50 SHADES OF SCHNITZEL – My Frankfurt (Food) Diary by Ilona Chavasse

The Frankfurt Book Fair may be over, but many still bear the scars with their bulging inboxes and drooping eyelids. Ilona Chavasse, a Frankfurt Book Fair survivor shares her heroic account here.

Soon to be digested in The New York Times, The Bookseller, Vogue, and Frankfurt Village Voice.

 Day 2 – Wednesday

Oversleep breakfast, and several Hall 8 crappuccinos later, I am reliably informed that in the French pavilion good espresso is being given out on demand. Not for the first time I wish we were allowed to bring interns to Frankfurt. They could learn so, so much, and fetch coffee, too.

Here comes our Hungarian sub-agent (handsome, saturnine, serious – delightfully Magyar, in other words) bearing gifts. This could be exciting. It turns out my moaning last year about how no one brings goodies and treats that one actually wants to eat (would the abomination that is Norwegian salted black liquorice please stand up and proceed briskly to the exit) was memorable enough to prompt him to bring me two nifty little bags of Hungarian paprika. Score! These are not immediately edible, alas, and I’ve failed to note down which one is sweet and which is hot – the Hungarian labels are all Greek to me.

Onwards to the kiosk and the inevitable classic double Frankfurt sausage in a hard roll. It’s only 2pm, how could they have run out of kartoffelsalat already?

Ah, Jewel of India restaurant. So conveniently near the fair, so evergreen. The fun-loving, generous book scout who is in effect in loco parentis to her entourage of alarmingly young blondes asks the waiters to bring us lots of everything and keep the wine and beer coming. The bill is predictably eye-watering, and we stumble out on a cloud of love and good wishes from the management.

Day 3 – Thursday – fleisch and more fleisch, topped with meat

Fuelled by a largish mound of crispy bacon I sprint across the footbridge to the back of Hall 8 like a crazed and ungainly leopard late for a parent-teacher meeting. My contact is late, and I think mistakes my silence for disapproval – I’m in fact just trying to catch my breath.  The coffee is still so bad it feels punitive.

Many appointments later, my boss Vanessa has also given in to the Frankfurt frankfurters (did I mention you get a pair, with a hard roll?) and brings one pair over for me after getting a pair for herself. There’s a cunning little hole in the roll, filled with mustard! My mouth is busy pitching our extraordinary range of fiction and non-fiction, but I hope the gratitude in my eyes does not go unnoticed.

Dinner at a traditional regional eatery called Zum Grauen Bock… The beautiful, pencil-slim agent seated next to me and I (pleasant-enough looking, I guess, decidedly not slim) both want to try a bit of everything so agree to share our starters. In the event, we could easily share them with a small refugee camp, as the pickled herring turns out to be AN ENTIRE HERRING, soused in vinegar and lounging languidly in a lake of sour cream, caressed by fronds of pickled onion rings and wearing a decidedly come-hither look. My companion’s starter of liver dumplings could nicely feed a garrison emerging from a castle under prolonged siege, long after they’ve eaten all the rats and horses. The main courses begin to arrive like a pageant from a medieval bestiary: roe deer stew, suckling pig, knuckle of wild boar, roast swan, unicorn pie, schnitzel in cheese sauce, and the rest of the usual suspects, too.

Scanning the happy international faces around us, the bare wooden tables and the democratic condiment trolley, it suddenly occurs to me that context is all – for all we know we’re in the German version of Aberdeen Steak House. Extraordinary, how exhaustion and rich food combine to produce all the symptoms of intoxication, especially when leavened with beer.

Some misspent hours later (FrankfurterHof, nightclub, FrankfurterHof) it is far too far into Friday, and yours truly is finally off to bed, once again narrowly missing out on the chocolate pudding stashed in my mini-fridge.

Day 4 – Friday – from bad to wurst, sorry, sorry

Three hours of sleep later and I’m on my own at breakfast, having flatly refused to join the Commander-in-Chief at his table. Honoured, dear sir, but must regretfully decline, as not in a fit state for human company. I’m having enough trouble holding on to my own table, so cutlery is equally out of the question. As is solid food, really. No flash photography please, unless you want to see a lady be sick into her handbag.

The useful thing about a raging migraine is that it makes the thought of food, any food at all, seem as appealing as a second ice pick through the eye, to add to the first. Bless you, o Spanish editor, who cancelled our meeting, my last for the day, which means I can lurch back to the hotel, lie back and not think of England, the rights list, the escalating crisis in Greece, or whether handsome daredevil  Felix Baumgartner managed to make his historic skydive from the edge of space to earth. (FYI he did it on the 14th of October. Breaking the sound-barrier didn’t kill or maim him, as was thrillingly a real possibility).

Bless you, too, o my Russian sub-agent, who came to mop my brow like a ministering angel. I promised you a fun, crowdy and rowdy evening of tapas, wine and song, but I’m afraid all you got was me in a darkened room. And you weren’t even the first.

Midnight at the Thai Dream around the corner. The nice Thai waitress brings us grapes, then hot towels, then crackers, then more grapes, then the address of a late-opening massage parlour, and then we finally get the message and vacate the premises.

Not too late for chocolate pudding, but I’m not feeling it tonight, just not feeling it.

Day 5 – Saturday – has everyone gone home but me?

Too tired for breakfast.  Anyway, Frankfurt breakfast – like sleep and sobriety – is for babies.

Late lunch-time and I’m off to the kiosk for the inevitable pair of frankfurters. Gosh, these are yummy. And very comforting somehow, like the frenemy you’ve had since first grade. Or like early-onset Stockholm Syndrome. Sausage is still plentiful, but they’re out of kartoffelsalat.

Dinner brings a slab of excellent steak I struggle womanfully to finish and real, honest-to-goodness cauliflower, at which the French publisher sitting across from me sneers with a Gallic, manly disdain. There’s also a coy little carrot swirl, and it looks so lonely I send it down to join the cauliflower.

The FrankfurterHof late on a Saturday night feels like the last night on the Titanic – those who didn’t quite make it into the lifeboats wander half-dazed around the cavernous main drag, drinking champagne and looking for people they know and can hole up in a grotto with. Champagne and wasabi peas for everyone!

 Day 6 – Sunday – the last hurrah, the final frontier

Regrettably, I forget to leave a tip for housekeeping when checking out, but I do leave a jar of pickles I never managed to open, and a chocolate pudding, in the fridge. Perhaps it will make a nice change from all that predictable money?

2 pm, and Angela alerts me to a hot food van just outside selling “dirty fries” – ie crisped in lard on six sides and tossed with salt and paprika  – and I promise myself that I’ll only eat a couple. Something happens between inhaling the first fry and reaching for the second one, because I suddenly come to, three minutes later, with no fries and no memory of eating them, only a sense of deep well-being emanating from my waistline region, and also shame.

I ring home from the airport and put in a request for two heads of broccoli. Steamed. Large.  Every atom of my being is yearning for green leafy vegetables, but there’s a delay and a Haagen Dazs stand by the gate. Come on, Haagen Dazs. At the airport. So would you.

Words cannot describe my airline mini-meal (do note the kartoffelsalat, and the fact that the pickle is bigger than the sausage – take that, Christian Grey!) but I did take a photo, and here it is.


Back to the office and the way in is the usual gauntlet of pastry, candy, and assorted Haribos. I limit myself to a single wafer-thin mint.

Ilona Chavasse is Rights Manager at Atlantic Books, and has been going to Frankfurt long enough to know what’s coming, so there’s really no excuse.


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