German bread: one institution that has not crumbled

Coypright: The global crisis has been eating away at popular confidence in bankers, in managers, estate agents, politicians and even journalists. But not bakers, oh no, not bakers.

Trust in at least one institution has not crumbled: German bread.

These are booming, yeast-rising times for the 300 or so variations of German bread, the Vollkornbrot, the Roggenbrot and the legendary Pumpernickel. Bread sales were up again in Germany, the tenth year in succession; the business is worth 16.7 billion dollars and looks set to do well as long as Germans eat their weight – 87 kilos – in bread rolls every year. The average Frenchman eats his way through a mere 55 kilos of annual flûte.

Part of the national brand

Copyright: picture-alliance/ dpa The dark grainy German bread is selling, so to speak, like hot cakes across the world and has become as much part of the national brand as BMW and Claudia Schiffer. At a time when high street shops are pulling down their shutters, German bakeries in Florida, in Canadian and Australian towns are struggling to keep up with orders. One particularly successful chain in Australia is run by a German of Turkish origin. “The concept,” says a spokesman for the company Lüneburger, “was inspired by Germany as the owner Ahmet Yaltirakli was born in Cologne.”

Germans have always had a strong interest in their daily bread. British holidaymakers on the Costa del Sol have noted that hotels there have taken to serving at least three kinds of dark German bread at the breakfast buffet. The difference between a happy and a grumpy German travelling abroad is whether he or she has been able to get hold of a favourite multi-grained roll that morning. Some Brits have even been converted while on holiday and search for rye sourdough bread when they return home: the so-called German Bakery has been set up in Liverpool to deal with the demand.

The “German miracle”

Copyright:  Zentralverband des Deutschen Bäckerhandwerks e.V. Lovers of German bread now often order online. Americans for example can have their bread sent by courier from a North Carolina outlet (the Gugelhupf Bakery) or from Fort Lauderdale in Florida. And how exotic it seems! There is the Five Grain roll, (cracked rye, linseeds, sesame and sunflower seeds, 25 per cent wheat, 75 per cent rye), the Black Forest (not the fabled creamy gateau but rather the equivalent of the German Roggenmischbrot, 30 per cent wheat, 70 per cent rye) and Muesli bread which mixes hazelnuts, honey raisins and oats in whole wheat.

The textured heavy bread has become fashionable among celebrities. Tina Turner, the formidable 69-year-old singer who lived for many years outside Cologne attributes her fitness to the “German Miracle.” She has only two meals a day and the most important is the first one. “I eat a breakfast of banana, kiwi and melon and brown German bread, “she says. German actress Franka Potente, who spent a miserable year in Los Angeles, says she was desperate for proper German bread. European bakeries, sensing that a definite trend is emerging, have begun to send apprentices to Germany. Irish students for example are being sent several times a year to a master bakery school near Heidelberg.

A kind of salon

Coypright: I doubt though that all this dough-envy will lead to a massive export of German bakery culture. Ireland for example has only around seven bakeries for every 100,000 inhabitants. Germany has 47 per 100,000; it is quite simply impossible to walk a few streets without smelling hot bread. So other countries can imitate but they will not capture the real essence of a German baker, the combination of craftsmanship and serving a neighbourhood.

Bakeries in Germany have become a kind of salon. Tables are often put outside in the summer, fresh coffee is brewed and the bread is not just “to go” but can be carefully sliced (once it has cooled off a bit), buttered and made into a snack that lasts most of the day. Since I have the freedom of a foreign correspondent this has become one of my start-the-day rituals, chatting in the sun with other breadies.

A natural food for troubled times

That is the moment when you realise that recession has come to Germany. Most of the people lingering at the baker are pensioners or unemployed. They are in search, naturally, of human contact but they also have discriminating palates, capable of distinguishing between the white cotton-wool bread favoured by the British and the dusky German variants. The word “bread” carries different connotations for different countries: the French think of their baguettes, the English are looking for something that is easily toasted, the Americans want a quick energy burst and many countries simply want something absorbent, to soak up soup. But the Germans have always seen bread as a proper foodstuff, a source of nutrition for most of the day.

And it is a natural food for troubled times. It is relatively cheap since the bread price has always been sensitive (bread riots in 1830 almost turned into a revolution). It can last long, several days (an EU attempt to control the salt content of German bread was quickly squashed). The local baker, one of the best informed people in the neighbourhood, will also discreetly offer to take ten slices off a loaf so that a hard-up customer does not have to buy the whole thing. Kids can get free buns on Saturdays. For those ready to eat second-day bread, the price is cut to almost nothing. Some old loaves are made into bread crumbs so that customers can sprinkle them on their schnitzel.

Home baking is back in fashion

Partly because of this sense that bread is the staple food for hard times, home baking has come back in fashion across Europe. German bread though is not an obvious candidate for the kitchen-top bread-making machines that are now seen in British middle class households. Pumpernickel is complicated to make – it is better professionally done, with each slice tightly wrapped – and even the simpler Roggenmischbrot requires hours of preparation work before being put in the oven. You cannot rush the kneading.

In some southern German villages, the locals have formed bread-making groups. They make the dough at home and then on Saturdays make use of a communal wood oven, a Holzofen, to do the baking. It is a social, gossipy event that underscores the fact that baking breeds a sense of togetherness and safety.

Even a sense of national pride.

Since the world soccer championships of 2006, bakers have been selling “Weltmeisterbrot” – world champion bread.

“Why?” I asked my baker back then, “You haven’t won anything yet.” Although that wasn’t strictly true: Germany headed the list of the world’s top exporting nations.

“Don’t know,” she snapped back, “why don’t you ask Jürgen Klinsmann, his father was a master-baker.” Klinsmann was national trainer.

At that moment, right on cue, Klinsmann walked in. His team (which went on to win third place) was quartered in a luxury hotel down the road and he had come in to buy the right kind of bread for the boys. I nodded politely and fled, clutching my bag of still-warm World Champion rolls.
Roger Boyes
is Germany correspondent for the London daily newspaper "The Times". He has been living in Germany for twenty years and is author of the column "My Berlin" in the "Tagesspiegel". In his book "My dear Krauts" he describes the peculiarities of everyday life in Germany with typical British humour.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
April 2009

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