Biblioteca Culinaria

Peggy Schatz drops into Berlin’s haven for cookbook collectors and enthusiasts – the Bibliotheca Culinaria…

By definition, Bibliotheca Culinaria is a second-hand bookshop specialising in cookbooks. But if one reads between the lines — or has a chinwag with the owners, Swen Kernemann-Mohr and Johannes Mohr — it becomes clear that Bibliotheca Culinaria is much more.

For 30 years these men from the Rheinland, who previously ran a flourishing florist, indulged their passions: cooking, and collecting cookbooks. Many of the finds stem from regular visits to flea markets. “Over the past 25 years, I have spent an hour and a half each day reading cookbooks,” says Mohr.

Swen, on the other hand, prefers to use his free time more practically — he likes to cook. He allows himself to be inspired by recipes from their large collection and sometimes spoils regulars (or special guests) of the shop with a piece of freshly baked apple cake.

Over the years, the private cookbook collection grew to a library of about 15,000 books. Around ten years ago, the decision was made to take the books to Berlin and turn the collection into a used bookstore. Don’t let the “library” in the name confuse you; all the works that sit in the Culinary Library are for sale.

An online shop has been consciously avoided, because the direct contact between their books and potentional readers is important to Swen and Johannes. For this reason the shop, aside from the flourescent lights that iluminate in the back room, has an intimate feel. The large, inviting antique sofa and coffee machine next to the “counter” (a desk) is specficially set up for casual chats, talking shop, and leafing through the numerous cookbooks .

The bright back room is joined by a small series of winding rooms that are stocked from skirting board to ceiling with books. A whole wall is reserved just for cookbooks out of the GDR (former East Germany). Among many others I found two classics still on my own cookbook shelf, which were also on the bookshelf of almost every GDR household: ‘We cook well’ from the 60s and ‘Cooking’, published by a female publisher in the 80s.

Johannes explains that only a modest amount of cookbooks came out of East Germany (little wonder, considering what ingredients were available), but they were mostly excellent as they had to be approved by the state and standards were high. He said “Gifts of the Sea”, for example, was constantly sold out. It’s also worth mentioning that the classic ‘Our Cookbook’ (1957), was even published in braille.

The front room also hosts the key treasures of the collection — cookbooks and historical texts that sometimes date to the 18th century. Johannes says he’s most impressed by the change in society that is evident when one reads different editions of the same book. Unfortunately there was not enough time to sufficiently peruse these old gems, but the illustrations that I did see were artworks and made me hungry for more detailed reading.

The newer cookbooks are sorted according to topics, which makes browsing easier. Despite expectations, the most sought after books are not the historical ones, but rather books from the 1950s – 1970s. These are often bought for nostalgic reasons, because people like to replace a copy that has been destroyed or lost over the years, or find something that reminds them of Mama.

The customer base is broad – young to old, from all walks of life. But, interestingly, more men than women. People from the neighbourhood, tourists, cookbook-enthusiasts, and also cooks and chefs from across Berlin come to the Bibliotheca Culinaria.

A few key finds picked out for us by Swen and Johannes were:

  • The books of arguably the most well-known author of cookbooks in the 19th century Henriette Davidis
  • The most published paperback, ‘What Men Like To Eat’
  • ‘The Last Dinner on the Titanic’ – a book with collector value for Titanic fans
  • A book of food art by Salvador Dali
  • A book published in English in Israel for Yemenis, in which there is a recipe for ‘GRRD’ (penis of ram or bull)
  • 2 books by Sophia Loren (the older, signed one is Swen’s favourite)
  • ‘We mix’ – a cocktail book from the GDR
  • ‘Cultural history of Eating and Drinking’, a classic, that represents Johannes’ favourite book
  • ‘Exotic Cooking’ from the former Berlin restaurant Ritz with draconian recipes for ‘Hedgehog in cabbage’ or ‘bear paw’
  • ‘The Joy of Eating’ by Herbert Heckmann
  • A complete series of ‘The Electric Cooking’ published by Berlin’s electricity company BEWAG

Even now the new Berliners Swen and Johannes regularly visit jumble sales and antique stores, on the hunt for books that are missing from the collection. Books are only purchased if they are pre-1945, with the exception of books from the GDR, and complete collections of cookbooks are especially sought after. It should be noted that the offering of English language books is relatively limited; but a visit to Bibliotheca Culinaria is nonetheless recommended for anyone who understands the languages of food, cooking and collecting rare and beautiful books.

Bibliotheca Culinaria
Zehdenicker Straße 16
10119 Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg
U8: Rosenthaler Platz
T: 030 47 37 75 70
Tu-Fr: 11–19, Sa: 11–16, Closed: Su,Mo

All images by Peggy Schatz