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Berlin Dispatch: Chasing the Golden Pretzel

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Jürgen has been driving a taxi in Berlin for over 20 years, and he doesn’t believe in giving restaurant recommendations. “How can I know,” he said, “if your taste is my taste?”

Leave it to a German, I thought, as he went on to explain the inherent flaws in following food advice from strangers while we raced down Karl-Marx-Allee with the windshield wipers going full speed, to question the philosophical underpinnings of my entire project, “One time I drove this guy to Lichterfelde,” said Jürgen. “He was insisting this was the best Italian restaurant in Berlin–”

“Oh!” I said, “What’s it called?”

“Doesn’t matter. I took my wife a few days later. The food was absolutely terrible.” And then there was the time when some passengers invited him to what turned out to be wonderful meal at a Thai restaurant. “I must have ordered the wrong thing when I went back with my wife,” he said. “This was also terrible.” He didn’t want to tell us the name of that place, either.

By the time he dropped us off at the Alexa shopping center, we’d given up on the idea of Jürgen recommending anything, food or otherwise. But as I was handing him the fare, Rumen made a final attempt to draw him out, broaching a subject on which almost every Berliner, if not every German, has very strong opinions: “What about bread?” Rumen asked. “You must have a favorite bakery.”

So began a discussion on the lamentable state of German bakeries. We live in an age, the two men agreed, when most ‘bakeries’ simply reheat premade, previously frozen dough. The bakers who really bake, who work through the night, kneading their dough from scratch so there might be fresh bread in the morning, are a rarity now. Given that bread is to Germany as steak is to Argentina, this is an especially tragic trend.

But Jürgen happened to know of two bakeries in Pankow, a district on Berlin’s northern outskirts where he lived for many years, where they still do things the traditional way.

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The next day, Rumen and I took the S-Bahn to Pankow, his hopes as cautious as mine were high. It wasn’t enough to imagine we were en route to some transcendent bread — for most of the train ride, I was entertaining visions of the Golden Pretzel.

The Golden Pretzel is a certificate of membership in the city’s craft baker guild – and it’s the highest honor a bakery can earn in Berlin. In order to display the Golden Pretzel seal in its window, a bakery has to meet the following six criteria:

* All bread and pastries must be made from scratch
* The sales staff must know their craft. Shop assistants “are not only cashiers and bag fillers, they are well-trained technical experts.”
* The baked goods must be checked every six months by the guild for their high quality.
* All guild members regularly take part in further training.
* Bakers who wish to become members must be tested by the guild of craft bakers.
* All bakeries must train apprentices and are obligated to “pass on the knowledge from almost 740 years of traditional baking in Berlin to the next generation.”

Of the hundreds (thousands?) of bakeries in Berlin proper, only 20 are currently certified as Golden Pretzel bakeries. In the Brandenburg area surrounding Berlin, 21 bakeries carry the seal.

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I didn’t notice any Golden Pretzels in the window as we walked into Feinbäckerei Gabriel, the first bakery Jürgen recommended, on Florastrasse, about half a mile west of the Pankow stop on the S-Bahn. But a bakery doesn’t have to have a Golden Pretzel to be outstanding, does it? After all, I reasoned, as we waited in line behind a woman with butterflies tattooed to her calves, there must be neighborhood bakers in Berlin who still work from scratch, who still adhere to the old traditions, but who for whatever reason don’t want to jump through all of the bureaucratic hoops a Golden Pretzel requires.

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While all the rolls we tasted from Feinbäckerei Gabriel had a texture and density you just don’t find at bakeries working with frozen dough, Rumen found everything from this bakery too sweet, and too cake-like, to merit a pilgrimage. Still, I wouldn’t think twice about picking up a few buckwheat (Buchweizen) rolls (far upper left in the photo) from here if I were in the neighborhood. With these, you have the foundation for a delicious sandwich.

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Still hungry, still hopeful (well, at least I was), we traveled deeper into Pankow, into an area called Französisch Buchholz, which was once a French Huguenot settlement, which looks and feels like a village more than a city suburb. As in many districts in Berlin that were once part of the city’s surrounding villages, the center of Französisch Buchholz is still its church, which traces its beginnings to the late 17th century.

You wouldn’t know it to look at it today, but Bäckerei Martin Klar also has a long history — there’s been a bakery at this address since 1902. Hans-Joachim Friedrich and Andrea Gabler, the current owners, still make everything from scratch. And taxi drivers like Jürgen and Egon Trier say their Ost-schrippen (East German-style rolls) are some of the best in Berlin.

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By the time Rumen and I showed up at Martin Klar, all the Ost-Schrippen were gone. If their baguette roll (center right) and their Knüppelbrot (center top) is any indicator, we weren’t missing much. The dough in these rolls, as well as the dough in the caraway stick (bottom), had the symmetry and fineness of dough that’s been produced by a machine, not by hand.

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By now I was discouraged, but Rumen was determined to save the day: he insisted on a detour, a final stop, at Bäckerei Stahlberg, in a Lichtenberg neighborhood called Malchow, where he’d been 20 years ago on his way to the Baltic Sea. “We have to try it,” he said. “I had a Kümmelstange (caraway seed stick) there that I still can’t get out of my head.”

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Klaus Stahlberg, the bakery’s owner and namesake, earned his master baker certificate in 1968, and he still does the baking here. Greta, who works the counter, told us his is the only bread she and her children eat. “We get letters from America,” she said, “Telling us how good our bread is. We have customers from Charlottenburg (a western district on the other side of town) who come once a week to stock up. And at Christmas, people from all over the city order stollen.”

While Stahlberg’s breads, especially his Mischbrot (upper left) were the best we tasted on our bakery tour — and though his Kümmelstange was almost as good as Rumen remembered — I can’t in good conscience tell you it’s worth making the trip to Malchow to buy them. Rumen agrees: “Schwäbische Bäckerei [our local bakery in Friedrichshain] isn’t as good,” he says, “But at least now we know it’s not too bad compared to the others.”

And now more than ever, we’re inspired to get serious about our bread obsession: in the fall, I’m going to start visiting all 20 of the Golden Pretzel bakeries in Berlin, and I will be reporting back.

Feinbäckerei Gabriel
Florastr. 46,
13187 Berlin – Pankow
Tel. +49 30 4855381
Open: M-F, 6am-6:30pm; Sat, 6am-12:30; Sun, 7am-12:30

Martin Klar Bäckerei und Konditorei
Hauptstraße 12
13127 Berlin – Französisch Buchholz (Pankow)
Tel. 030 4742717
Open: Closed Mondays; Tues-Fri, 6am-6:30pm; Sat, 6am-1pm

Bäckerei Stahlberg
Dorfstraße 31A
13051 Berlin – Malchow
Tel. 030 9261422

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