It all began with bread ….
It was the lousy store-bought bread that set me on the quest to change the way I bought, prepared and consumed food. Growing up in Germany in the 1970’s sourdough brown bread was part of the staple diet. I had no idea at the time that the bog standard grey bread was actually a form of soured rye bread. As a kid I just thought that this was what bread should be. Nor did I find it particularly exceptional. We ate grey bread all the time. For breakfast, for supper and as a snack in between. The bread would always be spread with thick butter though the toppings varied. For breakfast either jam or cheese or a boiled egg. For supper cold meat and cheeses with gherkins. Sometimes with soured cream and cherry jam.
If there is a national dish for Germany then the humble grey bread has got to be it.
Many associate German baking with the “Torte”. I have to admit they look impressive but they always remind me of frilly lace bloomers that an elderly aunt might have worn back in the day. I never liked Torte’s very much and to this day the Black Forest Gateau doesn’t excite me.
But the bread – oh the bread – now that is the untold, true story of traditional German baking. The German bakeries of my child-hood memories were crowded with hundreds of different bread varieties. Alongside the ubiquitous Tortes and more standard cakes sat the bread. From the dark, almost black pumpernickel (originating in Westphalia where my mother comes from) to breads mixed with seeds, fruits, or nuts. ….fennel seeds, cumin seeds, poppy seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, hazelnuts, dried figs, raisins, sultanas, honeys…. Some were large and round, others small and square. Some were plaited and sprinkled with onion seeds. Regardless of what bread was bought it was always firm, filling and delicious.
I have tried bread in Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, South America, Australia and Belgium and I can say, hand on heart that the Germans win the award for best bread bakers – hands down and without a shadow of a doubt. (Note: I have never visited Scandinavian countries and have an inkling the Germans may be in stiff competition with their bread varieties there though I can’t say this for sure.)
Where ever I roamed I looked for decent bread and rarely found it. For a long time I resented the light fluffiness of the store bought bread that would never allow me to spread butter on the surface without the slice being ripped to pieces. Fluffy store-bought bread combined with butter is a marriage made in hell. The two just do not get along well at all. Not surprising really – the one a total air-head, the other an age-old fat.
Shortly after arriving in Belgium I discovered a trendy artisanal bakery that – joy of joys – made the equivalent of German grey bread! In their hands, however, the humble German “graubrot” was an over-priced piece of dough that I simply could not afford to feed my family on. What in Germany was a cheap, staple product in Belgium had morphed into food for the fashionistas only.
Often the choice was down to sub-optimal store-bought products or expensive artisanal dishes that were out of my price reach. I wish I had known traditional methods when I moved beyond heating up beans on toast as a student and into the world of cooking for a family. The word of mouth method of food preparation has been largely forgotten and I was just another one of its casualties.
It was the bread that finally led me to Nourishing Traditions. I had reached tipping point with the air-head brown and white bread we bought from the baker down the road. I’d also noticed that most bakeries in Belgium were not preparing the bread themselves anymore. They just bought ready-made dough from one central supplier and heated it up in their ovens.
I turned to Nourishing Traditions which gave me a sour-dough recipe. Not only did they give me a very straight-forward recipe for baking this bread they also set out useful information on why sourdough is so beneficial – always a good motivator to keep going.
Having succeeded with sourdough baking I turned my attention to some of their other recipes and was amazed at how easy they actually are. Through bread I encountered an idea I had barely previously conceptualised: the simplicity of traditional cooking, the amazing tastes and flavours of traditional food and the many, many advantages of switching to a traditional diet. For the first time my eyes were opened to the differnce between real food and fake food.