HOW IT STARTED
At the beginning of the 1990s, when I was living in Berlin and had just finished my degree in Art History and Media Sciences, an interdisciplinary thing I had come up with myself and since then never heard of again, I sat at the kitchen table in Neukölln, then a working-class area, but now, 30 years down the line, taken over by hipsters. I can still see myself sitting there, flipping through The World Atlas of Wine, wondering what I was going to do next with my life.
The wine bug had just bit me big time because of a trattoria which had opened a few streets away from the flat I shared with then-boyfriend and now husband, and which had a mind-boggling amount of Italian wine, most of which was totally obscure, and with the ones I craved most, Barolo and Brunello, completely out of reach, financially speaking.
I still don't know where we got the money from, but for a full three years we dined there as often as twice a week, sometimes even more. The limited budget, however, didn't prove to be an obstacle because the obscure stuff was cheap, with the best carefully picked out by the waitress Francesca.
While the guests in the living room were loudly getting on with the many bottles they had so generously brought, Francesca, already envisaging a problem, stuck her head around the kitchen door right at the moment when the gigantic amount of spaghetti refused to cook through. The bottom half was already soggy while the upper half of rock-hard thin pasta were sticking defiantly out of the pot. She managed to make something edible out of it all and no one at the table took offence. But it taught me that the 'oh so simple’ Italian cuisine demands experience, which, I hope, we have since then acquired. Although, do not ask me to cook spaghetti carbonara. I found that 10 times out of 10 it was completely different from what the Roman classic ought to be. So I gave that one up.
The evenings at the trattoria were some of the most memorable in my life, until the wine shelves were empty and the place stopped trading. I discovered later that the trattoria was a spin-off of Rome's famous Enoteca Cul de Sac, right around the corner of the Piazza Navona, which had a huge amount of surplus wine it was unable to sell to its customers because the bottles were not of the latest vintage. Italians are extremely suspicious of most wines more than a year old. It was thus that the Enoteca decided to rid itself of these stocks by opening a trattoria in Berlin and sell them to unsuspecting Germans, who have always embraced anything Italian with enormous enthusiasm.
With the wines, Francesca (seen above in an old photograph rescued from that time), who in real life was a dancer and a choreographer, came to Berlin and it was with her that I performed a wine-dance performance in the shop window of an alternative art gallery on one of Kreuzberg's busiest streets, the Oranienstrasse, a couple of years later. Dressed as a 'sommelier', I sat perched on the top of the windowsill outside and, armed with a microphone, explained the ritual of 'the harvest', which was acted out by Francesca and two dancers below. Francesca called the performance Ballo diVino, divine wine ball.
Crammed into the narrow shop window, the three performers at this point began doing things in reverse order, hanging up big bunches of grapes bought by the crate from the Markthalle, Kreuzberg's market hall, onto a net attached to the window, instead of harvesting them. This action, which made no sense at all, demanded quite a bit of imagination from the audience.
While the many kilos of grapes were somehow stuck onto the net, a process which took about 10 minutes, I proceeded by explaining how to taste wine. Meanwhile wine was handed out in goblets to invited guests and curious bystanders, a mix of punks, junkies, proto-hipsters, second-generation Anatolian youngsters and the greengrocer from across the street, all of whom on my command were now en masse swirling and sticking their noses in the tiny glasses. Slurping and spitting came next, although no one except me spat.
As soon as this part of the performance was over, the actual Ballo diVino began. Francesca, dressed in a tutu and looking like an elf with her long, dark hair almost touching her middle, started to dance as if stung by a bee in what can only be described as lovemaking to the grapes, but in actual fact resembled more the opening scene of The Exorcist, throwing herself uncontrollably against the window while smashing the bunches, eating them, tearing them from the net and squeezing them with her hands over her head. Soon the window was smeared with grape skins, while the juice trickled through two airholes at the bottom of the window pane down onto the pavement in front of the dumbfounded audience.
This part, obviously depicting grape pressing, concluded the performance. By then, not least due to the glasses of free wine, we had drawn such a crowd that it spilled out onto the street, causing a major traffic jam which brought the local bus services to a complete standstill. The police had to come to put an end to it. A dripping Francesca, now resembling a bunch of squashed grapes herself, descended to roaring applause from the shop window. With a big sigh she decreed, 'it was fantastico!' Due to its enormous success, the performance was repeated two days later, with the police duly turning up again.
Looking back, I am surprised I managed to turn into a halfway respectable wine writer.
Francesca, who didn't speak much German at the time, would turn up at our table and hug us each time as if we were her next of kin. She would then proceed to pick a bottle from crammed shelves high above the tables with a pair of giant tweezers. It was an awe-inspiring and precarious act with only an improvised safety net above the tables to prevent the bottles crashing on diners' heads in case something went wrong. Every time without fail she would say in a heavy Italian accent, 'Es könnte interessant sein'(this could be interesting), before opening the bottle.
Not once was she wrong and we happily shared the contents with her and the chefs with whom we became great friends. In fact, we became so close that my boyfriend and I invited everyone including the pot washer to our flat and cooked for them. It turned out too ambitious a plan, something that became clear when we tried to cook spaghetti for 14 people that particular night.