From the Pages: Bunker Cuisine, A Visit to the Otto Farmland

vor 3 years

Vadim Otto Ursus uses old cultural techniques to cook sustainably and spectacularly. We visit his Brandenburg taste laboratory.

It immediately catches the eye, walking through the garden: a fruit press made of light-colored wooden slats and tomato-red metal struts. Next weekend, it will be used for the first time and the juice pressed within it will be sold in the restaurant Otto in Berlin. Chef Vadim Otto Ursus says: “Our goal isn’t to be self-sufficient. If I had a great pear juice producer, I would buy from him. But since the trees around our property are full of fruit that would otherwise rot, we’re making something out of it.” Working with what’s there, making a region visible and palatable, that’s Ursus’ approach and his conviction. And, most importantly: In all of this, don’t forget the pleasure of enjoyment.

Ursus’ tasting laboratory is located in Buchholz, about a forty-minute drive southwest from Berlin. The cobblestone road leading to the property is unsuitable for city cars. Wet grass on your bare feet, a more or less non-functioning cell phone network, and eggs from your neighbor. It’s an idyllic place, something from a countryside magazine, with shady trees, a small greenhouse and a terrace with a retro sunshade. This includes a table that offers enough space for spontaneous guests. There is cheesecake and baked nut crescents. Now and then, the assistant’s greyhound puppy yowls. This is where Vadim Otto Ursus works on the future of cooking, undisturbed, where it can and should be as sustainable as possible

Word has gotten out that the world is not a refillable supermarket shelf. Increasingly, more chefs are responding to this by sourcing ingredients from organic and regional agriculture. Those who fly their ingredients in from halfway around the world occasionally find themselves in need of an explanation. Why not fall back on what grows at your doorstep? The younger generations, in particular, are becoming increasingly interested in where their food comes from and under what conditions it was produced. Food for Future is the logical consequence of Fridays for Future. After all, food is highly political, if only because production has such a significant influence on the climate. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock alone produces almost fifteen percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is another reason why old culture techniques, such as fermentation, are trending. In principle, this involves controlled rotting, or, to put it slightly more appetizingly, a fermentation process triggered by bacteria or enzymes. Around two-thirds of all foods worldwide are the result of these processes– from kimchi and sauerkraut to kombucha and wine. If you taste attentively, you can feel the tingling and sour, lively aroma in your mouth.

Almost no one in this country uses such techniques as intuitively as Vadim Otto Ursus does, He was born in Berlin in 1992. Translated from Latin, his last name means bear. With his chestnut-brown curls and a rounded, red-cheeked face, he even looks a bit like one. Few chefs have developed such an independent style at his age. After training in a rather bourgeois Berlin restaurant, he left for a year to cure pilot whale ham in the starred restaurant Koks, located on the Faroe Islands. “Tastes like a dried nosebleed,” says Ursus, and mentions that the pilot whale has been classified as “not endangered” by NGOs like the IUCN. He then cooked at the Oslo restaurant Maaemo and the Mexico pop-up of Copenhagen’s legendary Noma, which is, dependent on who you ask and the day of the week, purported to be the best restaurant in the world. He attracted attention in Berlin with a dinner in a former crematorium before opening his first restaurant in Prenzlauer Berg in the fall of 2019. At Otto, the sourdough bread – also a ferment – is served with koji butter; the flaxseed cracker with fermented tomatoes; the catfish with sour koji water. Ursus obtains his ingredients exclusively from the Brandenburg region. But he is not merely a buyer: Several times a month, he goes to Buchholz to play and experiment with what the surrounding nature has provided. During this Corona period, the garden has been a retreat for Ursus.

During lockdown, Ursus offered the neighborhood surrounding his Berlin restaurant his version of a grandparent’s pantry. In the Otto Pantry, wild boar goulash, kombucha, and tea he had collected himself were made available for purchase from his otherwise nearly-shuttered restaurant doors. Due to the distance rule, only ten seats remain in the restaurant. This is not enough to get through the winter months, so Ursus plans to put a mobile greenhouse (equipped with infrared heating on the sidewalk) where guests can sit. In case the Office of Public Order should thwart his plans, he will simply set up in Buchholz, on the approximately one thousand square meter property owned by his mother. This is how family tradition continues.

“Especially in the current situation, it’s good to come here,” says Ursus, who wears black jeans despite the late summer heat. In the tool shed, visitors stumble over a wine barrel in which the tasting leftovers from a Berlin natural wine shop are maturing into vinegar. Next to it are two large refrigerators: one of which serves as temporary storage for the wild herbs that the chef has collected, which will later land on one of his signature dishes, a brook trout served whole. “We have a wild herb salad on the menu practically all year round. It always tastes different, depending on what is growing. What I like best is ginger, the basil of the East. It brings a wonderful, lemony freshness.” Wild boar and egg white garum mature in the second refrigerator. This seasoning sauce, originally made from dried fish leftovers, has been known since the time of the ancient Romans.

From the shed, it’s only a few meters to the heart of the property, which could inspire any prepper: there is a bunker about two by three meters in size, neatly equipped with the best that Brandenburg’s outdoor food counter has to offer. There, deluxe Spreewald pickles float around, and rowanberry liquor, which will later be transformed into a homemade aperitif, fills a metal shelf with labeled preserving jars climbing up to the ceiling. You’ll find everything from pine cones to larch sugar and a whiskey cask in which the recently examined wine remains are maturing. A ham dangles from the ceiling in the middle of the pleasantly cool room. “When we buy animals, we only buy them as a whole. Everything is processed.” The point is to fill this chamber of wonders well into the autumn, and then to feed on it throughout the winter.

A remarkable number of restaurants around the world are currently sourcing their own products from their own farms. The pioneer was Stone Hill at Blue Barns in upstate New York. Today in Germany, there is the Michelberger in Berlin and the Seven Swans in Frankfurt. Ursus has a different approach. Instead of producing everything himself, he wants to support regional farmers. The 25 Teiche (“25 Ponds”) fish farm, located between Potsdam and Magdeburg, for example, has basins that are regularly irrigated with fresh spring water. Only a short walk away through the forest is the dairy farmer Micha, whose cows are allowed to graze on a pasture with gentle hills reminiscent of Tuscany. There is the source of the milk for the dish that Ursus calls prototypical for his method of working. “My mother or one of my employees brings the milk in cans by car to the city. At Otto, we process it into yogurt and labneh, a sour-tasting, creamy fresh cheese, or we make raw milk ice cream from it. We also have home-picked elderberries and plum seed oil. The fruit for it comes from my father’s garden, which borders that of my mother’s. It is served on stone slabs that we have collected and cut ourselves.”

The last stop on the garden tour is the production kitchen housed in a bungalow from the GDR era. Students of architecture at the Berlin University of the Arts have experimented with it and all that remains are the walls. Lavender bouquets dry, hanging from the ceiling of the bright room with an exposed concrete floor and open kitchen. In the living area, sheepskins and a cast-iron stove ensure comfort. The library has titles such as Naturgemäßer Obstbaumschnitt (“Natural Fruit Tree Pruning”) and Peter Wohlleben’s Das geheime Leben der Bäume (“The Secret Lives of Trees”). One can well imagine Ursus gathering friends and colleagues here to dry giant Mexican tagetes (marigold), pick rowanberries, or pasteurize pear juice in the oven. Unlike many other ambitious cooks, this Berliner is not an egotist but rather a team player. “It’s important to me that all my employees come here at some point to get a feel for our products,” is something that Ursus says repeatedly. Because in our highly technological world, it is too easy to forget that the steak on your plate used to be a cow. This does not mean that the 28-year-old does not make use of modern technology. For example, the transformation of wine into vinegar is accelerated by an aquarium pump, and the transformation of the juices by a fan heater.     

And finally, the most obvious question: What did his grandmothers cook? Ursus laughs and lights a Gauloises Red. “My father’s mother usually had potatoes with curd and linseed oil. The other grandmother cooked hearty dishes like roasts with red cabbage and dumplings. When I was a child, I liked that – probably also because so much Maggi and Knorr were in it. Apart from a bit of jam, neither of the two made preserves.” Ursus’ new-old cooking techniques are therefore not just a continuation of a familial or even regional tradition; the cuisine of the future will not be the cuisine of yesterday, it is new all its own.

Text by Eva Biringer
Photos by Sören Zuppke

You can visit Restaurant Otto in Berlin at Oderbergerstr. 56 to check out their weekly pantry selections. Find more info here

This piece is taken from our current print issue of Fräulein, which you can purchase here


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