Good bread is pretty much a given around Europe. In small villages and large metropolises alike, bakeries continue to be fairly commonplace and lots of folks still eat bread on a daily basis. From France’s long, crusty loaves to Northern Europe’s dense, dark rye, local, high-quality breads are on offer everywhere on the continent. But what should you sample where and why? Here are 10 typical European breads to try and the local legends that explain their origins.
1. Zopf (pictured above)
Intricately braided, this slightly sweet bread made from white flour, milk, eggs, butter, and yeast is a favorite among locals for Sunday morning breakfast. But legend links the loaf to the evolution of a different sort of mourning. In this part of the world, women went from being buried with their husbands in ancient times to cutting off a braid of their hair to throw on the grave, to later still, baking a loaf of bread to be buried as a substitute. Whether or not that particular legend is to be believed, the bread itself has been around since at least 1430 and is still popular as a token of love, appreciation, or thanks.
To create this oddly shaped bread—which doesn’t look much like a house or cottage—bakers mash two round balls of dough together. Theories abound, but most bakers agree it was probably a space-saving effort in old-fashioned bread ovens, even though the bread didn’t appear by name in writing until the mid 19th century. Because of the difficulty of making it (and perhaps selling it, as it’s not exactly a shape that lends itself to slicing for sandwiches), the bread isn’t as easy to spot in bakeries as it once was.
This mildly bitter rye and oat loaf has a small hole in the middle that might catch you by surprise. But there’s a practical purpose behind its shape. After the dough rises the first time, the hole is punched through so the baked loaves can be threaded onto long poles hung across the kitchen ceiling to air dry and keep the bread safe from pests and dry during the long, cold winter.
Sold commercially in the Netherlands since the 1970s, Dutch “tiger bread” is speculated to have its roots in the beginning of the country’s trade with Southeast Asia. Sold as “Dutch crunch” in some areas of the United States, more recently the bread was rebaptized “giraffe bread” in the United Kingdom after a little girl complained to large supermarket chain Sainsbury’s that the splotchy crust looked more like a giraffe’s coat than a tiger’s. A soft white bread with a cracked crunchy crust made from a coating of sesame oil and rice flour on top, it makes a tasty breakfast.
This bread was first baked in the Spanish region of Galicia. Legend has it that it was one of the foodstuffs locals gave to pilgrims traveling St. James’s Way to keep them from going hungry on the long journey to Santiago de Compostela. It’s an ideal choice for people on a long trip. The 500-year-old recipe for Galician bread produces loaves that stay fresh for up to a month because of their slow fermentation and lower salt content.
The original pretzel, called brezel with a “b” in German, is thought to have been invented by monks in the Middle Ages, possibly as a prize for children for learning their prayers. But the German story is a juicier tale of imprisoned bakers who came up with the unconventional shape before they were set free. And perhaps that’s why the twisty strip of lye-treated dough has been the bakers’ emblem since the 12th century in southern Germany. It certainly didn’t hurt that they were made with bread and water (no eggs or dairy) and so were an acceptable snack during Lent. And come Easter Sunday, the salty bread was even hidden like Easter eggs for children to find.
A rye loaf cooked for 24 hours in the steam from a geyser, a bread called hverabrauð or rúgbrauð is virtually crustless and moist with a very dense, dark crumb. While many locals opt for baking their rye bread in an oven these days, before the advent of ovens and cooktops, burying a box of bread dough by a hot spring or a geyser was the easy option. But beware of taking seconds and thirds. The Icelandic staple is rumored to make people gassy and even has a nickname to match—brumari, Icelandic for thunderbread. Today, this bread made the old-fashioned way is hard to find. For bread piping hot from the ground, head to Laugarvatn Fontana for a tasting and a tour of its geothermal bakery.
While thought to have evolved from an ancient Etruscan (prior to the Roman Empire) flatbread, focaccia that’s popular around the world today is most similar to traditional recipes from Liguria, in northwestern Italy. Here the bread is simple, seasoned with olive oil and salt, and the most like the version of the bread that was eaten in Roman times, although sometimes herbs, onion, or cheese is added. Traditional recipes for this quick bread involve slicing knives through any bubbles that may arise, and poking further wells into the dough in a process called dotting to help the bread soak up the oil used to keep it moist.
Although no bread was technically recorded as being called a baguette (French for wand or stick) before 1920, long loaves of crusty wheat bread have been typical in France since the era of Louis XIV. The modern long-skinny variation is thought to have become popular because of a 1920 law forbidding bakers working between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. With less time to prepare the bread before the morning rush, slender loaves were the best choice for a faster bake.
Historically these loaves were heavy and unleavened, made of barley or oatmeal, and cooked over a stone griddle in a fire. They were also used in rituals to celebrate the changing of the seasons and may have even played a part in the deciding of potential victims’ fates during human sacrifices during the late Iron Age. Fortunately for everyone, ritual human sacrifice is no longer widespread in Scotland, and current versions of the much more palatable bread use baking powder or soda to lighten it up.
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