Bread in Germany: All you knead to know.
Whenever my girlfriend came to visit me in Britain, I would scurry off to the nearest supermarket to buy all the things she liked. My shopping list would almost always contain the same things: fizzy water, jam, HobNobs and most importantly of all bread, lots and lots of bread. It seemed to me that no matter how much of the stuff I bought there would always be a daily trip to the shops to buy some more. Despite her slight frame she would consume bread at such a rate as to baffle greater minds than mine. And yet no matter which kind I bought or where I bought it I could always sense a slight air of disappointment about my selection. I considered myself a fairly good boyfriend, but after so much bread rejection I was beginning to think my situation was untenable. However, having lived in Germany awhile now, I have come to understand her lack of enthusiasm for Britain's baked goods. It was not that she was hard to please it was simply that all other breads, at least in the mind of many Germans, fails to comply with the impossibly high standards of the average local Backerei.
Bread, like beer, is something Germans take a lot of care over and it has to be a certain way. To put it into perspective, it's like the British and a cup of tea. One of the main complaints of Britons abroad is that no matter how fabulous the weather, how comfortable the hotel or how amazing the landscape, it's hard to find a decent cup of tea. In Germany the bread is never as good as it is at home. Italian bread is good but the flour isn't quite right, while French breads have their merits it is too brittle and British bread is similar to eating a brick. None of these options can compete with those on offer on home soil.
All this may seem a little perplexing and even a little condescending, but all it takes is a quick stop at any local Backerei. The first thing that hits you is the sheer amount of bread on offer: Bauern brot (farmers bread), Misch brot (mixed bread), Volkorn brot (full corn), Nasser laib (moist bread), Dinkel brot (old recipe), Stein Offen (Stone oven), Sonnen blumen (sunflower) or Korbis (pumpkin). Hell, that's not even including bread rolls which are given different names depending where you are in Germany. So region specific are German bread rolls, I firmly believe that if you were left in an unknown part of Germany you could easily orientate yourself by asking for a roll at the local bakery. Who needs a compass when you have bakers? Semmel, Brothchen, Weggle, Schreppa or Schmitta cover these regions and, of course, all of these come in different sizes. Pretzels are a separate category, with regions adjusting the texture, size and contents.
The bakeries themselves vary from state to state and even city to city as well, with different areas having different local and national chains. The quality and price have some variance, but often the standard, at least to me, remains the same. My German friends can easily tell you which area has the best bakery (generally it's their own), but I'm hard pressed to tell you that I've had a particularly bad experience. This is in contrast to the UK, which is dominated by a handful of industrial chains, which dominate the market. It is perhaps because of this wealth of bakeries that the term "artisanal bread" is rarely ever used. In English speaking countries, the term "artisanal" is shorthand for better quality, suggesting that the mainstream chains and brands are simply factory producing a poor quality product. In addition, using the term "artisanal" is also shorthand for pretentious, tea tree sniffing alternative type.
Funnily enough, Germany's bakeries do actually have issues with industrial baking, with people quick to complain about the use of frozen "Teig" or dough. The perceived lack of quality is not accepted and can quickly damage a companies bottom line. This is why many of the larger national chains run looped videos of employees actually baking things in their stores, in a silent but heavy handed attempt to dispel any rumours about drops in quality. Interestingly, even though Germany has a distaste of this side of the industry, they actually seem to have managed to combine the industrial with the artisanal. Even the smaller chains, those based in one or two villages, employ large groups of certified bakers to produce fresh products in a factory setting, aiming to get the best of both worlds.
The demand for high quality and attempts to maintain it are perhaps why the bakery is still the fulcrum of social life in Germany. Where the UK and especially the English are known for afternoon tea, Germany likes to take Kaffee und Kuchen at around 4pm. Bakeries are often busiest at this point, with all ages and sexes taking time out of their day to enjoy it. Despite attempts by Starbucks and recently Dunkin' Donuts to take on the bakeries in Germany, it is perhaps the cultural importance placed on a cup of coffee and a piece of cake that prevents them from making any massive inroads. It is refreshing to see cities in Germany with 10 or 20 different local bakeries and only one Starbucks. It turns out that piss weak coffee and a minute piece of flapjack with a marshmallow stuck on it are not as enticing to Germans as they are to other nationalities around the world. Of course, you still see people poncing around with the famous green and white cups, but they're so much easier to avoid here.
There is a lot to praise when it comes to bread in Germany, whether that is just the quality or range of options. The fact that small independents can compete with global brands is impressive. However, all this being said, it doesn't always mean buying bread is actually an easy process. Once inside your bakery of choice, you can become overwhelmed with so many options available. It can be quite intimidating, especially if you are not confident with German. With names like Altfränkischer Roggenlaib, Dänisches Kernebröd, Dinkelvollkornbrot, Tennenloher Bauernbrot and Wurzelbrot mit Bergkäse, it is very easy to become tongue tied at the counter. I've tried to make it a challenge to only order bread I can't actually pronounce, leaving me with a host of options. I also try not to decide which one I want until I'm being served, to prevent myself from practising while I'm standing in the queue. Some people jump out of planes and others wrestle crocodiles, I stand patiently in line for bread not knowing what I'm going to order. That's a real extreme sport.