Disconcerted by the Germans’ bread habits, our fussy French food critic went on the prowl for a substitute baguette fix in the German capital and calls for a rehabilitation of the good old breakfast roll.
It might be congenital, something to do with the shape and texture of our intestines, but we French eat lots of white bread and pastries (from croissants to brioche) – and we don’t feel ‘weird in the stomach’, constipated or mineral-deprived, as my American friends like to say. Which reminds me of an anecdote reported by Henry Miller: he and fellow US literary exiles in 1930s Paris would regularly converge upon La Rotonde for a ‘cathartic’ breakfast. Subjected to a morning diet of croissant or baguette, their bowels wouldn’t budge unless they ate a bowl of porridge and the prestigious Montparnasse brasserie was the only place they could get it. In Paris, times have changed, but foreign bowels are still clogged. Just two months ago a German friend freshly back from Paris explained how “miserable” he had felt eating so much white bread.
Germans don’t like white bread. They eat 80 kilos of bread a year, but white wheat accounts for a paltry 5.7 percent of total consumption. No Berliner would consider eating their Abendbrot (dinner picnic of cheese and Wurst) with Weißbrot. The natives clearly favour super-dense loaves – the most popular being the wheat and rye Mischbrot (31.4 percent), followed by multigrain/seed (14.7 percent) whole wheat (11.4 percent) and rye (5.3 percent). For a French person, this can be a serious problem.
To start, let’s be clear: there are no good baguettes or croissants to speak of in Berlin, not even at Galeries Lafayette*. Ciabatta (Italians are our brothers-in-arms in the white vs. dark flour battle) is often a good ersatz, but it contains olive oil and lacks crunch. At the Biomarkt, virtually every white bread contains sugar and either oil or butter – which does make one’s stomach feel komisch. Luckily, there’s the Berliner Brötchen (breakfast roll), or Schrippe in local parlance, often too cheap and popular to get noticed by bread snobs. But these minimalist white treats – flour, water, yeast salt, and nothing else! – deserve reconsideration.
Too bad Germans like their bread cheap. They mostly buy it in supermarkets and Backshops churning out 10-cent rolls replete with chemical additives (all falling under the broad category of Backmittel or flour enhancers). In Berlin only 10 percent of bread is made from scratch on the spot. The rest is par-baked and frozen (sometimes abroad) before being shipped to around 2000 bakeries in town, who dub them ‘housebaked’ – meaning the oven is there, but not the baker. The result: spongy, rubbery, generic-tasting rolls, inedible unless they’re still warm.
Looking for a real bakery? Watch for the Goldene Brezel certificate, handed out by the association of master bakers (Bäcker-Innung, headed by Hans-Joachim Blauert of Bäcker Walf – see below) to qualified traditional breadmakers. Strangely, the majority of Berlin’s approximately 55 Goldene Brezel bakeries are located either in Prenzlauer Berg or the far West.
Choosing from the several local bakeries that make bread from scratch, Françoise sampled the simplest, cheapest Brötchen on offer. Here are a real white bread connoisseur’s findings.
Opened last year, this sleek Mitte success story boasts a selection of splendid sourdough and wholemeal loaves (also sold by the kilo), ‘baguette’ breads and a range of breakfast rolls with outlandish names: no Schrippen here, but Wecken (the roll guilty of triggering the jingoistic outrage of one prominent Berlin MP tired of buying Brötchen with ‘foreign’ Swabian names in his home city) and “Le Petit(s)”. It is all certified organic and made on the spot, with the bakers on display through a huge window for everyone to gawk and marvel at. Of course this is no traditional Berlin bakery – the concept was imported from Frankfurt. And yet the bread is as local as the owner himself (a born and bred Berliner) and pretty damn tasty at that. Gentrification has its pluses. The “Einfaches” (€0.30) is a “simple” little roll with a very unique shiny, slightly chewy skin resembling that of a bagel and a dense, moist and springy interior – partly because the dough is left longer to rise, roughly 10 hours. Also available with poppy and sesame seeds (€0.40).
Alte Schönhauser Str. 4, Mitte, U-Bhf Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Mon-Fri 7:30-20, Sat 8-20, Sun 8-18
Bäckerei Siebert (Goldene Brezel)
Berlin’s oldest bakery would hardly be noticeable if it weren’t for the queues of loyal customers (longest on Saturdays!). Packed to the rafters with breads, rolls and sweet treats, the narrow shop was opened in 1906 by Gustav Siebert, Lars’ great-great-grandfather, and prides itself in taking the time a master needs to make good bread – up to one full day for the dough to rise – which explains why they’re closed Sunday and Monday.
The Schrippe (€0.25) here is a deliciously chewy oval-shaped roll, with a dense, supple dough – it has a very good, well balanced taste and texture, definitely worth the wait!
Schönfließer Str. 12, Prenzlauer Berg, U-Bhf Schönhauser Allee/S-Bhf Bornholmer Str., Tue-Fri 6:15-18:30, Sat 6:15-12:30
Unimpressed with the quality of bread in Berlin, Austrian-born celebrity chef Sarah Wiener decided to open up her own bakery. Supervised by head baker Helmut Gragger – whom she imported from Vienna along with the recipes – the cute Mitte bakery offers organic loaves and rolls made by hand and baked in a stone wood-fired oven. Assiduously frequented by tourists and local gentry who leave a tip(!) upon picking up their order.
The KaiserSemmel (€0.70) is a posh rustic-style roll with a sturdy crust and a slightly sweet buttery flavour – tasty but the butter should be on the bread, not in it!
Tucholskystr. 31, Mitte, S-Bhf Oranienburger Str., Mon-Fri 7-19, Sat: 8-16
Bäckerei Kädtler (Goldene Brezel)
Opened in 1935 on Falkplatz and owned by Stefan Kädtler’s family for three generations, this is one of the few historical Berlin bakeries that specialises in kosher breads and baked goods (the price tags have a little menorah!) including an unusual bagel with a bread-like rye texture and a very aromatic sesame taste. The ultimate Berlin bagel with no (US) foreign influence?
The Schrippe (€0.25) has an appropriately chewy texture under a slightly crunchy crust – but it could use more salt and they put margerine in it (a no-no!).
Danziger Str. 135, Prenzlauer Berg, S-Bhf Greifswalder Str., Mon-Fri 6-18:30, Sat 7-12
Opened by Getrud and Ernst Balzer in 1926 and boasting a reputation dating back to East German times, Bäckerei Balzer offers customers a GDR experience with furniture and equipment oozing retro charm and extremely popular Streuselschnecken. Too bad daughter Traudel (who studied at the Sorbonne and at 80 still runs the business) doesn’t have a baker who retained the savoir-faire of the old master!
The Schrippe (€0.30) is airy, with a suspiciously brittle crust – was it frozen? We also tried the Semmel: same verdict!
Sophienstr. 30, Mitte, U-Bhf Weinmeister Str., Mon-Fri: 6-18, Sat 6-12:30
Bäcker Walf (Goldene Brezel)
On the southwestern edge of Berlin, Bäcker Walf is large and rather generic-looking, but don’t let that fool you – the bread’s some of the best in town. The long counter is replete with pastries and rows of baskets bursting with endless breads and rolls.
The Schrippe (€0.30) has a light crispy crust, but it’s the Siamese Französisches Landbrötchen (€0.60) that wins the medal: great crust, chewy and deliciously springy texture. It’s the perfect breakfast treat!
Lankwitzer Str. 2-3, Lichterfelde, S-Bhf Lichterfelde Ost; also Bleibtreustr. 28-39, Charlottenburg. Mon-Fri 6-18:30, Sat 6:30-14:00, Sun 7-16
*… and we found Berlin’s best baguette!
The German-wide gourmet deli chain that exudes rustic chic (it is run by the high-end houseware retailer Manufactum), is home to Berlin’s ultimate baguette. The “flute” (€2.70) has the perfect texture – an ultra crunchy crust, with two dark crispy ends so appetizing they never make it home, and a soft, chewy middle riddled with irregular holes. The breads are kneaded and baked on the spot behind a glass wall at the entrance of the shop. Piping hot batches of baguettes come out of the oven at regular intervals (check the board!).
Hardenbergstr. 4, Charlottenburg, U-Bhf Ernst-Reuter- Platz, Mon-Fri 10-20, Sat 10-18
Additional research by Felipe Valencia.