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The Germans are very proud of their baking culture. The word Brot translates to mean 'bread', pain, pane, hleb and so on, but, more than any other word ever translated, it conjures up a completely different concept in the mind's eye of the reader, depending on the culture they've come from:
The French picture a flûte.
The British, a white tin or bloomer.
The Italians, the somewhat more substantial ciabatta.
In India, you have flat loaves, baked using ground lentils.
In Turkey or Iran you'll find a flat loaf more like a deep pan pizza base.
The ancient Romans wound a very simple flour and water dough round a stick and baked it over a fire to be eaten the next day.
And the German visualises a very heavy, very strong-tasting rye-based loaf of very dark, very densely textured bread. It seems that in Germany bread is a foodstuff, whereas everywhere else in Western Europe, the Near, Middle and some parts of the Far East (not to mention the American version, which defies description) it is either a necessity, an instrument for eating dishes with a high liquid content or just there so you don't have to spread your jam on your fingers.
There is a great choice of bread for all tastes and pockets available in Germany. As mentioned above, the main ingredient is usually rye flour. This gives a sour, strong taste, which is down to the ingredients and the technique used to cook it, which is not like the yeast-and-wheat-flour method known elsewhere. The denseness is due to the fact that the heavy flour does not rise so readily.
The base is a Sauerteig (sour dough). This is made by mixing rye flour and water and leaving it to stand for almost a week. The bacteria that form (if you're lucky) create the sour-tasting catalyst, which causes the bread to rise. For a recipe and more information about the Danish version of this check out Danish Rye Bread.
Housewives who make bread will have a continuous culture going and will share it among friends in the neighbourhood. As the dark, heavy German bread keeps for up to a week, baking need only be done on Saturdays.
The Baker's Shop
The Baker's Shop (Bäckerei) is marked by a Brezel-shaped sign hanging outside. Even Germans, as well as visitors, may need help here, because the regional names for everything are so varied.
There will be a baker's shop on nearly every street corner. They're open at 6am and close at 6pm, but the bread is usually pretty much sold out by the afternoon.
Just go in and smell!
Loaves are arranged at the back, sweet pastries and rolls in the glass-fronted counter. Some people may be shocked to see the sales assistants taking the unwrapped loaves from the shelves with their bare hands and dropping them into a paper bag, but no one ever died from eating bread as far as this Researcher knows. These shops very rarely bake their own bread, instead they're branches of a real bakers, not very far away and the bread comes to the shop direct from the oven. The same bakers usually bake the bread sold at the bakery counters of supermarkets.
If you buy a loaf, the assistant will immediately offer to cut it for you - Geschnitten? or Schneiden? she will say. Most families have an electric bread-cutting machine at home and will not need this. You should probably only accept this offer if you are feeding a large group and are in a hurry. Cut bread dries out quickly and the German bread is already quite hard, solid and chewy.
Also, when catering for groups, remember that this bread is very filling. The phrase 'six slices a day is the well-balanced way' doesn't apply here - two or three slices will make a full meal with cheese or ham or cooked meats (German Wurst) for a normal appetite.
Types of Dough
Roggenmischbrot - is rye mixed with wheat or other flour. This is the most common and cheapest type of bread. It has a light colour and texture and is sold in loaves of one (Einpfunder) or two (Zweipfunder) pounds. It does not keep for long once cut.
Weizenmischbrot is a light-coloured bread, with different proportions of wheat and rye from Roggenmisch.
Bauernbrot - is similar to Roggenmisch, somewhat lighter, tastier and slightly more expensive.
Weißbrot1 - is simply white bread. It does not cut or toast quite like the type of bread sold in Britain, though, but has a good flavour when absolutely fresh.
Vollkornbrot - uses the whole grain. In some versions the grains are ground finer, some coarser. If you prefer the finer grain for easier digestion, or the coarser to get the old bowels moving, you could ask to see the inside of a cut loaf. Vollkorn can of course be applied to any type of grain.
There are various proprietary names for other types of doughs using different mixtures of grain: some local ones in southern Germany include Kraftkorn (grain for strength), Sechskorn (six grain), or any other variety with a number indicating the types of grain involved in the mixture.
Some specialist bakers will also sell Laugengebäck. This is made by boiling white bread in salt water before it is baked. This gives the delicious and practical Brezel its texture, but is also available in roll form, or a small stick, or a complete loaf. Special Brezel stands will sell Brezel spread with butter, or even with cheese, or the sticks are baked with cheese on top. It's the done thing to eat these walking along the street, or alternatively you can buy ten and take them back to the office to eat with coffee.
Shapes of Loaves
White bread is sold as Baguette or Stangenweißbrot (French stick) or Kasten (tin) but can also be obtained in an oblong shape, baked loose on the tray, like a bloomer. Some bakers have also started offering ciabatta which is based on the Italian bread, the shape is similar to the bloomer, an elongated oval, but the dough is a light wheat dough, coloured slightly yellow.
Bauernbrot2 is usually round; the others mentioned above are generally sold in the shape they grow into when baked loose on a tray.
The choice of rolls available in Germany really is a treat for visitors, because there is almost as great a choice as for bread. Just point to whatever you want. A good choice is a mixture of dark rolls, although for breakfast you may prefer white rolls for a lighter meal and for eating with jam, marmalade or honey. Indeed, plain white rolls are baked continually in the shops, on trays delivered from the bakery, so these are readily available. Also, because they are available in the shops at 6am, fresh rolls are guaranteed. (This will, of course, also apply to hotels, etc.)
Milchbrötchen (milk roll) are one type of soft white roll, but others are often full of air and are sometimes derogatively called Wasserweck (water rolls).
It is polite to tell the girl before you start how many rolls you intend to buy, so she can get the right size bag ready. If you're buying over 20 rolls, it might be a good idea to reserve some the evening before. You can pay when ordering or when you come to pick them up. Give your name, to simplify matters, or in case someone else comes to pick them up.
The biggest problem with rolls is what to call them. You can never go wrong with the word Brötchen - the word is difficult to pronounce, but is universal across the country. It is the diminuitive of Brot/bread. So squash the 'o' sound to an 'er' sound and don't struggle with the 'ch' too much, 'sh' will do. Further north, you can substitute the 'ch' for 'k'.
You might also hear the words:
Semmel in Bavaria (in the south east of Germany), so that Brezelnsemmel is a Laugenbrötchen).
Weck in Baden and the Palatinate (in the south west of the country).
Weckle can be heard in the south. As the 'le' is a diminuitive, you will find the sound used for everything there, including the endings of most surnames.
Schrippen is a Berlin term.
Rundstücke are found in Hamburg, (literally meaning 'round pieces')
The Shape of the Brezel
There are many stories for the origin of the traditional shape of the Brezel. It is a kind of knot made from a long thin roll of dough, crossed over twice and the (thinner) ends pressed into the thicker middle bit, making it look something like the letter 'B'. The usual explanation for its shape is that some high Churchman commissioned a baker to make something to represent the Trinity. The Brezel has three spaces between the parts of the knot. This makes it very practical for children and for eating in the street generally, you can hook it round your little finger while reading the paper.
The Brezel is about the size of a man's hand and the wider part of the dough is soft. It is only very remotely related to the hard and dry pretzels you get at parties. These are also sold in Germany, but not in kiosks on the street, you'll find them instead on the supermarket shelf alongside crisps and breadsticks.
It might be easier to point out the loaf you'd like by telling the sales assistant what it looks like. It could be covered with any of the following:
Mehl3 - flour
Sesam4 - sesame seeds
Kümmel5 - caraway seeds
Mohn6 - poppy seed
Haferflocken - rolled oats
Sonnenblumenkerne - sunflower seeds
Kürbiskerne7 - pumpkin seeds (these are dark green)
Salz8 - salt (found on Brezels)
Leinsamen9 - linseeds (small and dark brown, like shiny cress seeds)
Some types of bread are not available from the baker's. For example, you may not find the legendary Pumpernickel. This is available in supermarkets in packets. It keeps for an extremely long time, is usually tightly wrapped in foil and is even sold in tins. It is well worth trying. Eat it just with butter, or Philadelphia cheese, or jam.
On the shelves nearby you will find other variations on the Pumpernickel theme. Once you have got used to the idea of black breads, you will be surprised at how juicy and tasty they are. Again, here, the same rule applies - the breads are very filling, and a packed lunch with two sandwiches of black bread and ham or cheese will certainly keep you going for a good long time. The advantage of these is that they are only sold in slices and you can keep them in your drawer or fridge at the office or just whip up a sandwich quickly before leaving for work or school in the morning.
The dark colour of the bread also means that it is also decorative when arranging buffet trays of sandwiches.
Baking your Own
In small villages in the south of Germany it is still quite common - and it's becoming more popular again - to bake bread in a kind of Gemeindebäckereien (parish bakery). Often the village administration runs a small Holzofen or bakery made up of one or two ovens made from a special kind of stone. The ovens are filled with pinewood in specific dimensions (which helps determine the exact heat). After everything has burnt down the ashes are swept away with a broom.
This is when the village baking event begins. All the breadmakers in the village have made their dough at home. Everyone can make exactly the amount of bread they need and the shape they want. Then they'll gather at the bakery and the loaves are put into the oven with the heated stones. The difficult thing is to place the loaves the correct distance from each other. If you have too many or too few loaves the heat gets out of control. Usually the bread bakes for roughly two hours, but the baking time should actually correspond to the gaps between the loaves. Therefore it's important that one person is responsible for the baking.
This is more of a social event than a culinary one, as everyone meets up on a Saturday morning and can have a good gossip.
Normally this village service is free, apart from a small fee of 50 Pfennig per loaf paid to the baker.