Master baker Thomas Ebert.
Master baker Thomas Ebert.

Germany’s dark secret

Enthralled by white bread for half a century, a people rediscover their roots in rye

With his flowing beard, spiderweb tattoos around the elbows and multiple ear piercings, Thomas Ebert looks like he belongs to a metal band for middle-aged men. But here he is, in the wee hours, measuring flour and sauerteig (sourdough starter) and yeast and throwing it into the dough machine to make the first of his bread loaves. At the Berger Bio Bäckerei in the south German town of Reutlingen, his shift started at 2am. Ebert has been a baker here for 33 years.

The previous day, his boss Herbert Burger had offered me a shift in his bakery, to work alongside Thomas and watch him and his team roll, shape, knead and bake loaves of roggenbrot (rye bread), schwarzwälder brot (Black Forest rye bread), bergsteigerbrot (rye bread with seeds), sonnenblumenbrot (sunflower-kernel bread), kurbisbrot (pumpkin-seed bread) and many other types of 3,000-odd varieties of German bread. I had agreed immediately and arrived promptly at the bakery. Always fascinated with the process of bread-making, I was determined to make the most of this opportunity in the land of bread.

Over the first month I spent in Germany, I was astounded by the variety of bread on display in supermarkets. Studded with various seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, sesame, chia, poppy) in alluring shades of brown, they tempted me to try them all, no matter that I didn’t know my brötchen (mini loaves of bread) from brot (bread).

I soon learnt that the supermarkets were supplied by industrial bread bakers. Though I liked what I ate, conversations with locals made me realize that the best way to sample German bread was to source it from a local baker.

The Wirtschaftswunder, Germany’s economic miracle in the 1950s, industrialized food production, throwing up mass-produced bread and, in its wake, marginalizing the traditional baker, much like Walmart usurping small businesses in the US. Add to it the changes in people’s food habits after World War II: Toast became fashionable while lack of time elbowed out traditions like Abendbrot, a light evening meal of various kinds of bread and sausages, pickles, cheeses and mustards over which the family discussed the day.

A display at the Zeit Für Brot in Berlin.
A display at the Zeit Für Brot in Berlin.

After close to half a century, though, time seems to be turning full circle. There is a gradual, yet growing interest in the revival of bread culture in Germany. Along with the surviving traditional bakeries in Berlin and other parts of the country, deli-style bakeries are bringing back German bread in its full glory: handcrafted, without chemical additives. In the past few decades, a handful of organic bakers have also entered the fray. Traditional baking is being revived by organizations like the German National Bakers Academy, which trains enthusiasts in the peculiarly German breads: Unlike, say, the airy, light focaccias or baguettes of Italy or France, these are dense in texture, characterized by the mild brown of their rye flour, often used unrefined in various proportions. Germany is the world’s largest producer of rye and most of it (6,400,000 tonnes, according to a 2013 “Bread Market Report" by the Association Internationale de la Boulangerie Industrielle), goes into making bread.

Prompted by locals, I tasted my first traditionally baked bread at Fred Kühnel’s bakery in Berlin, an establishment over 100 years old, after gaining access to their kitchen one morning. Kühnel, who inherited his family business, has kept the bakery going despite the presence of at least five supermarket chains in the vicinity. “People know what I make best and they come to me," he says. After a 2-hour-long session of watching the crew at work and kneading the dough myself, Kühnel gave me a parting gift—a loaf of vollkorn-roggenbrot (whole-grain rye bread). The memory of slicing the bread and eating it with softened butter stayed with me, its beguiling flavours—nutty, malty with a hint of caramel—feeding my appreciation for a traditionally baked loaf of bread.

Pretzels.
Pretzels.

The extremely dense German bread gets its distinct taste from the fermenting process associated with its use of sourdough. Produced by natural fermentation, sourdough contains various bacteria and microorganisms that need to be stored at certain temperatures and fed occasionally with water and flour. There are stories of master bakers carrying their sourdough starters with them when they travelled.

Centuries ago, the road to master-baker status lay through a two-year-long Wanderschaft, a pilgrimage. You would go from town to town, learning bread techniques from different bakers, and note them down before returning home with a collection of recipes from all over the country. Food critic and writer Stefan Elfenbein, who grew up in Königstädten, a village in the south of Hessen, in a traditional baker family, is the proud owner of one such collection: “We have a Wanderbuch from 1807 in which my great-great-great-great-grandfather took notes during his two years of Wanderschaft."

Elfenbein himself is on a similar quest now, to identify the best bakeries of Germany. Every four years, Der Feinschmecker, the magazine he is associated with, publishes a gourmet guide to 600 best (read traditional) bakeries in Germany. Elfenbein is just back from a trip to Erfurt, a town in the heart of Germany, where he stumbled upon an all-woman bakery called Backstube im Haus zum schwarzen Adler (literally, Bakery in the Black Eagle)—a sign, if he needed one, that the revival is no big-city phenomenon.

Nils Schöner, author of Brot: Bread Notes From A Floury German Kitchen, has a different opinion however. “Because of the big influence of baking chains, for a while it seemed the individual bakery would die. This has not happened and more deli-style bakeries with a stress on handcrafted bread have emerged. Also, esteemed bakers have begun to go back to basics and investigate what they can do with just flour, water, salt and yeast," he tells me, claiming that the bread tradition is witnessing a stabilization, rather than a comeback.

At Endorphina Backkunst, an organic bakery in Berlin run by the enterprising Katharina Rottmann, I meet Mizuho from Osaka, Japan, who is training to become a baker. “I was an exchange student in Manchester studying film theory. I had always loved baking so, while in Manchester, I made up my mind to learn baking in Germany after I graduated," Mizuho says. “The taste of bread itself is so diverse here. In Japan, it is the fillings that make the difference."

Back at the Berger Bio Bäckerei, at 5am, the kitchen is so busy I cannot stand any more without feeling like an intruder. More bakers have arrived, their shifts have started and they swiftly go about their duties—mixing, kneading, shaping. The bakery fills with the gentle rhythm of its trade, the clank of ovens being opened and shut, the rustle of bread being shovelled out of the oven. The bakery produces around 800 pieces of bread and brötchen every day.

Now Ebert’s radio is streaming Lou Reed’s Hey Babe, Take A Walk On The Wild Side. He is covered in a thin film of flour, his tattoo half-hidden. As the morning progresses, the first smell of baking bread permeates the kitchen. Racks of brötchen and discs of coffee-brown roggenbrot are carted out and left to rest.

Before I leave, Berger thrusts a puffy disc of warm walnut bread into my hand and sends me out into the early morning showers. The warmth of the loaf spreads across my palm and as I walk home, the yeasty aroma makes my mouth water in anticipation of breakfast.

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The best breads in Berlin

■ Much like dark chocolate, the ‘roggenbrot’ can contain anything from 40% to 100% rye flour. Try the ‘vollkorn-roggenbrot’ at a traditional bakery, like the 115-year-old Mälzer in the Charlottenburg area of Berlin (Ahornstr. 16a, 12163 Berlin). The bakery specializes in recipes from the Rhine region in southern Germany.

■ The hip café Zeit Für Brot bakes its own handmade bread, employing traditional techniques, at Alte Schönhauser Str. 4, 10119 in Berlin. They have a cosy café and Berliners can often be found basking there for hours on sunny days. It’s possible to ask at the counter for a plate of different types of bread as a sampler. Their bakery coexists with the café and on early mornings, you can find staff baking in the kitchen.

■ For a taste of organic (bio) bread, visit Endorphina, run by Katharina Rottmann in Berlin’s Neukölln area in Elsenstr.52 12059 Berlin. Her café is tucked away on a street but opens up into a wide courtyard with comfortable seating as you walk through the narrow entrance. Endorphina conducts dance performances every month, blending the bread tradition with art to bring about an understanding of bread culture in Germany.

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