As the child of a German mother, I grew up with German food. Not pretzels and Currywurst–which is essentially street food–but liverwurst and salami, jam and Nutella and Pflaumenmuss (plum butter), cheeses, Bratkartoffel (fried potatoes), Milchreis (rice pudding), Hanuta, Milka, and Kinder eggs, and of course, lots of bread. Germans eat bread with toppings for both breakfast and dinner; in fact, the German word for dinner, Abendbrot, means evening bread. (The hot meal of the day is lunch.)
As a result, I became aware at a young age that German bread and American bread were very different. In Germany, you could find a bakery with an unbelievable range of breads, rolls, and cakes every two blocks. The bread was crusty or chewy and whole wheat and rye breads were common. Picking up a loaf on your way home from work or getting your Sonntagsbrötchen (Sunday rolls) and a pastry fresh on Sunday mornings was completely normal. American bread, by contrast, was soft, limp, and white, made tolerable only by toasting, and something you picked up from the supermarket during your weekly shop because it wouldn’t grow stale for ages.
Throughout my teenage years and twenties, one of the first things I would do whenever I visited Germany was buy a loaf of Schwarzbrot, a generic term for a crusty brown bread made of some mixture of wheat and rye flours. Schwarzbrot is beyond ordinary in Germany, but seemingly impossible to replicate in any other country.
Of course, you can get good bread in the US–from independent bakeries and from higher-end grocery stores like Whole Foods. But the standard loaf of bread is still a plastic bag of sliced white, while in Germany the cheap and ordinary supermarket bread has about the same taste and crumb as America’s artisan breads.
I found the situation much the same when I immigrated to the UK: soft, white bread everywhere with not a chewy crust in sight, and everything else confined to a few “artisan” bakeries. This surprised me, as most European countries I had spent time in also had a culture of buying fresh bread from bakeries, though perhaps not to the same extent as Germany.
Most of the UK’s wheat is grown by conventional, non-organic methods and about 80% of its bread is produced using what is called the Chorleywood bread process. This process skips traditional slow fermentation, cutting down on the amount of time required to make a loaf. The use of white flour and the Chorleywood bread process also cuts down on the nutrition and flavour of the bread.
Of course, Germany also has mass-produced breads. Its bread culture faced major challenges throughout the second half of the 20th century, as fewer younger people were attracted to baking as a profession. The more recent, growing trend in Western countries favouring local, organic foods and independent businesses has pushed back against this decline. In spite of the challenges posed by a mass-produced food industry, Germany has retained wide availability of nutritious and diverse breads because of its pre-existing food culture, in which bread is central and bread quality matters.
It starts with better grain. I had previously assumed that all wheat is the same. In fact, there are many wheat varieties, some of which grow better or worse under certain conditions or in certain parts of the world. Scotland the Bread’s first goal was to develop a wheat “landrace,” a mixture of wheat varieties typical of and shaped by the land it is grown on in Fife. They write of their wheat:
“We have to thank Andy Forbes of Brockwell Bake Association in London for scouring gene banks round the world for tiny samples (typically 10 grams or less) of ‘accessions’ bearing the name of Rouge d’Ecosse. He also identified Golden Drop and Hunter’s as plausible ‘Scottish’ heritage grains.
A total of 13 small packets of wheat seed across the three varieties were germinated under controlled conditions (‘vernalised’) by Mike Ambrose at the John Innes Centre in Norwich and the resultant seedlings brought up to Scotland in March 2013 for growing out on four farms in the Borders, East Lothian, Perthshire and Aberdeenshire. Each year the grain was harvested and re-sown, with the majority being grown at Mungoswells in East Lothian.”
As the wheat is resown year after year, the balance of populations making up the landrace adjusts over time through natural selection to the local soil and weather conditions. The grain and the flour milled from it are unique. The wheat also has much higher levels of micronutrients than conventional varieties. This fantastic piece of practical bioarchaeology completely won me over – tracing Scottish food heritage, reviving extinct plant varieties, and making bread tastier all at the same time.