Expatriates get wholemeal bread flown in from Munich, while Pfister loaves are packed among the provisions for expeditions. Virtually no other city has a bread tradition stretching back as far as that of Munich – or such venerated bakery products. What makes them so exceptional and desirable? A glimpse into the premises and ovens of local traditional bakers.
Bavarians use the terms Sterzl, Rankerl and more than 30 other nicknames just for the heel of a loaf that no one else likes to eat. Munich residents affectionately call this the Scherz, Scherzl, Scherzerl – a play on words between the German for a joke, and the heel of a loaf. But it's certainly no joke. The people of Munich love their bread. While the rest of the world starves staring at molecular menus at fine-dining restaurants, in Munich it's all about a favourite spot to enjoy a beer and a hearty Brotzeit (bread-based snack).
But the bread isn't just about nutritional values. It's character-building. Everyone in Munich has a tale to tell about bread and growing up: the unpopular packed lunch that for years was tossed into the school waste bin – a subsequent lesson in remorse. Bread shared with the family every evening that created strong bonds. “Bread is a key aspect of places and moments where people come together to communicate,“ claimed UNESCO dryly, and in 2014 added German bread culture to its list of intangible cultural heritage. A food as a route to family and intercultural understanding.
While the rest of the world starves staring at molecular menus at fine-dining restaurants, in Munich it's all about a favourite spot to enjoy a beer and a hearty bread-based snack.
German bread culture has deep roots in Munich. Many of the local bakeries date back to the 19th and early 20th century, while the Hofpfisterei goes back as far as 1331. But even without a long pedigree, Munich's bakers are old-school – picture book-fashioned, just like the Master Baker illustrated in the 'Max and Moritz' story 150 years ago by Wilhelm Busch during his time in Munich, together with his close friend Erich, a miller's son. Only not as brutal. What suffers today is the craftsmanship itself: from the end of the Fifties to the present day, the number of bakers in Germany declined from around 50,000 to fewer than 11,000. Mass production brought manufacturers to their knees.
But Bavarians, and the people of Munich in particular, are stubborn fellows. So it was no coincidence in 2010, when fast bakeries were beginning to overrun the city with their products full of air and empty flavours, that Munich's latest miller opened his own bakery.
Stefan Blum took over the five-storey Kunstmühle (mill) behind the Hofbräuhaus from his father in 2001. The in-house bakery on the ground floor is called “E. Knapp & R. Wenig“. The name pays homage to Blum's great-grandmother, maiden name Knapp, and the wholegrain pioneer Rudolf Wenig, whose 100-year-old recipes form square wholegrain spelt and round rye loaves. The mill cat Ignaz cries for food. But she has to go without a little, “or she won't catch any more mice,“ says miller Blum.
Maintaining tradition takes work and requires principles. “It sucks up energy,“ says Blum the baker, who by his own admission wakes up at 4 am even without setting his alarm. As a child, the professional industry player Ludwig Neulinger slept on a reclining chair in his parents' bakery, and today produces bread that tastes like that of his childhood from his bakery Bäckerei Neulinger: he says he wants to be able to eat what he produces himself. A categorical imperative.
At the Hofpfisterei, Nicole Stocker continues the maxim adopted by his pro-organic father, just on a bigger scale: operating over four floors the bakery, or rather the bakery tower in Munich's Maxvorstadt quarter, despatches bread to 165 branches every day. One of the oldest varieties is the dark farmhouse bread that was used to fill the stomachs of a war-ravaged population.
The Hofpfisterei was already fully organic, eco and fair-trade when others were moaning about hippies and cursing the Lord God for failed crops.
At the heart of production is the patented 'Pfister-Sonne' bread: a loaf weighing around two kilos and made from 90 per cent rye, ten per wheat and ground sunflower seeds. All the ingredients are grown organically. The Hofpfisterei was already fully organic, eco and fair-trade when others were moaning about hippies and cursing the Lord God for failed crops.
Only since it has been mandatory to declare ingredients has this become common practice. So Munich's bakers continue to use, only now transparently, 'regional varieties' and scarcely more than a handful of the over 300 EU-approved additives.
Local bakers closely guard their wealth of knowledge. For over 1,200 years, rye was Germany's main bread ingredient – only it was called: 'grain'. Rye is not as easy to process as wheat. Get it wrong, and you end up with a very small lump of bread. In the most popular holiday destinations in the south, bread is called Ciabatta and Focaccia: not all bread is the same. Everything that happens, from the field to the shop shelf, makes a difference. How long was grain A, B or E in the sun? How finely was it milled? How often was it sieved?
If you want to find out how grain becomes bread, it comes in a crumb from Wilhelm Busch's poem 'Bread': “Ich sage dir, das sind Gefühle, wenn man zerrieben und gedrillt“ (what feelings bread has instilled, when you break it and have drilled), then “vermengt, geknetet und vernudelt“ (mixed, kneaded and noodled). The baker's lexicon is broken down into the pore, crumb and crust. Making bread is a science. A philosophy. An art. At its best, the result is poetry.
When the Hofpfisterei relocated from the damp, narrow old town to the dry, airy residential area in 1964, it took six months for the sourdough to acclimatise and produce its usual flavour.
The original bread comes from the sourdough. It is a complex entity made up of various microorganisms. You can in principle squeeze small amounts out of the mature sourdough for all eternity, as long as you keep feeding it with fresh flour. But woe betide anyone who neglects it. If you do, the sourdough's mood shifts, the harmful microbes kill the good ones, and the dough comes to an unstoppable bad end.
Older folk still remember 'Hermann' which appeared from nowhere in German households in the Seventies and Eighties as a sweet sourdough starter for all kinds of cake. Dough was handed over in an almost spiritual way to keep 'Hermann' alive during lengthy absences.
Some compare their sourdough with a pet, others refer to it as their child. The family bakery Riedmair keep three starters going for its bread. The mixers at the Hofpfisterei joke about their 'little diva'. No one markets their natural sourdough more than Hofpfisterei. But every baker in Munich is aware of its affectations. A glimpse of the diva in the fermenting vat reveals a pool in which bubbles float to the surface and then burst.
Sourdough is sensitive. And easily affected by the weather, and capricious, and demanding. Freezing it and defrosting it again disturbs its soul. It can be kept warm and then cold, but not too warm, and it hates draughts. The Munich Föhn (warm wind from the Alps) regularly disrupts it. It can stand being moved only once: when the Hofpfisterei relocated from the damp, narrow old town to the dry, airy residential area in 1964, it took six months for the sourdough to acclimatise and produce its usual flavour. It was clearly pampered by the beer fumes from the neighbouring Löwenbräu brewery. Hofpfisterei will no doubt remain a child of Munich for always. For the love of great taste.
No industrial dough or baking mixture can ever taste as good or be as good for you as an indirectly elongated loaf.
To preserve a flavour that remains as unadulterated as possible throughout the generations seems mystical, metaphysical, magical, almost unimaginable. The fermentation process for developing such a fine sense takes just as long as fermenting the dough itself. The baker visits every day to see how the dough is doing – if it's doing anything at all. It's fed and cosseted even on Sundays and Public Holidays; it's watered with varying amounts of cold or hot water depending on the weather, humidity and temperature. It behaves differently every day. Every loaf is unique.
Good bread doesn't always taste the same, but it always tastes good. Good bread can be recognised not just from its flavour, but from how it is made too. The Rischart bakery has been shaping every loaf by hand since 1883. In the high-production Hofpfisterei bakery, a sensitive-looking band-driven round former imitates the respective hand movements and strokes. No industrial dough or baking mixture can ever taste as good or be as good for you as an indirectly elongated loaf. A what, sorry? Indirect dough proving means that the sourdough is enriched in stages with flour and water, not all mashed together at once as it was when baking in a sand box.
Managing the dough over a long period gives it enough time to rise, to rest, to ferment; to form yeasts and lactic acid bacteria, develop its characteristic flavour and relax; and to build up the right starch and break down hard-to-digest sugar. We are talking about hours, half days, days. The Hofpfisterei bakery manually manages its sourdough for 24 hours or more. Only then, by means of flour types, herbs and seeds, are the varieties of bread that do us good created.
Time is a natural raw ingredient where some bakers take short-cuts. Replace it with artificial aids, and at least you'll know where that rotten feeling in your stomach and the disposable society hail from. Bread nourished with time also stays moist and fresh for longer. It can be exported with a clear conscience. Scientific expeditions have equipped themselves with Hofpfister loaves – specially packed in the bakery's own stay-fresh silk.
“You don't store good bread, you eat it.“
“You don't store good bread, you eat it,“ is Stefan Blum's approach. He of course means his own bread from the Kunstmühle: bread fed with 'coarse' flour, fermented in baskets made from straw rather than wood pulp or plastic, fabulously rich in minerals, and aromatically crusty.
Of course every baker is convinced that he kneads the best bread with the crispiest crust, the spiciest crumb and the most perfect history of management. But they are not all as self-assured at Brotmanufaktur Schmidt which has set up an online domain at bestesbrot.de and created a bread called 'Sexy Alive' with amaranth and chia seeds – “The bread that can improve your sex appeal!“
Ludwig Neulinger bakes his signature mixed wheat bread, the 'Genetzte', in the spruce oven he built himself. The 'Pfister-Sonne' is baked for around two hours at 200 degrees in the old German stone oven. Never change a winning baking method.
The competition between Munich's traditional bakers is not a bitter contest, however. The raging panic over wheat-bloated stomachs and gluten meeting in the middle. Blum supplies his flour to Neulinger. Neulinger helped him to build his bakery. Whether wrapped in silk, rinsed in purified water or bedded on straw – the craft of baking remains respectful to Munich.
The next generation is shunning automatic baking ovens too: “Craftsmanship is dead. Long live craftsmanship“ is the motto at Lokalbäckerei Brotzeit, whose founders wear sport caps and tattoos, and stock rustic 'master brewers' with black beer next to juicy and powerful 'athletes' with hemp seeds. Wilhelm Busch's breadcrumb ends with the words “And give some to the other, too.“ Good bread tastes even better when it's shared.