Rixdorf is magical enough, but stepping into the souterrain dining rooms of Cafe Botanico, past the upright piano and the leg of Parma, and onto the pocket-sized terrace was almost more than I could believe. "Enzo!" the older chef shouted regularly as a younger Italian man darted from the tables to the open kitchen, gathering handfuls of salad greens, dispensing Neapolitan coffee makers, and upending a dariole onto a plate to reveal a perfect chestnut semifreddo.
David's vegetarian breakfast plate was heaped high with braised cavolo nero, sheep's cheeses, al dente legumes, and a half-dozen different herbs; S had a pungent platter of sharp salami and creamy Parma ham. My lunch was the least photogenic and the most thrilling: a spicy stew of chickpeas grounded by broth-plumped fregola and salted with a grating of bottarga. It was a dish that inspired a meditative calm.
Much of the menu is cooked from the back garden, and the Sunday tour was just beginning when we had to leave. I was so pleased, then, when my friend Lily was able to join Martin Höfft a few weeks later. Here is her report. (Those whose interest is piqued might take advantage of the unseasonably wonderful weather and join today's tour.)
When I met Martin, he was standing next to a six-foot tall cabbage while a group of kids played around him. The tour of Cafe Botanico’s permaculture garden wasn’t so much a walkabout—it’s quite small—as a look into Berlin’s permaculture community. Germany has a long history of allotment gardens (Schrebergärten), a tradition which is still vital today, judging from the bubbling laughter spilling onto the street from the small garden cottages. But Martin’s garden, I soon learned, is doing something a bit different: it’s a certified organic, self-sustaining permaculture garden. (Do you know of other places growing food this way in Berlin?)
As Martin explained, gesturing to this giant stalk, their gardening philosophy differs from the plant-seeds-and-harvest model. “We eat what’s edible and let the plant grow,” explained Martin, as he gestured towards harvesting the bottom two Markstammkohl (marrow-stem kale) leaves while letting the top leaves continue to nourish the plant. It requires less working of the soil—hence the organic designation—and less work for the gardener. Ideally, we learned, this garden lasts for generations.
“Eating what’s edible” led Martin to feed us dried fennel seeds cracked out of a pod (delicious, as you might expect), not-so-dried fennel seeds and the green tendrils of fennel growing out of the ground. All delicious. I soon learned that permaculture means a somewhat staggering range of biodiversity. What looked at first like a tiny plot contains over 200 different types of plants, including some fascinating ones like the Ur-Kohl, the brassica that broccoli, kohlrabi, and cabbage originated from. Martin lets the seeds fall in the rich compost formed by decaying old plants. What grows back looks like a mess, but viewed through Martin’s trained eyes we see both what might be edible—quinoa, green onions, kale, pears, cherries—and the important function of the thick floor of weeds beneath our feet.
I learned a new word on the tour, Unkraut, because most of what Martin passed around were technically weeds. In a salad, though, who would guess? These wild herbs are bracing, full-bodied, and unusual. Having an undisturbed soil bed, composted with decaying plants and strengthened by so many interconnected roots, allows the garden to grow Unkräuter used in the cafe year round. Good news for us November visitors: the wild arugula in late October was mustardy and sharp.
Martin’s passionate and curious stewardship of the land is contagious—by the end of the tour, I was less focused on the tiramisu and inspired to take the long view. A stunning facade looks over Cafe Botanico’s garden, and Martin explained that the land where the garden stood used to be the main road in Alt-Rixdorf, leading up to the church. What is now Richardstrasse were simply the back courtyards. This mental reversal—this hidden oasis was once the main road, now brought back to nature—was a bit dizzying. At once, I noticed the way the old trees curved around the former road, imagining this place several hundred years ago. And then again, back to the present, munching on fennel fronds, imagining a delicious and sustainable future. — by Lily Kelting