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The Fine Art of German Bread

A good German bread is like a good wine - first, it must be carefully tended and then slowly savored. The basis of any bread, of course, is the flour. And the grains from which the flour comes, like grapes for wine, take on the characteristics of their terroir (the soil and climate where they are grown), explained Meisterbäcker Karl-Heinz Carra. That's where the differences between German and American bread begin.

"The German (white) wheat is not the same," Carra noted. Which explains why even if you find a good German baker in America, the bread still has a perceptibly different taste, if only slight.

That and the fact that German bakeries use more varieties of grains than do American bakers. For example, rye wheat - a staple in almost any German bread - is seldom used in the States. And within the different grains there exists an immense variety of different flours, based on their ash mass. Ash mass is the mineral content that remains after the grain is burned in a 900 degree C oven. For example, both white and rye have five different types of flour (Mehltyp) each, ranging from an extremely low ash content (used for Brötchen and light, white breads) to an extremely high ash content (used for the heavy, dark German breads).

The other major difference between the breads, Carra noted, is sour dough. All German breads contain sour dough with the exception of a few white breads. "Sour dough has been essential to the classic art of German bread for over 100 years," he added. In fact, it is such an important element in the baking process that there are entire laboratories devoted to nothing but producing the necessary cultures for sour dough. Don't let the word laboratory fool you, though. Like the German Rheinheitsgebot for beer (see February/March issue), it is simply a method of producing pure cultures without any of the negative elements that can develop in a home-grown sour dough starter. Carra pointed out that good sour dough should actually not have a sour smell. "It should be fresh and aromatic, almost fruity," he said. His bakery starts with new sour dough every 10 days. 

That also explains the differences in taste between bread from a local bakery and one of the newer chain bakeries that have sprung up in Germany. While the larger bakeries have been forced into more and more automation, the smaller, home-town bakeries can still use the traditional methods which result in very distinctive tastes that vary from bakery to bakery.

Those distinctive flavors are the pride of anyone in Germany with a baker's Meisterbrief (a master craftsman's diploma). Again, like a good winemaker, a good backer develops his own art, experimenting over the years with ingredients and varying combinations of ingredients until he finds a flavor that is his own. That art is taken so seriously that yearly competitions are held to reward the best of the best, complete with gold, silver and bronze medals.

Carra was recently recognized for winning 25 consecutive gold medals for his skills, along with being recognized for the second time as one of the best traditional German bakers by "Der Feinschmecker," an international gourmet magazine, and as the Baker of the Year for 2009 by a regional guide to fine dining that encompasses southwest Germany, the Alsace region of France and Luxembourg.

To consistently win those medals, Carra starts baking at 1 a.m. He has a smaller Backstube (distinguished from a larger Backhalle) where he puts his award-winning skills to work. The dough is mixed by machine but almost everything else is done by hand. The dough is weighed, kneaded, molded and left to rise. Depending on the type of bread, some loaves are handled five times before they are finally finished. And all those different patterns you see on the top of various Brötchen? They are all pressed by hand.

Baking times vary as widely as the bread, from five hours for his signature Musikantenbrot (musician's bread) to as little as three hours. "I have to sing to my Musikantenbrot. That's what takes so long," Carra jokes. Actually, the name is a reference to the fact that the region around Carra's Reichenbach-Steegen bakery was known for years its traveling musicians, many of whom emigrated to America in the 19th century.

After all the work comes the pleasure of savoring the bread. Carra, who has been a Meisterbäcker since 1975, is as passionate about his work as a good winemaker. He insists that bread be chewed slowly and often (up to 30 times) to allow it to mix with the saliva in the mouth which then releases the full flavor of that particular bread. While it may seem odd at first, it really does make a difference.

Finally, the bread must be paired correctly with the meal. A good backer will no more eat white bread with Wurst than a winemaker will drink white wine with steak. "Different kinds of breads go with different types of foods," Carra concludes. 

Backparadies Kissel, where Carra's skills can be appreciated, has been in business in Reichenbach-Steegen since 1949, when it was opened by Carra's wife Ursula's parents. 

Quelle: BLICKWINKL, Linda Sauer Bredvik