The Vil­lage Baker and His Pretzels

Arnd Er­bel’s tra­di­tion­ally made breads can be found in fancy restau­rants from Bavaria to the Baltic. But his take on his coun­try’s most beloved baked good? That’s only avail­able in the town where his fam­ily has been bak­ing for 12 gen­er­a­tions

SAVEUR - - Contents - BY BEN CRAIR

Ger­many’s prized baked good can be found all over the world, but Arnd Er­bel’s have never left his home­town

A few days be­fore I vis­ited baker Arnd Er­bel in his south­ern Ger­man bak­ery, a Ham­burg news­pa­per de­scribed him as a “bread god.” Er­bel’s breads are renowned among bak­ing con­nois­seurs and served in many of Ger­many’s best restau­rants, but he was not com­fort­able with de­ifi­ca­tion. “I’m not a bread god,” he told me in his bak­ery kitchen after I ar­rived. He sees him­self more as bread’s hum­ble ser­vant: “My be­ing is here to help with sour­dough.”

With his bald head and round glasses Er­bel ap­pears more monk­ish than almighty. It was fit­ting, then, that he was bak­ing Breze (as they are called in Bavaria), Ger­man-style soft pretzels, a baked good that orig­i­nated in Euro­pean monas­ter­ies in the Mid­dle Ages. While Amer­i­cans tend to see soft pretzels as a sim­ple snack eaten at ball­parks or mall food courts, Ger­mans cher­ish them as a na­tional sym­bol. Pretzels were once so spe­cial that Me­dieval painters would dab a few on the table of the Last Sup­per, and for cen­turies, pret­zelshaped signs were the em­blem of bak­ers and their guilds, hang­ing above door­ways as a sym­bol that you could find fresh-baked breads in­side. To­day, you can find them at the counter of any Ger­man bak­ery or beer hall, but also around the world: No other Ger­man food item has trav­eled as far and wide as the pret­zel.

Er­bel rolled 25 pretzels by hand, twist­ing them ef­fort­lessly into knots, like a school kid play­ing cat’s cra­dle, and left them to rise for two hours. He then put on rub­ber gloves to pre­pare to dunk each un­cooked pret­zel in lye, a strong and caus­tic al­ka­line so­lu­tion that has the power to burn flesh. (Ed­ward Nor­ton’s hand in that grisly scene in Fight Club was lye at work.) The chem­i­cal evap­o­rates from the pret­zel’s sur­face in the oven, but not be­fore speed­ing the Mail­lard re­ac­tion that gives so many foods their crust, aroma, and dis­tinct fla­vor dur­ing cook­ing. In Ger­many, there is a whole fam­ily of baked goods with a smooth dark-brown crust known as Lau­genge­bäck (lit­er­ally, “lye bakes”). Er­bel bakes some in his shop, like the Lau­gen­stange, a long roll re­sem­bling an over­size cigar.

But the pret­zel is the most fa­mous Lau­genge­bäck, and is the main rea­son Er­bel keeps lye on hand. He care­fully bathed the pretzels in the lye and scored their ex­te­ri­ors with a ra­zor to al­low the dough to ex­pand in the oven. While bak­ing, they turned a deep, even, and shiny brown as the scores ex­panded, cre­at­ing a win­dow into the doughy white cen­ters. Er­bel re­moved them with a wooden peel after 12 min­utes and dusted them with salt.

Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the sud­den tran­si­tion from thin, firm crust to chewy in­te­rior is one of the plea­sures of bit­ing into a pret­zel. My teeth broke through the crust and sank into the pil­lowy mid­dle as the salt dis­solved on my tongue. The fla­vor was mild, but the tex­ture was sin­gu­lar—a fact that makes Er­bel proud­est, since he does not use baker’s yeast, re­ly­ing in­stead on the nat­u­ral fer­men­ta­tion typ­i­cally used in sour­dough bak­ing. “If you go to an­other baker and say, ‘I had a pret­zel with­out yeast,’ they will say, ‘Im­pos­si­ble,’” he said. But through the care­ful ma­nip­u­la­tion of nat­u­ral leav­en­ing, Er­bel not only makes pretzels, but also dozens of dif­fer­ent Ger­man breads and del­i­cate spe­cial­ties, such as crois­sants, stollen, and fo­cac­cia, with­out us­ing pack­aged yeast and with­out any overly sour fla­vors de­vel­op­ing.

Er­bel’s skills and com­mit­ment to an older way of do­ing things have earned him a rep­u­ta­tion well be­yond Ger­man borders. “Arnd Er­bel is re­ally a bread artist,” Dan Leader, the James Beard Award–win­ning founder of New York bak­ery Bread Alone, told me be­fore I ar­rived. “His breads are as unique as his fin­ger­prints.” Er­bel’s loaves are spe­cial enough that Ger­man and other Euro­pean chefs or­der them rather than buy­ing bread from more-lo­cal bak­eries. He ships potato rolls with olives to Luce D’oro, a Miche­lin-starred res­tau­rant in Bavaria, and 10-pound sour­doughs to Stein­beisser, a com­pany that stages pop-up din­ners in Am­s­ter­dam. Though he is of­ten de­scribed as a tra­di­tional baker, Er­bel was en­thu­si­as­tic about ex­per­i­ment­ing with Chris­tian Schar­rer of Courtier, a two-star res­tau­rant on the Baltic Sea, for whom he baked green bread us­ing dried al­gae.

The pret­zel is sim­ple by com­par­i­son, but in one ma­jor way more spe­cial than any of those other breads: It has a

shelf life of just five or six hours, which means Er­bel sells them only at his bak­ery in Dachsbach, a vil­lage of just 700 peo­ple, and at a small shop he keeps in a neigh­bor­ing town. Few sub­jects rouse Ger­man pride quite like bak­ing. The coun­try claims to pro­duce more than 3,000 va­ri­eties of bread. If you had to broadly cat­e­go­rize them, typ­i­cal Ger­man loaves are dark, sour, dense, and moist al­most to the point of wa­ter-logged. The ro­bust­ness of most Ger­man bread comes from rye, which grows bet­ter than wheat in the coun­try’s damp and cool cli­mate. “When you talk to a Ger­man baker, even if there is wheat in the bread, they talk about the wheat in re­la­tion to rye,” Leader says. “Whereas any­place else in Eu­rope, they talk about other in­gre­di­ents in re­la­tion to wheat.”

One of the few things Ger­mans love more than their bread is pay­ing as lit­tle for it as pos­si­ble. Ger­mans have a rep­u­ta­tion for ex­treme thrifti­ness when it comes to food, and rock-bot­tom dis­count-gro­cery chains such as Aldi and Lidl have grown to dom­i­nate the Ger­man food mar­ket. (They have also ag­gres­sively ex­ported this model around Eu­rope and into the States. Trader Joe’s? That’s the Ger­mans.) Be­cause Ger­many’s gro­cery stores, dis­count stores, and gas sta­tions now of­fer a re­mark­able va­ri­ety of mass-pro­duced, in­ex­pen­sive loaves, Ger­man craft bak­eries have de­clined in num­ber, and many that re­main have slashed prices by masspro­duc­ing breads with pre-mixes, preser­va­tives, and in­dus­trial ma­chines to save money and time. Most Aldi Süd gro­cery stores now fea­ture a ma­chine that can bake a va­ri­ety of breads at the press of a but­ton. As a re­sult of the cul­tural shift, ac­tual Ger­man bak­ers us­ing tra­di­tional meth­ods with unadul­ter­ated in­gre­di­ents are be­com­ing an en­dan­gered species.

“The Ger­mans al­ways talk about their won­der­ful Ger­man bread cul­ture, but I can­not see it,” Er­bel told me. Ear­lier in the day, he had picked me up at the train sta­tion, and driven past a large build­ing and park­ing lot just out­side the town. “You can see here the Edeka Markt,” Er­bel said, in­di­cat­ing the lo­cal branch of one of the coun­try’s ma­jor gro­cery stores. “I have never gone in­side. It’s not my world.”

We drove into Dachsbach, a small vil­lage of half-tim­ber homes with steeply pitched roofs. Er­bel is the 12th gen­er­a­tion of his fam­ily to run the bak­ery, and Dachsbach has

hardly changed since his an­ces­tors set up shop in 1680. Its cob­ble­stone streets see scarcely any traf­fic, and, although a me­dieval fortress stands at its edge, the Bäck­erei Er­bel is the main at­trac­tion. Peo­ple flock there ev­ery morn­ing for bread, and Er­bel has ap­pren­ticed bak­ers from as far away as Ja­pan.

The bak­ery is a plain rec­tan­gu­lar build­ing that you en­ter through a side al­ley. The first floor has a small shop and a large, T-shaped kitchen; the up­per floors are where Er­bel’s fam­ily have lived for more than 300 years. Er­bel lives with his wife and daugh­ter in the same apart­ment where he grew up. He learned the ba­sics of bak­ing from his fa­ther at a time when bak­ers were ea­ger for new in­gre­di­ents to max­i­mize the yield from their doughs and ex­tend the shelf lives of their breads. Er­bel al­ways liked it, though, when his fa­ther for­got to mix the ad­di­tives into the dough. “Then the rolls were small,” Er­bel re­mem­bered. “Those were the best.”

Er­bel worked in sev­eral bak­eries around Nurem­berg, but he left Ger­many to learn about other bak­ing tra­di­tions. He trained for his mas­ter’s de­gree in bak­ing in Vi­enna, a melt­ing pot of Euro­pean and Asian in­flu­ences fa­mous for ex­trav­a­gant tortes and sweets. (“We make a sacher­torte at its best,” he told me in Dachsbach, re­fer­ring to the iconic Vi­en­nese choco­late cake.) After Vi­enna, he lived in north­ern Italy. There, he learned to bake the nat­u­rally leav­ened sweet bread panet­tone. It was this, more than any of his ear­lier ex­pe­ri­ences in Ger­many, that opened his eyes to the pos­si­bil­i­ties of sour­dough. He re­al­ized that a “sour­dough” did not ac­tu­ally need to taste sour, that the same process of nat­u­ral fer­men­ta­tion (us­ing wild yeasts from the en­vi­ron­ment) could be ma­nip­u­lated to pro­duce vir­tu­ally any bread—with a more in­ter­est­ing fla­vor but with­out the pro­nounced tang. “The pret­zel with­out added yeast is more sim­i­lar to panet­tone than to Ger­man rye bread,” Er­bel told me.

The most im­por­tant thing when mak­ing a non-sour sour­dough, he said, was to keep the dough at a tem­per­a­ture

of around 80 de­grees, but it was clear even as he said this that he was at­tuned to as­pects of the dough that could not be mea­sured with a ther­mome­ter. If you ask Er­bel for a recipe, for in­stance, he will tell you only that it is im­por­tant to use pre­cisely the right amount of salt—ev­ery other in­gre­di­ent de­pends on more-sub­jec­tive fac­tors, such as the cli­mate. “It’s not the recipe,” he told me. “It’s the way.”

His pen­chant for im­pro­vi­sa­tion means Er­bel’s pret­zel is not as tra­di­tional as it might seem. He makes sev­eral tweaks to the tra­di­tional pret­zel for­mula, us­ing oil in the dough in­stead of pork fat so veg­e­tar­i­ans and ve­g­ans can en­joy it. He mixes some fine-milled whole-grain spelt with the wheat flour in or­der to speed the nat­u­ral fer­men­ta­tion and add some nutri­tional value. Though he makes them both ways, he will dust his pretzels with a mix­ture of flour and fine salt after bak­ing, rather than sprin­kling them with coarse salt, be­cause it tastes just as salty with­out mak­ing you so thirsty. And while he al­ways ties some of his pretzels in the tra­di­tional knot, with the lit­tle “arms” crossed through the mid­dle, he prefers to roll the pret­zel into a rope that ta­pers at its ends, and then join the ends to­gether in a loop.

These lit­tle tweaks pre­serve what was best about a pret­zel while also mak­ing it dis­tinctly Er­bel’s own. His goal is not so much rein­ven­tion as it was recla­ma­tion: He wants to re­mind Ger­mans—used to the over­size,

ma­chine-rolled ver­sions for sale at beer halls and gas sta­tions—how good, ex­actly, a pret­zel could be. When Er­bel took over the Bäck­erei Er­bel from his fa­ther, in 1999, he ban­ished con­ve­nience prod­ucts and in­dus­trial in­gre­di­ents such as food col­or­ing and ar­ti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers from the recipes. He mills flour him­self from lo­cal fields, and re­fuses to bake with pre-mixes, ad­di­tives, or preser­va­tives, which he com­pares to dop­ing in bi­cy­cle rac­ing. His dik­tat against bak­ing with chem­i­cals, how­ever, makes an ex­cep­tion for lye, which is an old tra­di­tion, and with­out which there could be no pret­zel. No one is quite cer­tain how it came into use.

“I’m sure it was an ac­ci­dent,” Er­bel said. House­holds in the Mid­dle Ages used lye de­rived from cook­ing ash as a clean­ing so­lu­tion, and one leg­end cred­its a tired baker who mis­tak­enly dipped dough into lye in­stead of sugar, and did not dis­cover his mis­take un­til he pulled it from the oven and saw the beau­ti­ful brown crust.

Nowa­days, some Ger­man bak­ers run wild with Lau­genge­bäck. It is com­mon, for in­stance, to find Lau­gen­crois­sants in Ger­man bak­eries—crois­sants that have been dipped in lye and have a salty brown ex­te­rior like a pret­zel. Er­bel shud­ders at the Lau­gen­crois­sant, though, see­ing it as an un­holy Franken­stein’s mon­ster: “I make crois­sants with the won­der­ful taste of but­ter.”

Er­bel keeps the lye by the oven in a long shal­low tub with a grate sus­pended over­head. He laid some more un­cooked pretzels on the grate, then low­ered it into the chem­i­cal for a few sec­onds be­fore trans­fer­ring the pretzels to the oven. Though we had dis­cussed go­ing to a beer gar­den to eat, he sug­gested in­stead we have the fresh pretzels with some cheese he had been given by a friend, who had skied through the Alps, pur­chas­ing only cheeses that had been made from the milk of cows with horns—which, ap­par­ently, some peo­ple find eas­ier to di­gest.

We walked out the back of the bak­ery kitchen and across a cob­ble­stone court­yard, then through a shed to an­other cob­ble­stone court­yard be­hind a for­mer beer gar­den that Er­bel owns and now uses to host art ex­hi­bi­tions and par­ties. Er­bel opened two bot­tles of beer—which, he said apolo­get­i­cally, were from Düs­sel­dorf rather than lo­cal—and we spread but­ter on the pretzels and cut into the cheese.

The pretzels broke with a sat­is­fy­ing snap to re­veal an in­te­rior that was plush, al­most like a marsh­mal­low. Their lit­tle crys­tals of salt brought out the mild and grassy fla­vors of the cheese. As the sun set, it be­came so dark that it was dif­fi­cult to see Er­bel across the table. We were just a few steps from the rooms where he had grown up. He told me that col­leagues had tried to per­suade him to open bak­eries in Ber­lin, Mu­nich, and Lon­don, but he has no de­sire to re­lo­cate closer to the Miche­lin-starred restau­rants he bakes for. He’s happy to stay in Dachsbach, he said. “They can’t imag­ine what we are do­ing here.”

Arnd Er­bel at his bak­ery in Dachsbach, Ger­many.

Clock­wise from top left: Pretzels com­ing out of the oven; the dark, shiny crust of a Lau­genge­bäck; the bak­ery and its up­stairs apart­ment; Er­bel mixes up a batch of dough; dust­ing flour.

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