German bread is not your usual breed of breads.
It is neither white nor starchy, a common characteristic associated with the better known European bread varieties of countries like Italy and France.
Rather, it is coarse and unrefined, composed mainly of whole grains, such as rye, spelt, millet and wheat – usually in pure form giving it a density that far outweighs any fluffy focaccia, oily ciabatta or slender French baguette. It is unique and unlike any other bread variety known to Europe, distinguishing it as a significant aspect of German food culture.
It is no exaggeration to say that bread is the stuff of life in Germany, and although the recent organic health food renaissance may make whole grain bread seem like a recent phenomenon, for Germans it clearly is not. This wholesome, dense bread dates back to the time of the Gauls and Visigoths and has withstood repeated modern efforts to refine it.
In the late 19th century for example, the introduction of industrialized white rolls and their widespread consumption contributed to a backlash known as the “life reform” movement which sought to return this dense unrefined bread to the table and reinstate its place in German life. Interestingly, and more significantly, German bread, for the most part, has remained in Germany. “You can’t really find German style bread in the states,” said Samuel Fromartz, an American food writer who worked at Weichardt Bakery in Berlin as part of his research on his book about breads.
I was drawn to German breads mainly because of their distinct whole grain composition and complex fermenting processes—specifically associated with sourdough (Sauerteig). Plus, you can’t find this kind of bread in the U.S. Yes, we have Jewish Rye, which comes close, but the coarse, thick German bread is really non-existent. Instead, we have imported the starchier varieties—say from the Italians, who immigrated here along with the French baguette. The East European immigrants came the closest to recreating such loaves but soon succumbed to consumer demand for starchier white breads. German bread is really the exception and very hard to find outside of Germany—the big reason why I came to Berlin. These breads are basically 90% rye or spelt, which is crazy given how much sugar, salts and god knows what goes into them. You have a slice of this for breakfast and you are set for a long time.
Although Fromartz aims to offer a global perspective on bread, he is mainly interested in its cultivation practices, specifically the evolution of different varieties in relation to their dependence on certain types of grains. “The proliferation of wheat-based breads did not occur until the 20th century. Rather, the harvest dictated what grains could be used,” Fromartz says. “Given its northern latitude, Berlin’s climate was not conducive to wheat production. Grains, such as rye and spelt, tended to thrive better here and subsequently produced breads, such as Roggenbrot (rye) and Volkornbrot (whole-grain) that are still consumed today. The wheat-based breads like Weißbrot remained in the South in cities like Munich and Stuttgart.”
Today, bread culture still reigns supreme in Germany, and sophisticated Berlin is no exception. The traditional evening meal, Abendbrot, bread smeared with butter, cheese and cold meats is still very common. Dining with Berliners, I have had the pleasure of this simple but satisfying fare. Normally, a cold sandwich would not suffice as dinner for me, but here I was delighted in both the texture and the novelty of this traditional gastronomical treat. It is certainly unlike any loaf of bread in the world, demonstrating that Germany’s food culture is more than just sauerkraut and sausages. Rather, it is the bread that sustains this culture.