One thing newcomers have got to learn about Germany is the importance of regional identities: That’s why I posted on state elections in Germany just last week. Especially for Brits, the sheer variation between different parts of this country is astonishing; Germany is far more American than British inasmuch as the capital city is not the be-all-and-end-all of everything – and every city has its own identity markers of which it is exceptionally proud.
So just as each American city has a nickname (Chi-Town, the Big Apple, etc) and a baseball team, no German city would be complete without a major football team, a regular episode of the long-running who-dunnit legend Tatort, and a trademark item of baked goods. Germany is, after all, well known for its penchant for baking, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
In Hamburg, this speciality is known as the Franzbrötchen. Just as with all good local German baked produce, it really is only available in the local area and is pretty much unknown as little as 25 miles away. Indeed, it’s already quite thin on the ground once you’ve crossed the River Elbe and are in the district of Harburg – Harburg is, after all, historically separate from Hamburg, and the realignment of unitary authorities and city boundaries has little effect on Germans’ carbohydrate consumption. Germans are fiercely local in their food choices – something I’ve also blogged about before.
So what is the Franzbrötchen? And what does it have to say about its home city?
First off, the Franzbrötchen is essentially a Danish pastry. That means that the dough is leavened with yeast, but does not rise like bread due to artery-clogging additions of butter. Like puff-pastry, the butter is incorporated through rolling and folding, creating layers that separate out during baking. The peculiarity of the Franzbrötchen consists in its being pasted with a sugar-cinnamon syrup before going into the oven; this caramelises into a delicious sticky-crunchy coating during the baking process.
The Franzbrötchen’s odd form, meanwhile, is a result of the dough being rolled up one last time and then flattened with the back of a spoon before heading off into the oven. This is similar to the way croissants are produced, the dough being rolled and pulled sideways to give them their characteristic form.
Indeed, legend has it that the Franzbrötchen, as the name suggests, was born out of the French occupation of Germany in the early nineteenth century, in which Hamburg was made into a military headquarters and garrison town. The story goes that the bakers tried to respond to the French soldiers’ desire for their traditional breakfast fare and imitated the croissant. However, they only knew how to make the kinds of heavy, highly-calorific doughs characteristic of Northern Europe and Scandinavia and so the “croissants” never took on the light and fluffy form they were meant to; and the bakers took to adding sweeteners and spices in an effort to salvage what they could.
Nevertheless, mistake or no, the fact that it is based on northern dough is probably why the Franzbrötchen is still popular today: this kind of dough has, after all, since taken the world by storm under the name of “Danish pastry” (in “The Simpsons,” Kent Brockman won’t read the news without one). It simply is a very tasty way of baking. Yet the closer you get to Denmark, the more ordinary it becomes: neither the Germans nor the Danes call Danishes Danish, having words in their own language for them (Plunderteig in German). Hamburg is only a few hundred clicks south of Copenhagen, and part of it used to belong to the northern neighbours, so Hamburgers have a taste for Scandinavian stuff like herrings, heavy rye-bread and indeed sickly-sweet cinnamon-related baked produce. They also have bread-rolls called Rundstücke, which comes from the Danish rundstykker.
What the fact that they call their Danishes “French rolls” might tell us about Hamburg, though, is that Hamburgers like to be seen as cosmopolitan and to feel themselves as closer to Paris and the South than to the dark North. You’ve only to go walking through upscale neighbourhoods like Harvestehude to see the French influence on architecture – even the U-Bahn stop at Klosterstern is clearly modelled on the Paris métro.
Furthermore, listening to the language people use reveals remnants of aspiration to the class and style so often associated with France: In Hamburg, people who want to look classy say Kaffee with a stressed /e/, talk about Amüsement (pronounced “Amüsemang”) instead of Spaß and are d’accord where other Germans are einverstanden.
So while the French soldiers may have laughed at the hopelessly crude attempts to ape their fine cuisine, the people of Hamburg probably thought they were being very cultured in eating their Franzbrötchen. And when they taste as good as they do, I’m not gonna be the one to burst their bubble.