Like, brotally…

“Hey, fancy going for dinner, I know this great Italian food restaurant.” “Sounds good, what’s it called?” “*cough*…”

Getting to grips with the culture of food and eating in Germany in comparison with that of England is strange and difficult. In the same two square metres you can find a restaurant selling such eye-wateringly delicious food that you can barely hold in your tongue and a shack peddling sweaty-looking Döner meat served by a man who uses the same cloth to wipe his kitchen knives and his armpits. And you can bet a lot of money that both of these establishments will be making the same amount of profit from day to day. 

There are a few things about German daily cuisine which do seem to leap out at you, and they range from the hochstereotypisch to the completely unexpected: you naturally are confronted by Wurst almost every second of the day, beer is a big thing, and there’s a general meat-and-potatoes vibe here that is a sort of continental echo of traditional English food. The less obvious ones can be rather difficult to anticipate or understand: there is a HUGE inclination here to cook with a lot of cream (something I plan to rant about later), organic produce sprawls across the aisles and has its own specific supermarket chains because it is so important here, and parsnips are seen as an inexplicably exotic treasure that should be displayed in a many-layered sarcophagus of plastic and then sold for a jaw-dropping two euros per two shrivelled and disappointing ‘snips. But the one thing that conquers all, that dominates your German diet and is the backbone of your nourishment, is bread.

Bread is a huge deal here, and it took a long time to get used to the sheer ubiquity of it – for a while it seemed to me that in the case of the native inhabitants of this city the quantity of air and the quantity of bread entering their mouths was constantly in equilibrium. There is a baker ever five steps and people are eating bread wherever you go, at whatever time of day, sometimes made into things like sandwiches or filled with a Bratwurst but often just a big ol’ plain Brötchen straight out of the bag. I expect to see at least one woman on every single train take a neatly-wrapped roll out of her handbag. When visiting the UK I genuinely feel unsettled and confused when surrounded by people simply drinking coke, or chewing gum, or just not carrying some kind of bakery product on their person. 

It is a lovely aspect of the culture, in fact, to appreciate how bread is like water here, seen as one of life’s essentials that you really must have in order to function. In the same way that we British start to feel a little shaky and queer if we know we have no milk in the fridge with which to make tea and have cereal, the Germans know to make sure they always have bread and worry if they have none and no way to get hold of some. This is why the only traders open on Sundays are bakeries and why there is such a huge market in rolls or dough that you bake yourself at home in case of emergencies. There is even a popular television series featuring a main character who is a loaf: Bernd das Brot.

This came on at midnight when I was feeling homesick on my first stay in Germany and I was honestly so scared and confused I wept.

I love this idea of bread being one’s hearty and sustaining foundation of the day; there is something heartwarming about a nation’s insistence on something so humble and so traditional as your vital source of nourishment as opposed to this new attitude of it being just another take-it-or-leave-it ‘carb’ which you only need to give you something to hold your bacon – something which you shouldn’t even be eating anyway since ‘carbs’ are so apparently ’empty’ rather than being the human body’s key source of energy. It makes me smile to see little kids bite greedily down on their Nutella spread on seedy, nubbly wholewheat slices rather than the British child’s favourite porcelain-white Hovis upholstery foam. It seems to me to show a completely different attitude to food in general, that of respecting things that will maintain and serve your body and taste rich and interesting, and the fact that this attitude spreads to the children so early and gets them eating fruit, vegetables and brown bread with palpable enthusiasm is something that never fails to cheer me when I burst in on a Kindergarten’s breakfast feast. 

And because bread is the life-giving sun of this nutritional solar system revolving around it, the Germans sure know how to do it justice. The sheer variety on offer makes you dizzy with indecision; you find everything from walnut-carrot bread to onion bread to four-seed bread to six-seed bread to the legendary ‘Krustenzwerg’ (wait for it – ‘crust dwarf’). Every bakery’s shelves seem like lines of hieroglyphics hiding secret meanings and legends. What is the meaning of the triangular column-shaped loaf? Why the three-bulbed one in the corner? Why is that rye bread different to that rye bread to the extent that it had to be baked in a perfect cylinder? Why is that one as shiny as a mahogany dining table? It is like a tribute exhibition celebrating the wonders of yeast. If you’re going to make it in Germany, you have to understand bread, you have to appreciate it and you have to know what you’re in for. Here is a beginner’s guide.

  • Schrippen. The most ubiquitous and unforgivable of all the breads. These pale, round, white boulders are so heavily bleached and processed that I have a feeling they were invented during a time when flour was scarce and chalk powder was abundant. These are the rolls that come with everything Wurst- or Boulette-like and cost 15 cents, which must surely be proof of the kind of quality you are getting.
  • Vollkornbrot. The most popular of the seedy, dark-brown nubbly breads you find around the place. It’s oddly…juicy…somehow, but very delicious and excellent with red types of jam or goat’s cheese. A loaf of Vollkornbrot is about as heavy as a sack of wet trousers.
  • Brötchen. Bread rolls of all varieties and sizes are sold all over the place, usually filled with ham, cheese, salami and a token furl of lettuce. Oh, and ‘remoulade’, a kind of despicable sweet mayonnaise which actually grows on you. A Brötchen can replace, come before, after, or even during, any meal of the day.
  • Roggenbrot. Rye bread. Dark, sour, tangy and damp, you either love it or you are forced to love it by peer pressure.
  • Pumpernickel. Rye bread’s evil cousin, pumpernickel is death-black and tastes complex and confusing. Requires time to get used to, and a bit more time to actually enjoy – but this will happen. You can buy pumpernickel in tiny circular discs because over here they like to use it as a base for canapés. And who’d a thunk pumpernickel can be pretentious too?
  • The round and triangular ones. No-one seems to actually buy these, which is a shame because the cross-sections are so exciting and bizarre that a sandwich made of slices of this looks genuinely hilarious. Alas, perhaps one day they will get the popularity they deserve, but not today.
  • Toastbrot. The closest to British bread, this is the typical cuboid loaf in a gawdy plastic wrapper sliced into toastable portions which, no matter how freshly bought, are always a little curled at the edges. This is the British type of bread which remains flat if you press on it like one of those heat-sensitive mattresses, the type of bread which looks about as wholesome as a gummy bear, and oddly is fairly rubbish when toasted.

Do not underestimate the extent to which you will need to embrace bread as your staple when you come here. And if you are gluten-intolerant…well, may god have mercy on your soul. 

Rose T