Born of bold red brick and cast iron, Markthalle Neun looms up from Kreuzberg’s narrow Eisenbahnstraße. Originally one of 14 market halls across Berlin, the revitalised building reopened in 2011, 120 years after it was built. Nikolaus Driessen is one of four owners, a neighbour who developed a taste for taking on the failing market. ‘Markthalle Neun is typical of such a building in Germany,’ he says. ‘It was really quite progressive when it was built. Most were destroyed during the war and this one survived; but, after the war, people started to save money and preferred supermarkets. When I first came across it in 2009 it was dying.’
The decline of Markthalle Neun mirrors a pattern of markets in the UK – and, to some extent the US – facing similar fates. ‘For us it is not a Berlin problem, but a German problem,’ says Driessen. ‘Lunch was always the big thing, then people started to work and lunch didn’t happen any more. So people didn’t cook. Dinner was never anything special. We started to lose our techniques and our recipes. And our ability to cook – certainly in comparison to Italy or France. After the war, food became all about getting the belly filled, not making a feast. People lost their value for good food – both the taste, and socially. Still now we spend 11% of our income on food – that’s less than anyone else in Europe.’
As ever, a move in one direction provokes a reaction in the opposite. Driessen says: ‘It became so ingrained – so one-sided – that doing something differently was inevitable. As more things become more global there was need for more diversity; for regional produce; for localism.’
Driessen’s partners, Bernd Maier and Florian Niedermeier are both confirmed foodies, hailing from southern Germany with its rich food culture. ‘I was a neighbour – we just heard that the building was being sold for the best price,’ remembers Driessen. ‘The city had decided to sell because they couldn’t manage it any more. They had decided it wasn’t their job to run it as a public institution. We wanted to have a stake in what was happening in front of our door. Bernd and Florian are very much into food – since… forever – and have always dreamed of running a market. We didn’t know each other at the time; they are friends from childhood. We do get along very well though. It’s kind of magic… A good fit from every angle.’
Initially, the team focused directly on trade from regional producers, creating a Farmer’s Market on Fridays and Saturdays. ‘We needed time to build up the project and get people used to coming,’ says Driessen. ‘But we had lots of requests from people who wanted to sell ready to eat food. That didn’t fit with what we were doing on Fridays and Saturdays, but we saw all these great concepts – that’s where the idea for the street food night came from. It was a really new concept in Germany – people knew it from Asia and other countries, but not in Germany at the time.’
Street Food Thursday rapidly proved a huge success. Driessen says: ‘It really boosted the economy. We saw incredible development of businesses – some later opened different restaurants and venues. We had the first food truck in Berlin, selling Alpine pasta – now they have countless trucks. We have other tenants who’ve really established their businesses here: a brewery; tofu producers; a butcher. It’s created a new food economy, using the market as a platform to experiment and test.’
Driessen’s background is in economics and microfinance. Pre-Markthalle Neun, he worked for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, raising microfinance for projects and then in media. Even so, raising the money to buy the building proved anything but straightforward. ‘It was so difficult to get credit from the bank – it is still very difficult, in spite of our background. The whole process is opposing what we are trying to do here. If we just wanted to prolong Aldi’s lease, it would have been easy. That’s what they were interested in. Security. We went to all the green banks, telling them how great and good it would be for everyone. In the end, it still all came down to length of Aldi’s contract. It makes it almost impossible for small businesses – it’s like the European standards for butchers. I think 25% of butchers here closed down because they couldn’t match up to it. We are not helped by how the world is running.
‘I am an absolute believer that food affects everything. We have a saying in German – you are what you eat – and there are major lessons that need to be taught. Everybody who buys food has a choice – even just starting with an apple or some milk, you can change how the world looks for better or for worse. We should be thinking about our connection with food – about food miles. There is a strong political movement in Germany – the Green party has become quite big. We have our roots in nature and food and we manage to bring these people together. We like to combine these two influences. Everyone can find a reason to buy good food.’
Berlin has found itself at the centre of a foodie flurry; with renewed interest in food and ingredients reflecting the city’s experimentalism and environmental credentials. ‘It is very easy for people to try themselves out here,’ says Driessen. ‘We have a gastronomy sector full of people who maybe always dreamed of doing something; here they can rent a stall and gain a couple of qualifications for admin; it’s not that difficult. Financially – it’s easy to step in. People can try out their business and their menus. Lode and Stijn started in the market and have opened their own restaurant. We have really succeeded in becoming a circle in terms of the people – they care about the products they use – they want to have good food and good farming. When they later open restaurants, they’ll continue to work with suppliers in the market.
The city’s history has created a unique legacy. ‘We have a special situation in Berlin,’ Driessen says. ‘With the coming down of the wall, the huge state-run companies that surrounded Berlin disappeared, leaving lots of free land and empty space. You didn’t have to be rich to buy it or inherit it, so people used it to develop their projects. It makes this whole movement quite unique. People have come to food from totally different backgrounds – an Italian baker who studied history and decided he wanted to bake bread. They’ll look at it differently to someone who has a classical bakery. There are different influences with strong and special personalities. It can’t just happen anywhere. Berlin is full of these people. Whereas once it was the capital of music, it’s now the food sector. We have a lot of interesting people.’
Kreuzberg is the melting pot at the centre of Berlin’s new scene. Once the area was surrounded on three sides by the Wall; now, elegant graffitied apartments rub against hipster cafes and cultural centres; hippies and artists sit alongside bitcoin entrepreneurs and old Turkish men drinking coffee you can stand a spoon in. The mix, says Driessen, is important. ‘Very different groups of people come here. Our roots are in Kreuzberg and the neighbourhood and we try and attract people from here. It’s crucial for a place to have its DNA and a market should always reflect its direct surroundings. That’s one reason why we kept the supermarket there. Aldi is a hardcore discounter and we chose to keep it – not because they pay lots of rent, but we believe it’s crucial – people buy there. We make sure we have mix of people and something there for the neighbours – something for families; for older people. It’s very social – you can sit down to a very democratic restaurant. It is for groups and people on their own; for people who like to cook and find out the newest trends, or contact the producers. Variety is important.’
The market also supports an educational strand, with cooking classes for young people. ‘I would like us to do more,’ admits Driessen. ‘The kitchen school idea is to teach children from when they’re little – make them conscious of their food. And give them more understanding of the marketplace as a place to learn. We will have more and more workshops, but it’s not super-regular yet.’
October also sees the market’s second festival – the Stadt Land Food (City Country Food) Festival, explore ideas around food and identity. Again, it is a story of action and reaction. Two years ago, at the city’s International Green Week Berlin festival – the world’s biggest food fair – a demonstration sprang up, showing the alternatives to the commercial farming and big business food fayre it showcases. ‘January proved difficult though,’ admits Driessen, ‘because we have nothing on the fields. We needed to do it in October. This year’s version is about the importance of identity – it picks up on current concerns, like the refugee crisis in Germany. We are organising dinners with the camp that’s next to the market – food plays a crucial role when it comes to integration. We didn’t want to do purely focus on the refugee thing, so we are looking at the influence of food on identity and vice versa. It’s going to be fun.’ Alongside a huge outdoor market, taking over the streets around Eisenbahnstraße, will be a political congress and 11 curated Food Labs regarding different products – from bread to beer, each with an expert to talk about it.
Markthalle Neun is doing good work. It’s supporting businesses and making people think about sustainability. But, perhaps most importantly, it’s become a focal point for the local community. ‘We don’t care that much in a way,’ smiles Driessen. ‘If somebody comes out of Aldi, we’re just happy that he’s happy with the bread. That he likes it and buys it. We don’t want to be a preacher. People who are interested can get involved deeper, but others don’t have to. We try to make it attractive to all sorts of people.’