Books, Bikes, and Food

Reviews, Recipes, Rides… and some other things, too.


Cycling City Hamburg?

Today, to my great surprise, thanks to a friend I discovered the following story in the Independent:

Auto ban: How Hamburg is taking cars off the road

It’s a very interesting article about how the City plans, over the next 20 years, to eliminate car traffic from the centre and instead improve cycling (and public transport) infrastructure so that people will simply not have to use a car. The project is called “Green Network” and the City provides information here (in German). I don’t know too much about the details and how well thought out they are – but at first sight it sounds like an awesome idea that will considerably increase the attractiveness of Hamburg’s centre:

“It will offer people opportunities to hike, swim, do water sports, enjoy picnics, restaurants, experience calms and watch nature right in the city”,

a City spokesperson is quoted in the article. Sounds good, right? This is what it’s going to look like:

Source: You can also download an English version of the map here.

At the moment, cycling infrastructure in Hamburg is not completely terrible, but it’s also far from great. Narrow, badly maintained bike lanes that often run alongside the sidewalk without separation encourage clashes between cyclists and pedestrians. More often than not, traffic guidance dilemmas at intersections are resolved in favour of everyone except cyclists. Frequently, as a cyclist you’re not actually quite sure which way you’re supposed to go because of contradictory signs or bike lanes that disappear out of the blue, and so on. Hence, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

In the article, Hamburgers are portrayed as quite willing to dispense with a car, and as if this was something special in Germany. I would say this applies to many German city dwellers nowadays – our public transport infrastructure is decent, bike infrastructure could be worse, and the inconvenience of a lack of parking space coupled with an abundance of traffic jams means that many people feel they don’t need a car or don’t want one. However, despite this, many Hamburgers still remain very attached to their four-wheeled motorised vehicles. And in my experience, they’re particularly impatient drivers: just yesterday, on my 2.5k commute to work I counted no less than four heated exchanges by honking for absolutely no apparent reason. Prior to moving here, I’d never experienced such a level of impatience and road rudeness.

So I’m very curious how Hamburg is going to pull off the feat of completely turning its traffic infrastructure around. To be sure, they’ve given themselves plenty of time. 20 years – a lot of political, social, and environmental change can occur over such a long stretch of time. Such change might be positive, but the time frame also leaves lots of critical junctures (e.g. elections) where – especially early on – it will be very easy to derail the project. Or, depending on the changes that happen, this now fancy-sounding infrastructure may very well be outdated by the time its construction phase concludes around 2034.


Recipe: Basmati Rice and minced Beef Soup

I don’t know about you, but I’m full. Stuffed. After the deliciously long Christmas holidays my partner and I treated ourselves to this year (we got back from the Basque Country last Thursday), I feel like I’ve eaten enough to last me for the rest of the year – and it’s only January, so I’ll let you gauge the amounts of food I gorged myself on from that statement. I’m sure this feeling isn’t gonna last long, I can already feel pangs of hunger and even appetite coming on every once in a while. But for now, I’m in the mood for simple dishes that should also be warming, since Hamburg greeted me back with its typical winter mix of cold and rain. Even though I actually already made this recipe before the holidays, it fits the bill quite perfectly and so now is just as good a time as any to share it.

I’m calling it a “soup” for lack of a better word. It’s really more like a stew, but since it only involves around 15 minutes of actual cooking time, this label doesn’t seem quite justified (for some reason, the idea of a stew evokes thoughts of something simmering on the stove for at least an hour with me). This is the perfect winter weeknight meal. It’s incredibly quick to prepare and just as incredibly fragrant and warming. I didn’t think this dish had so much in it when I first read the recipe. This is my adaptation of a recipe that appeared in Brigitte, a German women’s magazine, a while ago. They have you use pre-cooked quick-boil basmati rice, which in my view is completely unnecessary, because  it doesn’t actually speed up the cooking process at all as basmati rice only takes about 10 minutes to cook in the first place. But anyway. Make this. Be surprised. Let the fragrance of this delicious little dish waft through the room as you eat. Go.

Ingredients (2 portions)

  • 1/2 leek, thinly sliced
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 40 g fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1-2 carrots (I used purple ones, which gave my soup its funky colour), peeled and grated
  • 2 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 150 g minced beef
  • 700 ml vegetable stock
  • 3-4 tbsp soy sauce
  • 125 g basmati rice
  • 1/2 handfuls coriander and mint each, chopped
  • 1/2 tpsp hot paprika
  • 2-3 tbsp lime juice

On your cutting board, crush the clove of garlic with the back of a knife. Heat the oil in a heavy saucepan and fry the minced beef in it over high heat until golden. Add the sliced leek, garlic, ginger, and grated carrot, mix everything well and fry briefly. Reduce heat, add the rice and pour in the vegetable stock, add the soy sauce and leave to boil over low heat for 10 minutes. Season with lime juice, paprika and maybe a bit more soy sauce. Sprinkle with the coriander and mint and serve immediately. Enjoy!


Óscar Pantoja, Miguel Bustos, Felipe Camargo, Tatiana Córdoba, and Julián Naranjo: Gabo: Memorias de una vida mágica (2013)

As I was typing up my post of books read but never reviewed in 2013, I realised that there was one I actually did want to write about in a bit more detail: a graphic novel about the life of Gabriel García Márquez entitled Gabo: Memorias de una vida mágica. The premise of this book is brilliant – five artists get together and illustrate the life of a great writer by taking a chapter each.

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Books not reviewed in 2013

Happy new year everyone! I hope you’re all as full of delicious food and relaxed as I am. Before we launch into a new reading year, I just wanted to do a little bit of housekeeping by telling you quickly about some of the books I read but did not review in 2013. There aren’t that many… mainly because I didn’t read that much, but I also may have forgotten a few because I’m notoriously poor at keeping a record of what I’ve been reading. So there were several more than made this list, but these are the some that I at least wanted to briefly mention.

Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own (1929)

Room_Own_Woolf_smallThe reason this book never got reviewed was because I wanted to post on it so thoughtfully that I just never got around to writing said thoughtful post (talk about setting too high expectations). What struck me about A Room of One’s Own, as far as I can remember, was how much of it still applies to women’s position in society almost a century later. This is why we need feminism. I also remember that there were parts I disagreed with, but have sadly forgotten what exactly they were and now do not have my annotated copy with me. This must be the most underwhelming paragraph ever written about A Room of One’s Own, as well as the complete antithesis of the post I so much wanted to write when I’d just finished it. I can only recommend that you go and read it yourselves, right now.

Carl Bernstein & Bob Woodward: All the President’s Men (1974)

presidents_menKim of Sophisticated Dorkiness got me interested in the classic account of the Watergate scandal with this post. When I was younger, I very much wanted to be a journalist, and it’s no secret I’m a bit of a politics junkie, so this book was likely to be a big success with me. And it was, to the point that I got so captivated by the story I couldn’t sleep for sheer excitement. I’m not totally sure why I never wrote about it, but All the President’s Men turned me into a Watergate obsessive for about a week. This is much, much better than most political thriller’s I’ve read.

Katie Kitamura: Gone to the Forest (2012)

GoneToTheForestAnd now for something completely different: Gone to the Forest is a novel about the end of colonialism in Africa. A white family based on a farm witnesses the decline and downfall of their lifestyle as what they came to see as “their” land is slowly taken and the country descends into civil war. Before this background, the family’s own struggle – Tom, the son, versus his elderly but tyrannic father – unfolds, with a love triangle mixed in. This book had a lot of potential, but it somehow missed the mark for me. I didn’t like the style, which seemed very tedious to me, and that made it impossible for me to get drawn into the storyline. I think this may work for other people, it just didn’t work for me.

Carlos Fuentes: La muerte de Artemio Cruz (1962)

ArtemioCruz_smallThe reason I never blogged about this is that I think I read this book the wrong way. It somehow turned into a staple on my bedside table and it took me months to read it. Which, given the way the novel is constructed, made for an extremely confusing reading experience interspersed with moments of lucidity that made me think “this is bloody brilliant”. Come to think of it, that’s possibly a very fitting reading experience for a novel based on the perspective of a man on his deathbed who is slowly descending into confusion and reliving different scenes of his life. However, I think a reader may get more out of it than I did if they read it in larger chunks than I did.

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Merry Christmas, and a festive (non-)recipe

Merry Christmas, dear readers! I hope you’re all having lovely holidays, wherever you are and whether you celebrate Christmas or not! I’m spending it at home with my family, snuggled up on the sofa reading or watching TV, and spending some time with friends as well. Here’s a glimpse of our Christmas tree, all lit up.

Today, we had a big Christmas lunch, to which I made a humble contribution in the form of a starter. This is really a non-recipe as it involves very little preparation once you have the apple sauce ready, but it was delicious. It disappeared from its platter in record time and since we’ve still got another few days of festive eating ahead of us, I’m sharing it with you in case you’re still looking for a starter for New Year’s Eve – or for Christmas next year!

Pintxos de foie con compota de manzana y granada (Foie gras pintxos with apple compote and pomegranate)

Pintxos are Basque small snacks (they’re sometimes called the Basque form of tapas, but they’re not really tapas at all). They’re delicious little bites often arranged on a slice of bread and often pinned to the bread with a skewer or toothpick. But they also come in all kinds of other shapes and forms, some cold, some hot, simple or sophisticated. They’re elevated to a true art form, and they’re all over the country with bars taking real pride in making them look so pretty you almost don’t want to eat them. Especially in San Sebastián (Donostia), but also in Bilbao, you can spend the whole day just eating your way through the old town from one pintxo bar to the next. The bars are full to the brim with these little creations and I’ve often found myself, mouth agape and watering, with a tough choice to make – even though they’re small, there are only so many you can eat before you’re full.

As pintxos go, this one isn’t sophisticated at all and very quick to make, but it looks and tastes fantastic. In fact, it’s perfect for when you have a complicated menu to cook without much time to spare for the starter. Foie gras is a specialty in some regions of France and in the Basque country, which may be a bit difficult to get elsewhere or very expensive. You can replace it with other types of duck or goose pâté.

Ingredients (for about 15 pintxos)

  • 15 very thin salty crackers or 15 very thin slices of baguette, toasted
  • 180g foie gras mi-cuit
  • apple compote
  • pomegranate seeds (a tutorial on de-seeding pomegranates is here)

Cut the foie gras into 15 thin slices. It’s best to do this when the foie is quite cold, but to make the cutting easier you can warm up the blade of your knife a bit. If you’re using baguette, you may want to drizzle it very slightly with olive oil and sprinkle a bit of salt on top. Place the foie slices on top of the crackers or baguette. Top with a bit of apple compote each and sprinkle liberally with pomegranate seeds. Serve immediately.

On egin!*

* Basque for “enjoy your meal”


Product Review: Bern Muse Bike Helmet

I bought the Bern Muse helmet because it’s getting cold out.* The previous years, once the temperature dropped below a certain level, I stopped wearing a helmet and switched to a wooly hat instead to prevent my ears from freezing off on my commute. The helmet I wear during the non-freezing seasons is a Giro Skyla, so I suppose in theory you could fit a hat under it if the hat was very snug – and this is where we run into problems: hat hair! I can’t shower once I get into work so the hair I arrive with is the hair I have to carry on around all day.

This year, having discovered the existence of winter helmets, I decided to give it a shot. Bern defines this one as a snow helmet rather than a bike helmet, but I’m not entirely sure where the differences lie (maybe due to the fact that I neither ski nor snowboard), and it was marketed to me as a “BMX” helmet – and it’s been doing the trick for me. The reason I didn’t buy the Berkeley – my second option – was that (a) it was more expensive and Muse helmets aren’t exactly cheap to start with, and (b) I wasn’t entirely convinced by the Berkeley’s fabric visor. It seemed to me that this add-on that might get dirty quite quickly and then it won’t look as dashing anymore.

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Two Books about Chile (1) – Roberto Ampuero: El último tango de Salvador Allende (2012)

This slightly lengthy title to say that I read two books dealing with the Chilean military dictatorship, and while I loved one, I didn’t like the other. I’m not entirely sure how much sense it makes to write about them together, because they’re so fundamentally different and the only thing that really connects them is the theme, and even that only if your working definition of “theme” is a wide one. I’ve decided to do it anyway, because for me the thematic connection and the timing were close enough to keep thinking back to the first book while I was reading the second one, and progressively realising how flawed the first one really was. Reading great literature is like eating great food: it puts you off the mediocre stuff. I’ve split this into two posts, but am publishing them together. The second part is here.

But what did I actually read? First, I read Roberto Ampuero’s El último tango de Salvador Allende (2012), then Arturo Fontaine’s La vida doble (2010).

ultimo_tango_salvador-allendeAmpuero’s novel is narrated by David Kurtz, an American CIA agent who was posted to Chile during the 1970s and involved in the orchestration of the coup that toppled the Allende government and brought General Pinochet into power, thus opening the darkest chapter of recent Chilean history. Kurtz had a daughter, Victoria, who went to university while he was stationed in Santiago and apparently got herself involved precisely in those activities Kurtz was helping the military regime fight. She had a boyfriend who was active in the opposition and got involved herself. But Kurtz only learns of this many years later, when Victoria, now married to a nice American man, dies of cancer and her last wish is for her father to take her ashes to Chile and find her ex boyfriend, the love of her life. She gives him a notebook, written in Spanish, and a picture of the young man. And so, Kurtz goes to Santiago, where little by little, he starts piecing together his daughter’s past. This is more difficult than he initially expects, involves a trip to former East Germany and rubbing his own previous employer the wrong way. This strand of the narrative has all the hallmarks of a typical thriller, including dark tunnels, secretive meetings, and getting beaten up by strangers in the middle of the night.

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