Saturday, November 13, 2004

A Few More Words About Bread

Since moving to Germany, one of the local tics I've picked up is eating a German breakfast at least a couple of times a week in the cooler months. In case you've never experienced it, you get bread, cheese, cold cuts, maybe some quark (insufficiently described as "yogurt cheese"), maybe some smoked fish. I let it get out of hand in the early days and wound up with a bellyache most days I tried it, but now I've got a good routine, involving cream cheese (the Germans are masters of this) and one kind of cold-cuts (currently apple-onion liverwurst, liverwurst being another thing these people excel at).

Naturally, what you need for this is bread, and of course German bread is famous, although Berlin is renowned throughout Germany as having the worst bakers in the country (true, from what I can tell). When I first experimented with the German breakfast, I'd buy Brötchen, or rolls, because then I could get a couple of kinds of bread. But I wound up eating too much, mostly because I liked the bread too much, so I bought too much of it, and when I re-upped on this program, I discovered the best way to do it: buy half a loaf, which any bakery will happily sell you: half a pound (250g), stays fresh for a couple of days.

Trouble was, when I first moved to this neighborhood, for the first time ever, there wasn't a bakery on the corner. In fact, there was only one bakery, about four blocks away, and it was terrible, a relic of the old East German times. There was a health-food store about three blocks in the other direction, but it didn't open until 10, since it was run by lazy East German hippies, and I often get started earlier than that. There's a supermarket (of sorts) across the street from me, an old Konsum from the DDR days, but the bread they sell there is total crap.

Then, out of the blue, one block away on Torstr., a store called Brot & Mehr opened, selling a mass-produced "bio" line of bread products. (The concept of "bio" as opposed to organic, which is "öko," is so nuanced that I can't understand it at all: suffice it to say it's not organic, but it's also not too bad). Their bread was pretty good, so that's where I started shopping. The place was always full of breakfasters, the Brötchen were good, and it was nice having a place that close. A couple of other bakeries further away opened, too, but they're of the usual kind around here: they get half-baked stuff and finish it in on-site ovens, or they get frozen stuff and bake it as needed. The quality of the bread at these places is awful, but Berliners will eat anything.

So earlier this summer, I mentioned that the cursed building on the corner of my street, which had sat empty for years looking for a tenant, and which has an awful smell that hangs around the outside, finally got rented, and a sign went up noting that a bakery would open soon. It took them forever to renovate the place, which had been a second-hand TV shop. Just as I started noticing things like shelves and so on going in, something odd happened: a block away from that, in the other direction, a former art gallery got a sign in its window announcing that a bakery would soon open there. And, two blocks in the other direction, a long-vacant storefront papered its windows over and put up a sign. Guess what it said?

The place on the corner opened last week. It's a Turkish bakery, which is excellent, not because they make such great bread (they do, huge round loaves called peda, with sesame seeds or nigella seeds -- or both -- on them, but I haven't seen any peda in this place yet), but because they make wonderful savory pastries, which make a great light lunch. I managed to gum down a nice little cheese turnover today, for instance, and there was a "tomato strudel" and a "spinach strudel" sitting there, too.

But the place two blocks away also opened last week, and it's puzzling. Bio freaks need only go half a block to a health-food store for an array of bread that's uneven, but often includes the justly famed Munich Hopfisterei bakery's products. Brot & Mehr isn't far. And this place also has expensive snacks and drinks, like candy, potato chips, soda and beer. The only way that works is if it's "family owned," and, as such, is allowed a loophole in the opening-hours law, but when I walked past it at 5:30 today, it was shuttered tight.

The other place, which is far from finished, is even more of a mystery. It's around the corner from a bio-shop which advertises aggressively, and which also carries the same mass-produced bio-bread as Brot & Mehr.

This is the mystery of capitalism in Germany: the copy-cat syndrome that had three Italian delis opening in one block (as I noted in the post entitled Deutscher & Digideroos). How are all of these going to co-exist? I can see that Brot & Mehr and the Turks have such widely different lines that they'll be able to get along, and both are on Torstr., which is a big street. But this other place? Doomed before it opens, unless it has a concept.

And Germans aren't big on concepts. I remember when Oranienburger Str. was undergoing its first boom, and two people I knew were involved with one of the restaurant startups there, which some guy was pouring boxcars of money into. One friend was helping him with his business plan. "It's gonna be great!" he told me. "You should see the decoration!" (My other friend was doing this, so I knew it'd be good). Fine, I asked him, what kind of restaurant is it? And he gave me a blank look. "What do you mean?" Well, I said, there are already all kinds of restaurants opening up in that row, and he'd better have something different if he wants to make a go of it. So the guy went and asked the owner, and the guy told him "Just good food."

It's now an "American-style lapdance club," in case you're looking for it. Closed almost as soon as it opened.

I dunno, I don't feel particularly sorry for people who waste tons of money on things they haven't thought through. And, as happened with this restaurant, sometimes friends of mine catch some of the trickle-down. But I'd feel a lot better about the mentality of the people I was living among if I felt that they gave a little thought to what they were doing.

In any event, there'll be lots of bread in the neighborhood. For awhile, anyway.

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