It's midsummer in Berlin and the sun is pouring down like butterscotch, or honey, or baked apple strudel. I'm as hot as the pavestones and my legs are melted marzipan. Lucky for me, cool Eis is only a cone's throw away.
In Berlin, ice cream – or Eis (pronounced "ice") – is an obsession. During the winter months, Eis shops and their patrons hibernate like sleeping Berlin bears. Come spring, the shops open their doors and Berlin's ravenous ice-cream appetite awakens.
It seems as if every major thoroughfare and square has an Eis shop. Neighbourhoods such as trendy Prenzlauer Berg or Mitte have dozens (I counted no fewer than 25 shops within a two-kilometre radius in Prenzlauer Berg). During peak hours – immediately after school or when the sun burns hottest – it is not unusual to see long lineups outside the most popular Eis shops. Two months ago, businesses near the well-loved Kleine Eiszeit on Stargarder Strasse – where lineups often stretch down the street – demanded that the Eis shop raise its prices in order to limit the queues and their impact on street commerce.
Each Eis shop has a particular theme or charm to entice ice-cream consumers: a kaleidoscope of unique flavours (cinnamon, chili chocolate, black sesame, almond cardamom), natural ingredients (sweet woodruff or seabuckthorn), organic, lactose-free and vegan blends (pumpkin, rhubarb, lemon basil, raspberry ginger), traditional flavours (vanilla, chocolate and strawberry options), sun-shaded benches, customized waffle cones and hip shop-fronts. Almost every Eis shop makes its products on site; Hausgemacht, or homemade, is a mark of quality and invention.
The ice-cream tradition in Germany goes back about 100 years. Italian ice-cream makers, who migrated to Germany in the early 20th century, brought with them treasured recipes and helped to establish a craving for cool Eis under a northern sun. The advent of cheap refrigeration technology after the Second World War led to a proliferation of ice cream vendors in what became West Germany.
In communist East Germany, this spread was less pronounced. I asked two locals who had lived in East Berlin before the fall of the wall in 1989 about the Eis culture there. They told me that although East Berliners craved ice cream, only a handful of Eis shops existed. These shops tended to prepare only one offering at a time, the favourite being Fuerst Pueckler Eis (a Neapolitan-like ice cream creation made with frozen cream, strawberries, chocolate and vanilla).
It's only in the 24 years since the city's unification that the Eis craze has truly exploded here. Today, it is not unusual for Berliners to indulge their passion for ice cream several times a week.
The shops are usually simple affairs, little more than charming storefronts with Eis-making apparatus and a service counter displaying the scrumptious offerings. Typically they lack interior tables or eating spaces, and their glass doors are open wide to the elements and to the churning street life. They are clearly portals, not parlours.
So Eis consumption here is a public, visible and social activity. It is almost as much about appearances as it is about taste and flavour. Relaxing on a park bench or or sauntering down a Strasse with a cone or bowl (Becher) in hand is perhaps the ultimate expression of summer relaxation, an activity that evokes the Mediterranean pedigree of Eis itself.
When the sun is shining in Berlin, forget about bratwurst and beer. Head to a funky ice-cream shop, and order a scoop (Kugel) or bowl of white chocolate red pepper, or peach lavender, or kiwi-gooseberry, or gorgeous vanilla. Stroll to that perfect spot under the broad limbs of a chestnut tree, close your eyes and sample icy bliss. You'll understand why Berlin is, for young and old, truly an ice cream lover's parad-Eis.
BERLIN'S SIX BEST SHOPS
- Kleine Eiszeit (Stargarderstrasse 7, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin)
- Rosa Canina (Hufelandstrasse 7, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin)
- Suesse Suende (Weinbergsweg 21, Mitte, Berlin)
- Berliner Eismanufaktur (Oranienburgerstrasse 134, Mitte, Berlin)
- Aldemir Eis (Falckensteinstrasse 7, Kreuzberg, Berlin)