In 1963, Heinz Weichardt was working as a baker's apprentice when a beautiful girl caught his eye. Mucke worked across the street, and for weeks, Heinz waited to make a move, before finally bringing over a schoko-sahne torte, with layers of lovingly whipped cream and chocolate. Mucke brought the cake home to her mother, who, in between bites of torte, imparted some urgent advice on her daughter: "Marry this baker." She did, and in 1977 the young couple opened Berlin's first demeter (organic) bakery. Forty years later, it's still a family business (their daughter Yvonne works there, too) slinging award-winning breads, pastries, and cakes.
When I visited Weichardt Brot in late August, tucked away on a residential street in Wilmersdorf, the famous schoko-sahne rorte wasn't available. "We don't make it often in the summer," Dirk Eimar, the bakery's assistant manager, told me apologetically. He offered me a much more seasonal slice of pflaumeküchen (plum cake). Slices of barely sweetened, roasted halved plums, their faces turned upward like sunflowers, sat on a yeasted cake bottom—part crust, part jammy custard. While very much a cake, the amount of fruit made it feel like a virtuous-enough breakfast that I supplemented it with half an apfeltaschen (apple pocket). Barely 11 AM, it was my seventh pastry of the morning.
"German cuisine has this bad rap," Luisa Weiss, food blogger and author of the upcoming cookbook Classic German Baking told me. It's not just the skin-hued sausages and boiled cabbage that lend to Germany's "unsexy" food appeal—here in Berlin, it can feel downright impossible to find a proper meal. The hip neighbourhoods of Neukölln, Kreuzberg, and Friedrichshain are a culinary wasteland of blinking neon lights offering the same rotation of disappointingly bland fast food. PIZZA, PASTA, DÖNER, the signs scream, bolstered by appetite-cutting photographs of greasy, shaved meat. None of these, of course, are indigenously German, but even the savoury German offerings, should you find them, are discouraging.
The glaring exception are the pastries, which are an entrenched part of German cuisine and culture.
"One of the defining characteristics of German baking is how traditional everything is," Weiss said. "There are a lot of things being baked today that are a real part of the classic canon of German baking that have literally been in the culture for hundreds and hundreds of years."
German baking can be traced back to ancient, pagan times, when women would cut off plaits of hair, which symbolised the soul, to place in coffins along with their beloved deceased. Over time, yeasted, braided sweet bread replaced the actual hair, and sweet breads became offerings during times of both sadness and joy. Births are often accompanied with a yeasted bread, and to this day, you can easily purchase braided sweets like roisnenzopf (sweet raisin braid), nusszopf (sweet nut braid), and mohnzopf (poppy-seed braid).
Another stalwart of German baking, lebküchen, or gingerbread, was invented by Franconian monks in the 13th century. These are "spiced cookies baked with relatively little fat," Weiss explained, "that originally were offerings. Everything had to do with religion, and they had these stamped pictures on them in some cases, and the pictures were religious in nature, or there were three almonds on top to symbolise the Trinity." Because of their structure, the cookies can keep for long periods. Weiss has one recipe that requires the Lebküchen dough to rest for a whopping two months. They make for sturdy walls, which is maybe why Lebküchen was a major character in the Brothers Grimm classic fairytale Hänsel und Gretel.
At first glance, German baking can seem rather simple and rustic. There's an emphasis on rye and wheat flours, yeast, and minimal fat (most recipes were invented during lean times). Pastries are bolstered with fresh or dried fruits, poppy seeds, spices, whole nuts, and nut paste. Most treats only nudge the edge of sweetness. Unlike its Austrian or French neighbours, there's nothing delicate about German baking—the üchen and streusel here are hearty, served in thick slices.
An important distinction: baked sweets are not considered desserts. Instead, they constitute an actual meal, called kaffe-kuchen, which consists of a coffee and at least one type of cake (though three to five is better). The specific time one has kaffe-kuchen, in the mid-afternoon, is known as the kaffezeit (coffee time).
"In America, these things are seen as an indulgence, but here they are a legitimate part of the diet," Weiss explained. The tradition dates back to farmhands centuries ago, who needed sustenance between lunch and dinner. They couldn't have a small snack—they needed something substantial to keep them going.
Kaffe-kuchen is where the stereotypical German sensibility comes to a grinding halt. Cake time is seemingly more important than dinner, or ambrot, which is usually just an open-faced sandwich. It's also the bedrock of German hospitality that dates back to the 18th century, when society ladies would host kaffe-kuchen with their best linen and china. Nowadays, should you find yourself in a German home in the mid-afternoon, an elaborate spread of cakes will still be pressed upon you. Walk into any coffee shop across the country and you'll spot a mini-fridge stocked with a minimum of three different cakes.
With this in mind, I feel better about my morning spent at Hutzelmann, a traditional bakery in the western neighbourhood of Charlottenburg. They specialise in cheese and poppy seed pastries, including grittermohn, a bar-like cake with an inch of ground poppy seed filling. The poppy seeds were smoky and earthy and stuck in my teeth. I sampled a slice of kranzküchen, a yeasted braided bread with ribbons of marzipan, and studded with raisins. But the best was the quarkpiroggen, an elusive golden pillow of dough with a fat strip of sour quark cheese running down its back and dusted in sugar.
At both Hutzelmann and Weichardt Brot, all the goods are made in-house. Adjacent to Weichardt is a small room with three mills—they've been grinding their own flour on-site, using organic wheat from farms outside Berlin, for the past 40 years. A metal depiction of Jesus, John, and Peter drinking wine and breaking bread presides over the mills. One of the millers, Carston, dressed entirely in white and dusted in flour to the edge of his eyelashes, poured bags of wheat kernels through the grinding machines. The pastry flour goes through an additional grinding process, until it is extra-fine and fit for cakes and cookies.
"It's a holy thing, what we do here," Eimar, the bakery's manager said, with well-placed pride in his voice. "What we make today, tomorrow is in the bread. The energy is in there!"
For bakeries like Hutzelmann and Weichardt, the emphasis is on tradition and time. Baking can't be rushed, and the proof is literally in the pudding. But despite the quality of their product, these small bakeries are suffering. "It's very difficult for us," Eimar told me, pointing to the rise in chain bakeries and supermarkets that have lured customers away with convenience and price. A few blocks away from Hutzelmann is M&M Back, a chain bakery that churn out loveless breads and pastries for cheap. That bakery was crowded with customers, while at Hutzelmann, where the quality is objectively superior, only three people walked in.
"I really think it's a tragedy that the country hasn't mobilised to make people more aware that this is a patrimoine—you know, something really worth not just saving but honouring," Weiss lamented. "Everything from the bread to the cookies is a real heritage. It's something incredibly valuable, full of history and tradition, and it's a beautiful thing!"