I ran into the crime writer Philip Kerr at Gatwick – he and his family were happily on their way to Corfu, while I was gloomily en route to Berlin to do some work with my German translator. Kerr was ebullient and ridiculously fitlooking – full head of dark and luxuriant hair, tanned and solid. I was wraithlike and skulking about in the duty-free shop, wondering if I could slit my wrists with a Swarovski crystal gewgaw. When I told him my destination, a faint shadow seemed to cross his handsome features and I thought: fair enough. After all, Kerr has been writing his Bernie Gunther thrillers, which are set in Berlin, for decades – and he probably thinks of the city as belonging to him in a perverse way. That’s what writers are like.
“You should go to swim out at Wannsee,” he said. “There’s a beach on the lake and you can sit in a deckchair and watch the Germans in all their Naturheilkunde glory eating footlong wurst.” I said, “Hmm, I’m not sure I want to go to Wannsee – it always makes me think about the Nazis doing their worst.” Kerr was undeterred: “Fair enough – but if you’re in town, make sure you eat at Borchardt. It’s the place for an echt Berlin meal.” Regular readers of this column know that a truly echt Berlin meal is a currywurst gulped down in an Alexanderplatz chain outlet but I didn’t want to be pissy, so I told Philip I’d give the idea some serious thought.
That evening, after a long day combing through text with Teutonic efficiency, I thought to myself, sod it, enough with the low-rent nosh, I’m going to splash out for once – if Borchardt is as echt as Philip says, then it’ll count as a real meal on that basis alone. I found the place lurking on the ground floor of a big, gloomy, mid-19th-century building a block behind the Unter den Linden. Inside, the dining room was big, square and uncompromisingly plain –white napery, leather banquettes, white ceilings held up by huge, marble Corinthian columns. A maître d’ with film-star looks passed me over to a waiter wrapped so tightly in his spotless apron that I thought: were I to have surgery, I’d like this man to perform it.
The medic seated me at a table in the equally four-square courtyard that the dining room opened on to and gave me the menu. I used to have a girlfriend who collected the mistakes in the English translations on foreign menus when she was on holiday. For her, “plume piddling” offered in Kathmandu or “streak and chops” proposed in Positano was the very soul of wit. At the time, I thought it all pretty feeble but then that was when I still thought there was a soul of wit – not just a labouring and sclerotic heart. Seeing that “shit take mushrooms” were offered on the Borchardt menu caused me great pleasure. The supposed German preoccupation with excreta here elided seamlessly with my own avocation, for was I not there to take the piss?
Then, when I saw that “young veal” was also proposed, my cup of sparkling mineral water ranneth over. I mean to say, just how young can veal be, given that it’s pretty juvenescent to begin with? After all, most veal is killed at some time between 20 weeks and a year, although there is the delicious titbit known as “bob veal”, which comes from calves slaughtered when they’re at most a month old – and often only a few days old. Here at Borchardt, there was “young veal”, which was presumably very young indeed or they wouldn’t have made a big deal about it. Perhaps that’s why the waiters were so surgically precise: before the long evening at the dining tables began, they were assisting at operating ones, where cow foetuses were delivered prematurely, then butchered for their ineffably tender meat.
Such Burroughsian musings (The Naked Lunch exhibits an unhealthy preoccupation with “slunks”, or aborted cow foetuses) stopped me from staring too much at my fellow diners – always a problem for the solitary. True, there were two young men at an adjacent table who were drinking cocktails of such pinkish luminescence that I couldn’t forbear from asking the waiter what they were. “Aperol and prosecco,” he told me, setting down the half-dozen fines de claire I’d ordered in front of me.
As I went on staring at the Italian cocktail and slurped down the first of my French oysters, it occurred to me that while Philip may well have been right about Borchardt, I’d managed to lose an authentic German experience completely . . . in translation.