June 17.

How we got here

or Bakeries as a way of knowing


With the rye and wheat ripening in the fields around Dörnberg, now seems like a good time to get back to my ruminations about bread. If anyone wants to know how we got here—Germany, and in particular North Hessen—the answer lies in bread.

While still in the US, we began to obsessively house search online. On Immowelt, the largest online real estate listing service in Germany, you can get a feel for a place by scrolling to the map of the neighbourhood and choosing one or more icons of life’s necessities: grocery stores, doctors, pharmacies, schools, and, of course, bakeries.

brot map

The bakery icon is proof we aren’t alone in seeing the proximity of bakeries as an important factor in house searching.  Bakeries are a real measure of the quality of life and economic health of a place. A town without a bakery? Could be depopulating for some reason. A village with half a dozen bakeries? Probably unaffordable but worth a look. A town with one or two bakeries? That might do. If you really want to quantify your gut feelings it can be done. After about a year of closely studying house prices, market volume, and, yes, the “bread index”, we concluded that the region of North Hessen was the sweet spot.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of bread in Germany. The craft and the cultural force of German bread is actually recognized by #UNESCO as a globally important treasure, part of the “irreplaceable patrimony of mankind”.  Bread is much more central and more personally essential to Germans than the food that Americans commonly attribute to them (sausage). It’s true that Germans are still big meat eaters, having found over many centuries innumerable ways to prepare and preserve beef and pork. But what really makes a German a German—and what makes him homesick when abroad—is the need for fresh, nutritious, delicious bread in dizzying variety (over 600 distinct types are officially recognized, not including rolls, pastry, or the popular cartoon character #Bernd das Brot).

This hard-wired relationship to bread never leaves a person. Lothar is no exception, even after having lived in the States for over 40 years. In fact, the existence of at least some decent bread in a couple of stores in Asheville was one of the reasons we moved there.

The daily ritual of buying fresh bread is still strongly ingrained in Germany, although the inclusion of bakeries in the large supermarket chains has had both a positive and negative effect. In some ways supermarkets have made it easier for the hurried commuter to get to the bread on a daily basis, but the large chains have also killed off most of the family-owned neighbourhood bakeries. Back in the day, it was never an inconvenience to go out in the morning to get the bread because there was a bakery every few blocks.

But if the increased pace of the commuter’s work week has shifted a lot of food shopping to the supermarkets it has also given the smaller bakeries a niche in which to survive and even thrive. The neighbourhood bakeries owe their continued existence largely to  the intricate net of public transit that overlays the whole country, every single community large or small. Say you’ve missed your train or bus or have to wait another “viertel” for it.  And wouldn’t you mind another cup of coffee? Public transit + coffee = even more bread and pastry eating.

Speaking of people riding trams and buses, I have to wrap it up. Lothar has just come back from shopping with delicious rolls and cake in his rucksack….