A year ago at this time I was in Paris, waiting for my French family to leave for Guadaloupe, and for my parents to come. I was excited to show them “my” city–its food and beauty.
I was also excited to go to Germany. I’d never been, and the prospect of hopping on a high-speed train to Deutschland was exhilarating. It was even more exhilarating when I forgot my passport, and was seized with terror that a zealous conductor wouldn’t let me into Germany.
But there were no mishaps, and so we sped through the rolling hills and sporadic forests of eastern France into southwestern Germany. The day was grey and muted, and cool. We roamed around the town of Karlsruhe with my parents’ friend, Martin, and his young son. We ate pretzels and looked at a castle and climbed a church steeple to look out over the town.
The part of Germany that has lingered with me the most, though, is the bread. Of course it would be some food item.
I know I haven’t seen enough of the country. Maybe if I had visited Berlin I would think of Germany and think of house music and lovely wild nights, and kebabs and cool trendy kids. I hope to see that part of Germany, and soon.
Instead, though, I think of Heidelburg, wreathed in wet fog, and low hills over the river with trees of muted red and yellow, obscured in white. I think of a crumbled castle, parts of it destroyed by French bombs. And I think of the purple cabbage and savory meat and dumplings Silke served us for dinner the first night we were there.
And I think of the bread: dense, dark loaves with a sour-sweet fermented taste. A paper bag full of such a loaf quickly soaked through with an oil not greasy, but fragrant and rich from sunflower seeds. A thick slice sawn off and smeared with salted butter, or a bit of cheese and cured meat was heaven–hearty, sunflower-crusted, nutty, seedy heaven.
This bread was especially delightful to me because, after loaf after phallic loaf of French baguette, I was ready for something more substantial.
Don’t get me wrong–a baguette from a local boulangerie in France is also sublime. My favorite was le Tradition–a shorter, slightly stubbier baguette with deep slashes, a crisp, crackly crust, and a white, tender interior full of deep air pockets. Tearing off a crackly portion and stuffing in some marzipan-stuffed dark chocolate while the bread was still warm was a favorite trick. The crunch of the golden crust, the chew of the warm interior melting the chocolate, the sweet bite of the almond paste–also heaven.
I guess I ate so much white bread in Paris–that’s why German bread was such a treat.
There are so many breads to love, though, and so many accompaniments that suit different breads best.
French baguette lends itself to a cheese platter, or a bit of dark chocolate, or a smear of pate and a picnic. Also, smeared with salted butter, thinly sliced radish, and flaky salt, it can’t be beat.
Unless, of course, by a slice of toasted, sunflower-seeded German rye bread. Then, I’m sorry French bread, but I think I’ll pass you by.
But there are other breads I love, too. There’s the whole-wheat bread my mom baked, in a metal loaf pan for dinner. She would set the puffed, crusty bread on the table, and we set on it with a serrated knife. It was sometimes a bit coarse, and crumbly. Warm from the oven, and spread with butter, it was yeasty and fresh and delicious.
There’s a place, too, for good old supermarket wheat, and rye–those pliant, perfectly sliced loaves whose dubious flexibility lends them to well-sliced sandwiches.
Also, even straight from France, I thoroughly enjoyed a slice of Tesco brown bread, straight from the freezer into the toaster. Smeared with Bramston relish, and thick slices of sharp English cheddar–white or yellow–and accompanied with a few slices of apple, it was every bit as satisfying as French baguette and fois gras.
So many breads to love. It’s been a long while since I baked a loaf, but I will as soon as I get yeast. I have my eye on a recipe for Russian Black Bread on Smittenkitchen’s website.
I think what I love, too, besides the memories of the taste and the crackle and the butter and fragrant sunflower oil, are the people who flit through my mind with the memories of each bread.
There’s the golden wood of the dining room table, summer evenings as a kid–Mom and Dad and my siblings, us kids hungry from hours outside playing soccer, eagerly spreading butter onto hot slices of wheat bread.
There’s lovely Leah, and Katie, Veronika, and Natalie–all of us on the cobbles watching the early summer sun set on the Notre Dame, or by Canal St. Martin watching beautiful French boys, eating bacon-studded baguette from Eric Kayser, or bread from the bastille market spread with grey chevre.
There’s me and Mom and Dad on the train back to Paris, a fragrant heavy German loaf stashed amongst our bags. Me, pulling it down and smearing cheese on a rugged hunk, pried off with my fingers in lieu of a knife. The few leisurely days spent in the Van Gysels lovely modern white house, making cafe cremes from their Nespresso machine, eating toasted slices spread with butter and jam.
There’s the few frantic weeks I spent with Amy in England before her wedding, before I came to China–the moments of leisurely calm we had, up in gloomy cool Scotland, where we slept in late and made coffee and had toast with butter, and greek yogurt for breakfast. The grocery store runs in Simon’s car, buying wine, me broke and happy to be with Amy.
In China I haven’t found a bread I love, yet. Breads abound here, but they don’t entice me like the breads of the west. Here I get my carbs in the form of dumplings, or small round flatbreads filled with savory saucy lamb, or pork and shredded vegetables. I’ve been buying bread from the western imports store. It’s OK, but I need to start baking my own loaves.
Maybe, maybe, I can make a loaf like the ones from west German bakeries, though I’ll still miss the train ride, and my mother and father who rode it with me.