Saturday, June 05, 2004

Give Us This Day

I noticed a couple of weeks ago that the storefront on the corner that had been standing empty for the past two or three years had its windows papered up, and walking past it, I saw signs saying that a bakery would open there soon. Took 'em long enough.

Bread is central to life in every European country I've spent any time in, and the variety is staggering. In France, I think there's a law that a certain percentage of the population has to be armed with a baguette at any given time during bakery opening hours, citizen soldiers against the enemy of hunger. In Scandinavia, crispbread was invented because it keeps throughout the long winters; in Denmark it comes in big rounds with a hole in the middle so it can be hung from a peg. But nowhere has the variety of bread I've seen in Germany.

According to what I've read, the main meal here comes in the middle of the day, the meat-and-potatoes meal. On either side of it stand breakfast and Brotzeit (bread-time), and both revolve around bread. At breakfast, bread is spread with cream cheese or quark, and eaten with bland cheeses, certain cold cuts, and jam. (Soft-boiled eggs are also traditional, as can be yogurt and/or Müseli). Brotzeit will see stronger cold cuts and cheeses, as well as smoked or pickled fish and maybe one of the nauseating "salads," which consist of sweetened mayonnaise and chopped fish, meat, or vegetables. Beer will also likely play a role. (For the record, I don't know anyone who actually eats like this, nor do I see traditional restaurants filled at noon and deserted at night. But this is what the books say, my experience notwithstanding).

It's a poor store that doesn't offer seven or eight kinds of bread, and a good bakery will have that many at all times, with several being in rotation due to seasonal or other traditional demands. It's sold by weight, although most loaves are standardized at 500g, and can be bought in halves. For breakfast, there are also Brötschen, bread rolls, of various sorts, and that's what I had this morning.

The trouble is, Berlin is notorious among Germans for having the worst bread in the country. Much is made of the famous Berliner Luft (Berlin air), but nobody seems to like to admit it's one of the central ingredients of Berlin bread. I was reminded of this today, when I sliced into the Brötschen I bought at the bakery a block from my house, Brot und Mehr (Bread and More), an outlet for the Märkischer Landbrot chain, a mass "Bio" bakery. (Bio isn't quite organic, which is "Öko," and I'm not sure exactly what criteria you have to meet to be Bio, except that I believe they're standardized by Brussels). As the knife cut into my Brötschen, they squished. Sigh.

There is one good bakery in town, Weichardt-Brot . Weichardt started as a hippie commune and turned into a multi-million-dollar business. I used to live near their store, and learned a lot about German bread from the grandmotherly salesladies there, who showed me how the chopped nuts or seeds distributed through the bread kept it fresh longer by exuding oils into the bread itself, and were militant about the strains of sourdough used to leaven them. One of the founders used to double-park her Mercedes outside and walk into the store, her bulk covered by flowery dresses, her fingers dripping with huge jewels, and everyone would take notice. But, I see from their website, Weichardt doesn't have a reseller anywhere near me, although they do have a stand at a Bio-market on Thursdays not far from me.

Even easier is the Bio store that I pass on my way to the supermarket, which gets regular deliveries from Hopfisterei , Munich's legendary organic bakery. Bread here is sold by weight, with most loaves being an even 500g, and nearly all being available in halves. Hopfisterei sells gigantic 2 1/2 kilo wheels of bread, and sometimes when I'm flush I'll buy a quarter of a likely loaf, but it costs about twice what regular Bio bread does. What's depressing is that bread this good is all over Munich, and, to a lesser extent, most other German cities. Hell, the bread in the breakfast room in the hotels in Munich beats the pants off of Berlin Bio-bread, and you know that's the cheapest crap they can buy because it always is!

Anyway, after years of having no bakeries within walking distance here, Brot und Mehr opened about a year ago, and now they're going to have competition a short block away. I have no idea if this will be yet another of the huge chain bakeries that have taken this city over (they killed the first bakery I ever went to, down the block from my first apartment), but it's another example of the weird German approach to business that was exemplified on Linienstr., a couple of blocks from my house, where the magazine I used to work on was located. One day, someone opened one of the little Feinkost shops that are all over the place. These joints could be called delis: a refrigerated case with olives, cheeses, salamis, sun-dried tomatoes, and the like, about twenty kinds of wine, and things like expensive pasta and so on, since they're invariably Italian-themed. Before long, another one opened two doors away, in a cellar. Three months after that, a third one opened, about six doors down in the other direction. Although the two newcomers affected French names (Le Marais and Domaines), it was the same old thing. How many of these could one short section of the street support?

The answer came in about nine months. First the original place shut down (it was a divorced woman who'd opened it with her settlement money -- a not uncommon scenario for these places -- and I heard the little Algerian guy who was there most of the time drank the profits away), and then Le Marais went under, possibly because it was invisible. Domaines, which was the least impressive of the three, is still in business. I've seen this same thing happen over and over, mostly with Feinkost joints, but also with (invariably) Italian restaurants. The idea of offering something different never seems to occur to people here: "Say, he's making money with that! So let's do the exact same thing and make money, too!"

Anyway, before this devolves into Sauerkraut, let me just say that I'm worried about the new bakery. We haven't had any really hot weather yet, and I bet the real-estate agent is really happy about that, because the reason I always thought that this spacious property on a main street hadn't rented (besides the fact that the Berlin economy is in the toilet) was because it stunk. I seriously thought something had died and been buried in front of the place: every time I turned the corner I'd get nauseous. The smell's still there. Maybe the new tenants are betting that it'll take more than that to put the neighbors off their daily bread.

No comments: