Magdeburg l I don’t mean to disparage Goethe, or Beethoven, or Luther, but my favourite thing about German culture is pretzels. I just can’t get enough of them. The crunch of the salt. The playful twist of the dough. Ah, pretzels.
When I was growing up, I thought I knew what a pretzel was, but I was wrong. British supermarkets often stock what they call ‘mini pretzels’ – bite-sized, dried-out snacks that are addictive but unsatisfying, a poor substitute for crisps. Little did I know that over in Germany the full-sized, soft Laugenbrezel was so much more than a snack.
For me, anyway, the pretzel’s two most notable features are two of the things I like most about Germany: bread and salt. Yes, we have bread and salt in the UK. But they’re not valued so highly. Bread, most of all, is just not very good. People don’t take it particularly seriously, and tend only ever to buy pre-sliced loaves wrapped in plastic, off the supermarket shelves. Then, when they get home, they stick the slices in the toaster until they resemble thick, charcoal-flavoured crisps. Buying freshly baked bread, from a professional baker, is a practice that has died away. Here, though, there seem to be bakeries on every corner, staffed by people who actually seem to know, and maybe even care, about bread. And you can taste it. True, the supermarkets are slowly cornering the market, and I don’t believe every freshly baked loaf of bread in Aldi is made with true passion. But standards are so much higher than they are in the UK.
And as for salt – if possible, this seems to be an even bigger deal than bread, especially in this part of the country of course. One of the first things I did after moving to Germany was pay a trip to the Gradierwerk in Schönebeck, where the salt was meant to help cleanse my dirty London lungs. I’m not sure if it worked, but I remain enthusiastic about the German fondness for natural health treatments, and their belief that something as commonplace as salt might have spectacular healing properties. I also love the taste of salt, and find the way the pretzel celebrates salt – as a flavour rather than just a seasoning, and of course as a design element – a brilliant idea.
Is there… too much salt on the average pretzel? Yes, definitely – an unhealthy amount, I would guess. But the Germans seem to have thought of that, too. If there’s too much salt on a pretzel, you can simply pick it off. On the other hand, the excess amounts of salt that exist in so many other food products are not so easily removed. And that’s true in both Germany and the UK, and in fact more or less everywhere around the world: studies have shown that the vast majority of people internationally consume too much salt each day, and the worst offenders are often processed foods. So there’s something refreshingly honest about how explicit the salt is on a pretzel. Look, it seems to say. This is a heck of a lot of salt. It’s delicious. Don’t want it? On a health kick? Then brush me off, kein Angst.
Now I’ve been in Germany a while, I struggle to imagine a land without pretzels. What do people eat at train stations? There’s certainly a lot of food on offer at UK stations, I recall, but little with the elegant simplicity of our neatly twisted companion. There are Cornish pasties – extremely fatty parcels of potato and cheese or various meats. There are American-style muffins and cookies and plenty of other saccharine excesses. And there are endless, endlessly tempting packets of crisps. But even these are better in Germany, because they don’t do paprika flavour. A train station without pretzels, or paprika-flavour crisps… I can never go home again.