Ed note: A kindly fellow blogger, The Winegetter, approached me about doing an exchange of posts this summer, as he and his wife will be traveling throughout SouthEast Asia for 2 months and he wants to keep his blog updated with original content. I promised him a post if he promised to expand on a topic that he brought up the first time we met: why there is no good bread in the US. Let me back up: he’s German. There, now all of your questions have been answered.
My wife says the easiest way to identify two Germans anywhere in the world is by listening to their first five minutes of conversation. Because, according to her, they will –100% guaranteed – complain to each other about how bad the bread is wherever they are and ask whether the other has found at least “decent” – or palatable – bread in the vicinity.
I tended to dismiss her assessment until I realized it is true. I do that. I really wouldn’t want to have to do that, but I have to do that. As a German, you grow up in bread heaven. Seriously. If you never lived in Germany, you have no idea. But if you grew up there, the smell of fresh bread is surrounding you, the variety of breads – and dinner rolls – is overwhelming and all of it is fresh, affordable, and – most of them – have a hard crust and a soft core. And no other country seems to get that right. Especially not America, where softness seems to be the key characteristic for bread.
Now, some bakeries here in and around Ann Arbor try. With the emphasis on try. Zingermans? Don’t get me started: Overprized, dried out bread that wants to be German so badly, but let me say it loud and clear: A dried out bread is not bread. Avalon? They actually do a decent job on their baguette, but then again, that is not really a bread, it is a baguette. Others? Not really. I buy fresh multigrain bread from Costco, which is still too squishy, but it is close enough…which I say with a sigh. Is that sad and pathetic? Yes.
Let me walk you through my random German bakery to give you an idea why I am so upset. You enter and are greeted by the danishes, croissants and other sweet stuff in the glass box that forms the counter. There are cakes, from streusel to plum pies, from strawberry tartes to serious cheesecake. There are croissants for under 1 euro ($1.30 – and I am talking actual, real fluffy yet rich croissants, not the Zingerman’s hard-as-a-rock-and-outrageously-priced-at-$3.50-crap. $3.50 for a “croissant”???? Seriously? They’re out of their minds…but then again, a look at their cheese prices is proof enough for that…sorry, I really really dislike Zingerman’s).
Photo from one of the branches of the bakery I am talking about:
Behind the salespeople is what I am really looking for: the bread rack. The bakery I used to go to in Germany had about 35 different breads on its bread rack. 35. Seriously. And they were all different: from sunflower seed to pumpkin seed, from rye to multigrain, from baguette to ciabatta, from whole wheat to superdark full grain….the choice was awesome. And for a loaf of bread, you ended up paying around 2.50 euros to 3 euros ($3.20 – $3.90). Best of all, they had one featured bread of the week which would sell for 1.99 euros. Try to get a bread that is half-way decent in this country for under $5. Impossible.
If you have never been to Germany, you really cannot understand what I am talking about. But ask your friends that visited friends in Germany, and you will usually hear them talk about how good dinner and breakfast was, and that usually involves bread. Real bread.
Oh, and by the way: The German breadmaker’s association is currently putting together a registry of bread types in Germany, in an attempt to apply for World Cultural Heritage status…that is how serious we take this shit. (For the curious: Apparently, there are over 300 distinct different types of bread in Germany)
As you see, bread matters to us. But there is a big reason for that: We tend to have it twice a day; for breakfast and dinner. Not as a side, but as the hidden star of the dish. The big meal in Germany traditionally is lunch, and dinner is a meal of cheese and cold cuts and bread. While a lot of Germans are switching up their routines and tend to have more warm dinners, my wife and I still managed at least two to three traditional dinners each week. If the bread sucks, that meal sucks. If you just want to scrape up your premade tomato sauce, I guess soggy crap is just fine…
My biggest issue with American bread? Most of it is squooshy and soggy. Even the “harder” crusts tend to be too soggy, too soft, too mweh, too blurb. I am lacking words, I am making disinterested, bored sounds with my mouth. The country that has a reputation for producing bland, boring bread in Europe is the Netherlands. Why is the only thing American culture incorporated from Dutch culture one of the worst cultures in the Netherlands? I don’t get it.
And don’t forget the other cardinal sin: Most American breads are too sweet. This country’s obsession with sugar (or corn-syrup) has led to an oversweetening of many products. Where it hurts the most, for me, is in bread. Bread should not taste sweet when you try it. It is not a dessert!
Germany is lamenting the decline of its bakery land of plenty, but let me assure you: It is still leaps and bounds away from pretty much anywhere else…yes, there is more and more supermarket and frozen bread sold, but there still are plenty of good bakeries providing quality products at fair prices…
So what do we Germans abroad do? We resort to tricks. A friend of mine brings German bread-flour mixes from Germany every time he goes and then bakes his own bread. I hate baking, and even bread does not get me to make it. Also, I wouldn’t know where to find a proper recipe. Because bakery bread is actually superior to most homemade breads in my opinion. It might be the ovens, I don’t know.
Another option is to get lucky and find a guy who makes proper bread. And then we are willing to pay even a fortune. I am going out of my way to try breads here that look promising, but I often end up let down. So, all that is left to me is binge when I am back home and that is not nearly often enough. It is a sad state of affairs…probably, along with affordable stellar Rieslings, the biggest prize I paid for leaving Germany.