Brian Melican on the enduring appeal of Berlin’s most successful American-style kaffee-und-kuchen brand…
Berlin’s baking doyenne Cynthia Barcomi was born and grew up in the US, leaving New York for Berlin in 1985 and opening up an American-style coffee shop and bakery in Kreuzberg in 1994. There’s certainly a whiff of American optimism about the way she has, over the last 20 years, parlayed this one location into two and then branched out fearlessly into a wealth of other areas.
Like all good brands, Barcomi has diversified from the original product and now covers an entire enterprise, from four bestselling baking books to kitchenware and coffee sold through an online shop. Advertising comes in the form of Barcomi’s frequent TV appearances, be it on German QVC hawking her own-brand cake tins or on an RBB cookery show plugging her books – all the while making crowd-pleasing non-native mistakes such as confusing the words Masse und Maß (the former means ‘mass’ and the second ‘measure’ or ‘moderation’, giving her frequent erroneous exhortation “Immer in Massen genießen…!” – “Always remember to eat in masses…!” – the potential to become an unintended catchphrase).
Although Barcomi clearly benefits from being an American in a country that, perhaps more than most, idealises Americana, there is nonetheless a high degree of professionalism in how she exploits her niche. Her bakery books artfully tread that tricky tightrope of being both decidedly American – the titles (Let’s Bake or I love baking), the photos of “I heart NY” merchandise or of Cynthia, Kelis-style, suggestively sipping milkshake – and yet perfectly pitched to win over a German audience: no undefined “twists”, “splashes”, or “handfuls” here, but detailed instructions and precise amounts (you’ll need 10g of Basil – that’s “approximately 12 leaves” – for the polenta muffins, by the way).
At the same time, though, selling this particular form of States-side food culture back to Germany is something of a lead-pipe synch, given how America’s love affair with rib-sticking cheesecake, sweet leavened buns, and cream-cheese bagels comes in no small part from the waves of nineteenth-century immigration from central Europe. American baking and pastry culture has far more in common with the German, Austrian, and Polish traditions than with, say, the British or the French, as becomes most clear from a visit to Barcomi’s two Berlin cafés.
The first, for example, is the Kaffeerösterei in Kreuzberg. Still fresh after 20 years of service, it’s a lovely space just off of Marheinekeplatz with views out onto its bustling market hall, and with the five-six-storey tenement blocks on both sides of the street, this could – at a glance – just as well be old New York as it is Old Europe.
If nothing else, Barcomi’s coffee shop and roast house demonstrates New York’s indebtedness to old Vienna coffee house culture: the dark wood tables and leather banquettes married with warm wallpaper and restrained floral patterns seem to hark back to Austria. Then there’s the trustworthy-looking Probat coffee roaster in full view. And, obviously, the smell.
Barcomi’s lays bare the differences, too. The squidgy chocolate cake the Catholic Austrians codified matter-of-factly as Sachertorte made it into Puritan American culture under dramatic names like Death-by-Chocolate and what Cynthia has as “Devil’s Food Cake.” Sounds more exciting than Sachertorte, doesn’t it? Surely something to do with the overall popularity of American baking in Germany. Regardless, Barcomi’s chocolate cakes (and they are manifold) are all extremely decadent and good, whichever name they go by and whichever cultural derivation you decide to apply to them.
Another Barcomi speciality is cheesecake. In summer, the blueberry version is especially excellent. Once again, although there are clear differences between the New York Cheesecake and the German Käsekuchen (the most important being the American reliance on Philadelphia as against the lasting German allegiance to quark), it’s hard not to sit back enjoying a perfect slice of white, dairy goodness at Barcomi’s and not muse on the links between German Kaffee und Kuchen and the American fondness for a version of the same. (Well, if you’re British and more used to being served Victoria sponge and tea of an afternoon, it is.)
Ditto at Barcomi’s deli, tucked away in the courtyard between Sophienstrasse and Gipsstraße, just behind Hackescher Markt. It’s a truly charming space: the sudden oasis of quiet less than 10 yards away from the trams and crowds, the handsome spread of ivy up the walls, and the stripped-back diner-style interior – which somehow manages to avoid being cold while still looking chic.
For all the classic Americana of the menu lovingly chalked, coffee-shop style, onto the blackboards – its selection of authentic bagels baked on site, rye bread and sourdough baguettes – in Berlin, this all seems more at home than it might, say, in London. Even the world “deli” comes from delicatessen, which is in turn a loanword from German: Delikatessen. Depending on which etymology you take, that’s either from delikates Essen, or itself a borrowing from the French délicatesse.
With its central location, the deli has inevitably become a very touristy spot – and there’s something deeply whimsical about sitting in an American-style shop in Berlin filled with a mixture of Berliners (originals and adopted), American tourists pleased to find familiar treats and awed, autograph-hunting German provincials with their battered copies of Let’s bake, scanning the horizon for Ms. Barcomi herself.
It’s fascinating to see how the brand seems to appeal to everyone, from Manhattan-based food snobs who can tell an authentic New York cheesecake from an impostor at twenty paces, to third-wave-coffee loving Berlin hipsters down with their speciality Rwandan brews. The German affinity for American baking and this latter’s roots in central Europe are a big help, of course, as is being the only high-profile American chef in Germany and the all-out publicity offensive in recent years.
But mainly, the success of the Barcomi’s brand is down to an age-old recipe: offer only top-notch quality in everything you do.