Monday 22 August 2022

News of the World

Back in the last decade, it was social media - Facebook, Mumsnet, various writing forums - that were my trap for getting tangled up in when I should have been doing something better. These days, I’m more likely to end up scrolling through endless articles and related comments on regular news sites.

It’s easier to justify because:

1. I’m paying a subscription

2. It’s a good thing to be informed about what’s going on in the world, surely?

Yet these news sites often leave me with that nasty bingey mental junk food feeling that I used to get from Facebook:

    - that wasn’t paricularly nutritious or satisfying

    - and I couldn’t stop: the “enough is enough” button was having a day off

I’ve been reading How Modern Media Destroys Our Minds, from The School of Life, which analyses this phenomenon and offers a few curative suggestions. 

The click-baity title I could have done without - another example of the mismatch I wrote about here. That aside, the book shows how the modern media preys on the less desirable aspects of human nature - passivity, celebrity, nastiness and distraction, which encompasses all sorts of stuff like helplessness, outrage, mawkishness, schadenfreude and sanctimoniousness.

It’s a relief to know that my own reaction to the modern media diet is not unusual.

On to the suggested cures. There are 9 of these, of which two particularly appealed to me:

Become an aristocrat (of the spirit)

This is inspired in part by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly who declared that “the most beautiful destiny: to have genius and be obscure.”

The book says of Aristocrats of the Spirit: they are set apart not by haughty contempt but by a melancholic certainty that the disputes of the populace will be chaotic, brutal, partisan, deeply illogical and unfair because this is the normal, unfortunate lot of the human animal.

And that obscurity leads to the idea:

Never Be Famous

I’ll admit it: 10 years ago I loved the idea of collecting clicks and likes, for blog posts to go viral, for my books to be picked up by a top publisher and top director and all the rest. But the idea of that now is quite hideous. I like retreating back into obscurity, which is my “safe place”.

In a world without fame, certain books, sofas, cheeses or lamps will still be better than others, certain ideas will still be more valuable, certain people will still have hearts that are kinder and more sensitive, but none of these would have to be identified by the destructive and manic spotlight of the media.

Having said that, of course, this is one area (or many) where brands are not like people.

Tuesday 9 August 2022



Among the many newsletters I subscribe to, those from The School of Life are less likely to be binned straight away than almost any other. (The most likely to be binned, by the way, are those that appear at the weekend, despite multiple attempts to unsubscribe).

What do I like about The School of Life? Well, I think it’s the tonality and attitude of the articles - calming, reassuring and wise. Universal, the opposite of throwaway. A recent article alerted me to the subtle difference between self-acceptance and self-love. Others talk about the value of melancholy, or failure, or other contributions to the human condition. It’s all so much more insightful than all that “being your best self” blah. I’ve always wondered - “best” in whose judgement?

However, what I encountered on my last visit to The School of Life was a rather unseemly mismatch between the tone of the articles and the website itself.

Hardly had I got into the site when a box popped up and more-or-less grabbed my wallet:

Not so much self-hatred as a disregard for the reader as a human being in favour of a nice source of income.

It got worse. The money-grabber was quickly pushed out of the way by the stalker:

“No” is the answer. It irritates me that many in the Anglo-Saxon world seem to think Berlin is the be-all and end-all of Germany. 

And to complete the mismatching tonality, the “feedback” for a site that is all about the depth and complexity of human emotion is reduced to a few silly emojis:

I’m not a huge fan of Brand Books the size of War and Peace that give strict instructions about style and tone, but surely an organisation like The School of Life could use their insight and understanding  so that their content and design isn’t quite such a case of chalk and cheese?

Wednesday 3 August 2022

RETROWURST: Grillen August 2004


It’s going up to 36°C today and 39°C tomorrow, and I am rather wondering if our garden BBQ will fire up on its own accord. It was no surprise to me, shuffling back in the Extrawurst archives to find that I wrote about BBQs and Grillen from the German perspective back in August 2004. For more on this meat-and-mayo-fest, read on ...


Now that summer has finally taken hold of Germany in a big way, after a couple of false starts, the season of barbequing or Grillen and general al fresco eating is officially open.

While we are used to a BBQ being a rather special event (and, out of necessity, often a moveable feast, with the moveable element often consisting of moving rickety old garden chairs, burnt sausages and a lukewarm box of white wine back into the kitchen to escape the unexpected downpour) the average German family will probably eat outside in summer four or five times a week. Given the frequency of this event, there is much bigger business to be had in Germany than in the UK with the food and accessories associated with Grillen. Just a cursory look at Heinz’ website dedicated to the joys of Grillen,the Heinz Mitgrillzentrale ( ) will give you just a little taste of just how seriously BBQ-ing is taken here.


Let’s start with meat. In the UK, we’ll typically throw a few sausages, hamburgers and chicken legs on the BBQ to get nicely black outside and raw inside, accompanied by a few ‘grilled veggies’ as a concession to the trendy and vegetarian amongst us. However, steaks seem to be regarded as ‘a bit of a waste’ to BBQ by a lot of in the UK. Maybe it’s because our barbeques themselves are not quite up to the technical standards of the Germans (and any self-respecting German has at least two BBQs – from a rustic briquette burning device built into the garden to a sophisticated gas grill to cater for parties of fifty hungry people) or maybe it’s because we don’t get quite so much practice on this rainy little island at the art of barbequing, but somehow we don’t quite trust ourselves to throw anything costing a reasonable amount of money onto the barbeque.


In Germany, however, steaks are staple barbeque fare. Either pork or beef, they are bought in huge catering packs of at least six large steaks, even for a family of three. The steaks themselves are bought ready-marinated in a range of different flavours from herby-garlicky to spicy-peppery. In summer, butchers offer a wide range of ready-prepared steaks, including steaks stuffed or filled with mozzarella or bacon for example. In fact, apart from a few Bratwurst, usually just provided for the children or for adults as a sort of appetizer for the real feast to come, you won’t see much on a German barbeque other than steaks, more steaks and even more steaks.


If steaks have the starring role at a German barbeque, then the role of the best supporting player must always go to the salads. There is a whole strange culture relating to salads in Germany, with its own idiosyncrasies, rules and regulations. While ready-made salads are available in vast variety at the butcher’s, in the deli counter at the supermarket and pre-packed in the chill counter, it’s really not the done thing to turn up at a barbeque with a salad that someone else has made. In fact, there are some very close parallels with baking - just as every mother in the UK is expected to bake some creation for the school fair or nativity play, mothers in Germany are expected to produce a salad as well as a perfect Schwarzwälderkirschtorte for the Kindergartenfest. And there are many other occasions on which one is simply expected to appear mit Salat - at the local street party, for example, or at a Polterabend, which is a sort of informal pre-Wedding party where everyone smashes plates (don’t ask!) or even for someone’s birthday do – in the UK we have PBAB whereas in Germany it’s more likely to be ESMB (eine Salat mitbringen, bitte). I have even recently invested in an interesting device called a Salatkurier- a salad bowl with a lid and carrying handles which allows one to transport salads from one Fest to the next in complete safety.


Part of the salad culture involves a strange pecking-order which you are only likely to find out about if you contravene its unwritten rules. For example, you may make the mistake of providing a salad involving something quite acceptable to our tastes - a potato salad with new potatoes, skins on and a bit of mint - only to find that, in your circle, Frau Schmidt and Frau Schmidt alone is allowed to make her potato salad - a calorific concoction involving buckets of mayonnaise garnished with hard-boiled eggs - and that anything in the food and drink category other than tea involving mint is viewed by most Germans with deepest suspicion.


In typical fashion, while Germans are very proud of their homemade salads, they are also a little rigid when it comes to experimentation. It is often quite fun to slip in a slightly unexpected creation just to see how they react. It’s probably true to say that there is a fairly standard repertoire of salads to be had in Germany. There’s Frau Schmidt’s potato concoction as mentioned above plus its Bavarian cousin (no mayo but stock, oil and vinegar, bacon bits and a few radishes and certainly no potato skins), a Nudelsalat which I normally avoid - noodles with more mayo plus chopped ham and cold tinned peas, Wurstsalat, of course, which normally involves slivers of sausage drowning in more mayo (although there is a slightly healthier Swiss cousin with cheese slivers, sliced gherkin , onion and vinegar/oil dressing) or a plain Mix- or Bunte-Salat which is normally a mixture of leaves, carrot and tomatoes smothered in yoghurt dressing.


You’ll have noticed that few of these salads would win many prizes at Weightwatchers. Although you’ll occasionally see a green salad, or perhaps a Bauern- or Hirtensalat (which is rather like what we’d call a Greek salad, with peppers and feta), generally German salads are a bit of a mayonnaise fest, filled with danger for unsuspecting vegetarians (it’s difficult to find a German salad without some meat content). While there has been a bit of interest in flavours and ingredients from, say, Italy, the staple calorific salads still have pride of place.


Overall, taking the barbeque/outdoor eating category, it is big business in Germany. Aside from all the ‘hardware’ of barbeques, utensils, salad bowls, briquettes and so on, there is a huge market in sauces, dressings and ingredients, flavourings and other accompaniments. The big players in this area are partly the multi-nationals we know, such as Heinz, Knorr and Kraft, with the omnipresent Miracle Whip (see ) but there are also some local players who are onto a fairly sizeable portion of the cake (or steak!). These include Kühne (see )  Develey (see ) and Feinkost Dittmann (see ). There seems to be an opportunity to help Germans to expand their ‘outside eating’ repertoire by taking them by the hand via countries and themes. For example, a huge range of Italian-influenced anti-pasti and ingredients from Deluna (Switzerland) has appeared in Supermarkets this year and the Greek flavour of this summer’s sporting events has clearly had an influence on the nation’s palate with supermarkets putting together their own displays of feta for grilling, tzatziki and stuffed vine-leaves.


While Frau Schmidt’s potato salad is unlikely to be completely usurped by Moroccan Couscous and Coriander salad in the near future, there certainly does seem to be an opportunity for food manufacturers to take advantage of the German love of eating al fresco for as long as the sun shines.


Eighteen years on and there’s been something of a shift - but as with all these things, it’s been a shift to more variety and choice rather than a “From-To” thingy as beloved of strategy powerpoint charts, where stuff gets swept aside into obsolecence and replaced with new shiny stuff.

Turkish, North African and Mediterranean influence has grown, with the inevitable Halloumi and other cheeses for grilling, as well as Merguez and a wider choice of sausages that don’t involve pork. Plenty more lamb, poultry and beef cuts to grill are available.  And yes, couscous has made an appearance on the German grill accompaniments scene. 

Ditto vegan/plant-based alternatives to meat, for example from The Vegetarian Butcher  . But those marinated pork steaks are here to stay - you’re just going to need a bigger table for the greater selection of grilled goodies.

In 2004, it seems, I hadn’t discovered the mayonnaisy horror that is Schichtsalat, (or maybe I just blocked it from my consciousness) but that’s alive (probably with listeria) and kicking, too.