Zoë Strachan in Edinburgh

Writer Zoë Strachan finds German café culture in Scotland

Falko Burkert. Copyright Goethe-Institut Glasgow
Falko Burkert. Copyright Goethe-Institut Glasgow
I can’t help it but I don’t quite trust people who don’t drink coffee - who find it too stimulating, too bitter, too strong. The European coffeehouse was born in the seventeenth century and here in the West, coffee has fuelled our intellectual lives ever since. Little wonder that when we learn German, our first lessons usually involve a roleplay of the traditional afternoon "Kaffee und Kuchen".

Yes, it’s a national stereotype, but having lived in Germany and visited Austria and Switzerland, I feel confident that it’s based on fact. German people really do love their coffee and cake. I’ve often wondered why it is that in modern day Britain we prefer to queue in multinational outlets for overpriced paper cups of lukewarm froth. Thankfully here in Scotland, help is at hand. Our knight in shining armour is Falko Burkert, "Konditormeister" (certified master baker of cakes) and proprietor of the eponymous Edinburgh "Feinbäckerei" that has been lauded by food critics and German visitors alike.

Welcome to Falko’s

Inside Falko's cafe. Copyright Goethe-Institut GlasgowI feel a wave of nostalgia for old haunts in Germany as soon as I walk through the door. The café has dark wood panelling, crisp paintwork and smooth cornices, vintage coffeehouse chairs with wicker backs and tapestry cushions. An old bicycle bears a sign bidding guests "Herzlich willkommen" and the infamous "Pickelhaube" (a Prussian military helmet, worn by Falko for his photo on the cafe’s business cards) is perched on a high shelf. The place looks as if it’s been there for a hundred years or more, but in fact it used to be an antique shop, and before that a registry office.

The air is rich with the aroma of coffee, huge circular breads are stacked in baskets, and the glass counter reveals a panoply of cakes (although the quantities have been somewhat depleted by a German-speaking "Kaffeeklatsch" that descended like a swarm of locusts earlier in the day).

Coffeehouse Culture

‘It’s a typical coffeehouse,’ Falko explains. ‘We try to give the feeling that you’re somewhere in Stuttgart or Munich, a German town. A "Kaffeehaus" is a place where no music is played, where people can communicate. I don’t want it to be a quick-in, quick-out place, I’m focusing on the people who live here and want to use this place as their living room: a place to come and meet friends and have a cup of coffee and some cake, and to talk.’

Falko's cafe. Copyright Goethe-Institut GlasgowIt’s the sort of place that didn’t exist when Falko first came to Britain about fourteen years ago, ‘more or less by accident’. Germany’s economy had crashed, especially in the East, and he’d lost his job in Dresden so he decided to visit a friend who was working in a patisserie in Birmingham. Attracted to Edinburgh by the buildings and the history – ‘I like old stuff, and there’s loads of it here,’ – he began to see how the big coffee chains were paving the way for something more individual.

‘I arrived thinking this was the country of silver tea pots, silver trays, loose tea, coffee and tea culture as we know it from the television,’ he says, ruefully. ‘Unfortunately these TV programmes must have been forty years old! I had a big disappointment when I was served a teabag in a mug. It wasn't what I'd expected!’

A chance conversation with fellow cake lover Robert Linton in a pub one evening hatched the plan for a proper German Konditorei, and now the pair are business partners with shops in Bruntsfield and seaside town Gullane as well as a very popular stall at Edinburgh’s farmers' market.

The constant parade of “yummy mummies”, Morningside “ladies-who-lunch” and scruffy students popping in for cake-to-go suggests that the people of Edinburgh are embracing their elegant local Konditorei with gusto, but I wonder how easy the process of cultural assimilation was for Falko himself.

‘What I miss most is probably the club culture that we have in Germany. I don’t mean discos, but clubs for everything - orchestra, football, God knows, whatever you want. It’s different here. If you’re new you have to really work hard to find these things and meet people. I used to play in a "Musikverein", but when I came to Edinburgh I ended up joining the Royal British Legion as they had an orchestra. So I played there as a German with British soldiers, or ex-soldiers.’ He pauses, then says with a smile, ‘It was, in a way, quite challenging.’

Given the glee with which tabloid headline writers approached the recent Germany-England World Cup clash, I suspect he may be being tactful. ‘Don’t get me wrong,’ Falko says. ‘You can talk to anyone here; people are very friendly, very open, that isn’t a problem. But organising yourself in a particular direction I found more difficult.’

His commitments to cake-making mean he doesn’t have much time to pursue his musical hobby these days, regularly working long hours and weekends. The demands and relatively slim financial rewards of being a Konditor mean that it’s a job done for love rather than money. ‘You have to be patriotic,’ he says, his choice of words emphasising just how important the German baking tradition is to him.

While Falko concedes that Scottish cuisine has improved dramatically, he misses the German "Gasthof", where food is inexpensive and served in informal surroundings.  'You try to find what you want here and sometimes you succeed, sometimes you don’t. Likewise in Germany you won’t be able to find British-style chips - you’ll only find French fries.’

Sourcing ingredients - no additives

wedding cake. Copyright Robert LintonTo say that Falko has an eye for detail is something of an understatement. Everything he sells in his shops is meticulously prepared by hand, according to the rules he learned during his apprenticeship. Ingredients are sourced with the utmost care and he won’t touch artificial additives with a bargepole. There are all kinds of challenges with the gluten content of flour, the cocoa content of chocolate and the fat content of cream (‘Cream is my biggest nightmare!’ he exclaims), all of which are regulated in Germany, meaning that he has to import many of his ingredients from his homeland. Tentatively, I moot the idea that Germans may be fussier than Brits. After all, in many British high street bakeries, cakes are iced with a mixture of sugar and lard. Falco makes a face.

‘I wouldn’t say that German or continental people are more fussy; it’s more a question of what you got used to when you were growing up.’

Rules of cake-making

One of the pervasive clichés about German people is that they’re fond of rules and regulations. To some extent it’s true - I’m thinking, for example, of all the rows I’ve had for crossing the road before the signal has turned green in Germany - but on the other hand most of my German friends mock the British obsession with "health and safety". Although Falko is a stickler for the rules of cake-making, which he says is more akin to pharmaceutical work than being a chef, he finds the bureaucracy faced by a small business frustrating and often arbitrary, comparing himself to Don Quixote ‘fighting windmills’. A prime example is the strictness of British licensing laws. In a German coffeehouse, alcohol may also be served.

‘Germans sometimes want sip wine between bites of cake,’ Falko says. ‘ I’m from Swabia and we have wonderful wines there. "Sekt" for example isn’t so expensive, but we wouldn’t be allowed to have children in the café if we served it. I don’t know why the rules are so harsh here.

Here to stay

Copyright Robert LintonVarious television appearances in Germany have caused many holidaymakers to make a pilgrimage to the Scottish Konditorei, and when I check the visitors’ book it’s full of enthusiastic comments from tourists visiting from Berlin, Wuppertal and Dresden. Edinburgh locals with a taste for proper "Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte" – a far cry from ‘the awful taste of that awful creation they made in the 60’s and 70’s: Black Forest gateau’ - will pleased to hear that Falko has definitely settled in Scotland now.

‘The Germany I remember doesn’t exist any more. The Deutschmark is gone, the politics have changed, the people I knew have their own lives. So why should I go back? I live here, I’ve got my friends here, I’ve got my business here. There’s still loads to do. This isn’t perfect yet.’

With a perfectionist like Falko Burkert at the helm, I think it’s safe to assume that the café will go from strength to strength. For now, I’m delighted that we have a great European coffee house right here in “Schottland”.

Zoë Strachan is an award-winning writer living and working in Glasgow. She has lived in Bamberg and Berlin, and undertook a residency in Nuremberg after she received the Hermann Kesten Stipendium. Her favourite German cake is Käsekuchen.

August 2010

Copyright: Goethe-Institut Glasgow

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