before Berlin's yearly Eco Festival during the first week of June. Tents filled with literature, food and sustainable products, as well as speakers supporting the green movement, lined Berlin's Tiergarten (equivalent to New York's Central Park) in front of the Brandenburg Gate. It was here that I tasted my first organic knockwurst.
But it was the herb-infused, artistic creations that titillated my palate at some moderate to high-end restaurants promoting farm-fresh, vegetarian and organic cooking. Situated just minutes from the Brandenburg Gate off of the grand boulevard of Unter den Linden, Margaux is one of Berlin's creme-de-la-creme restaurants, and it was here that I enjoyed one of my most memorable culinary experiences.
Award-winning Chef Michael Hoffman, who is more like an artist stimulating the imagination as well as the palate, creates pure magic. He is also a gardener who draws from the 200-plus herbs and vegetables in his own private garden to produce exciting non-traditional flavors and blends. After four amuse bouche teasers (single bite-size hors d'euvres) that included a delicate foam of asparagus in an eggshell lying on a bed of Himalayan salt, I experienced at least 10 other small dishes with vegetables and herbs straight from Hoffman's garden. The ribbons of marshmallows infused with fennel took me totally by surprise.
The environment was elegant but comfy. Glass cases of colored salt amid the beige walls, low lighting and rosewood decor added to the inviting ambience.
Berliners seem to love the mystique and kitsch that Cookies Cream, a vegetarian restaurant near Friedrichstrasse, offers its customers. It is situated in back of a building near a loading dock with an unassuming sign leading upstairs along a dark passageway. Photos on the restaurant's website actually guided me to the location.
Once inside, however, the place is bustling with customers. And no one has to be a vegan or vegetarian to appreciate the blend of flavors and tasteful dishes. I savored a Parmesan dumpling with braised artichoke coated with pine nuts and the light-crusted strudel of pear and barley surrounded by crunchy chanterelles.
The seating arrangements are a bit awkward and not the most comfortable, but the friendly service and quality food make up for it. Owner Cookie, a vegetarian for 30 years, just opened two more vegetarian-style eateries, Chipps 1 and Chipps 2 , where the carnivorous and herbivore can eat side by side amid an open kitchen.
A great find for the price and presentation is Vapiano, a fresh-food chain with locations scattered around the city. The ambience is chic and cheery. I found their Potsdamer Platz location the most spacious, with lots of al fresco dining choices. The thin-crusted pizzas, pastas and salads with wholesome herbs and veggies placated my appetite.
Another healthful choice is Bio Company, a popular organic chain market and cafe. One store was located right off the Spree River just walking distance from the Friedrichstrasse train station.
Visiting Berlin's farmers markets was another enjoyable way to see the outer neighborhoods and to sample local food. The Maybachufer, or Turkish Market, in the charming area of Kreuzberg had the best buys and the most beautiful setting. I particularly enjoyed strolling down the tree-lined canals draped by weeping willows and past classical architecture.
The market is open Tuesday and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, locals visit the Winterfeldplatz Market, where produce is more neatly displayed but a bit pricier. A hat that I bought in Kreuzberg was half the price.
Berlin also houses Europe's largest organic supermarket, the LPG on Kollwitzstrasse. Arranged on two floors, customers can choose from some 18,000 organic products.
Even the hotels are going green and organic. The Maritim ProArte has had its organic certification since 2007 and offers daily organic food on the breakfast and lunch menus. Their sensitivity toward sustainability is apparent in their strict separations of recyclables.
Most impressive is the new Scandic flagship hotel on Potsdamer Platz, which received a silver medal and EU Eco flower for sustainability. Everything is made of natural wood and cotton products — from the lobby to the rooms and restaurant. There are no water bottles or shampoo bottles in the room, waste baskets have recyclable compartments, menus are gluten- and lactose-free, and all the eggs are free-range.
On another important note, the Scandic is the only hotel in Berlin and beyond that has a Handicap Ambassador responsible for creating menus in Braille for the visually impaired and hearing loops to assist those with hearing aids. Wake-up calls are done through vibrations in the bed for the hearing impaired.
To top off my green-conscious and people-conscious journey through Berlin, I took a green tour with GoArt Berlin Tours, where I visited an eco-friendly gift store, SWWSW (short for "It would be lovelier if it would be lovelier") with recycled handmade items from Germany, Guatemala and Vietnam. Many of the products were created by the disabled. At the end of the tour, we visited the Princess Garden, once a vacant lot converted in 2009 into an organic cooperative garden and cafe — another example of Berliners going green.
The green consciousness doesn't stop on the ground, either. AirBerlin has a long tradition of investing in fuel-efficient aircraft and delivering low emissions and noise levels.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information on green Berlin: www.visitberlin.de and www.berlingoesgreen.de
Air Berlin has reasonably priced nonstop flights from New York and Miami with flights from Fort Meyers, Fla.; San Francisco; and Los Angeles via Dusseldorf: www.airberlin.com, 866-266-5588.
Rail Europe: Berlin can be reached by rail via Vienna, Prague and Zurich, and there is a direct overnight from Paris. All of the trains arrive at the new Hauptbahnhof Station, one of the largest stations in Europe: www.raileurope.com.
Eco-certified Scandic Berlin: www.scandichotels.com
Bio-certified Maritim ProArte Berlin: www.maritim.de
For a green design tour of the city: GoArt Berlin Tours, www.goart-berlin.de
Galleria Naturkaufhaus on Schlossstrasse, www.galleria-naturkaufhaus.de, offers the city's largest selection of natural products.
A plate created by the chef at the Margaux restaurant in Berlin illustrates a new commitment to farm-fresh cooking. Photo courtesy of Marguax.
One of the places where Berliners can purchase fresh, organic produce is the marketplace at Winterfeldplatz. Photo courtesy of Beverly Mann.