Two and a half years ago, Florian Niedermeier, Bernd Maier and Nikolaus Driessen opened Markthalle Neun. A discussion on regional food, global migration movements and good taste.
We’re sitting in a historic building, your market hall. What kind of place was it, and what is it now?
Florian Niedermeier: Historically speaking, the market hall was a place where food – in particular food for city-dwellers – was sold, as well as processed and prepared. Vegetables from the surrounding farms, meat from the slaughterhouses.
Bernd Maier: The opening of the market hall signified a social change. The Berlin market halls catered to industrial society. For the first time in history, breadwinning was uncoupled from literal breadwinning, at least for a majority of the population. People didn’t have a field to till anymore, nor even a garden.
Florian Niedermeier: Food is a central subject when planning a city, when you want to be able to feed the population. To come back to the present: We want food culture to become a lively part of the city again. Food is a huge subject for all of us, many times daily. And beyond that, a place like this isn’t just a market, it’s also a market place. A place where the general public comes together.
Nikolaus Driessen: That aspect is very important. From the beginning, we’ve wanted Markthalle Neun to be a place for debate and discussion, a place where people can get involved.
So food is political. But wasn’t that the overall impression in the organic movement of the 1980s and 90s? That food is, first and foremost, political?
Nikolaus Driessen: I would say that time – especially here in Kreuzberg – was a seed of what we’re experiencing now in the market hall.
Bernd Maier: One of the problems with the organic movement was that aspects like sensuality, enjoyment and tradition didn’t have much place there. The people involved here in the market hall have an attitude that automatically combines all that. It’s a scene that’s fully aware of the fair trade movement, but also putting more focus on other characteristics of food culture – tradition, craftsmanship, regional origin, and authenticity.
Florian Niedermeier: People who decide to get involved with food today have to do something special and approach it organically. The industry is full up and doing just fine, it doesn’t make any sense to try to gain footing there.
Markhalle Neun explicitly endorses this diversity. Who are the people making the difference, as it were?
Bernd Maier: The fact that Berlin attracts so many people searching for new ways of living, and yes, new ways of consuming, is a gift. It enriches the traditional areas of pop culture and subculture – art, music, et cetera. But it also enriches the food the same way, it has been for many years already. We’re working in a climate that’s very open to new ideas.
And the core of it are the products available to you, as a manufacturer or retailer.
Florian Niedermeier: That’s why I think it also has a lot to do with Berlin’s regional history, specifically. It’s not just the city that’s being redefined and experiencing growth, but also the surrounding land that was nationalized in the gdr and now offers scope for development.
Nikolaus Driessen: And then there’s the historically specific situation in which West Berlin was cut off from its surroundings by the Wall. Contact between the city and the countryside had to be re-established.
Florian Niedermeier: What I find striking today is that many farmers in Brandenburg definitely have an urban background. They might be artists or come from media jobs. There’s a conscious decision made: I’m going to be a potato farmer. And crucial questions arise naturally from this consciousness: What do I think of industrialized agriculture? What about the use of pesticides? How did tillage and husbandry work 50 years ago, or 150 years ago? What breeds were planted then and might still make sense today? Then you’ve got a potato farmer who’s deeply involved in her subject and can also offer you
a different kind of potato.
Especially since good taste can be under–stood more literally in food culture than anywhere else.
Florian Niedermeier: And taste is a matter of experience, it’s not inherent or inherited, it’s learned. That’s one of the main characteristics of the new coffee culture – being able to differentiate again, being able to taste differences.
Nikolaus Driessen: It’s also why we still have a discounter in the market hall. A lot of people in the neighborhood have low incomes, and they have to shop at a discounter. But once they’ve tried a soup at our canteen, or a cup of coffee, they come back to us, too.
Florian Niedermeier: And Markthalle Neun also stands explicitly for low-threshold, high-quality food, for example at Street Food Thursday. You can come here and get really great food for five Euros.
You mentioned it already: nutritious, fair food has a price. In a low-income neighborhood like the one Markthalle Neun is in, that turns into a social debate.
Nikolaus Driessen: The part of Kreuzberg we’re in is one of Berlin’s critical social areas. The neighborhood is actually under extreme pressure right now, rents are rising fast and people are truly afraid that they won’t be able to afford to live here anymore. The gentrification debate is huge. We want people to eat well, and at the same time, that comes with a price. It’s a really interesting debate, one that contains an unsolvable conflict, but that’s exactly what keeps us on our toes. We constantly have to ask ourselves: What is it that we want? And where will this journey take us?
Interview by Clemens Niedenthal