The Bagelisation of Berlin




Anne Thomas reports on the growing trend for high-quality bagels in Berlin...

There was a time when it was impossible to buy a bagel in Berlin. Indeed, it was almost as impossible as sleeping a “bagel” in Berlin (the expression hails from New York yeshivas and means to sleep 12 hours straight) - an impressive feat in a town that parties 24/7.

Today, there are whole chains dedicated to the bagel, such as Bagel Brothers and the Bagel Company, and you’ll also find them at Dunkin’Donuts, McDonalds and bakeries everywhere. But are these real bagels? Not according to a group of expats who are upping the ante, and joining forces to properly “bagelise” Berlin.

So what, exactly, is a bagel? Essentially, it’s a ring-shaped bread with a hole that is made from flour, water and yeast. Depending on the school of thought, salt or sweeteners such as barley malt, honey or sugar can be added, as well as eggs, milk or butter. A bagel is always boiled before being baked at a high temperature.

Legends abound about the origins of the bagel. According to Maria Balinska’s “The Bagel, the Surprising History of Modest Bread”, a Jewish Viennese baker first made a bread roll in the shape of a stirrup (“buegl" in German) to express his gratitude to Polish King John III after Vienna was rescued from Turkish invasion in 1683. Other sources mention an edict issued in Krakow prior to this (in 1610) that instructed all women to be given a bagel during childbirth.

Whatever the truth, what seems clear is that the bagel as we know it today - and the quintessential bagel sandwich - were perfected in New York and Montreal by East European Jews who had emigrated to the American continent in the wake of discrimination and pogroms.

It was in these cities that the bagel began to be taken seriously in its own right, and the discovery was made that it could be greatly improved when combined with a cream cheese spread (a schmear) - and enhanced all the more when paired with smoked salmon, or lox - an Americanised version of the Yiddish world for salmon “laks”. Some argue that the bagel sandwich’s popularity was also due to the fact that it broke no kosher rules.

Over the years, the lines for bagels at Barney Greengrass, Russ & Daughters, Zabars and H&H, as well as many other illustrious institutions in New York, got longer and longer. While for some, like my American Jewish friends, bagels are an important part of Jewish life, for many non-Jews in America today, bagels are simply a breakfast food and they know very little about the Jewish origins.
Barcomi’s

In her book, Balinska pinpoints the decisive moment when the bagel “formally shed its ethnicity” and became “all-American” to 1985. And it was as an all-American product that Cynthia Barcomi introduced bagels to Berlin nine years later, in 1994, as well as a huge variety of other baked goods, from brownies to muffins to apple pie.

“For most consumers, what’s relevant is that it tastes good, not whether it’s Jewish…,” states Barcomi on the wet, windy day that I meet her in her store on Bergmannstraße in Kreuzberg, where I am immediately enveloped in the smells of freshly-brewed coffee, sweetness and spice. These smells transport me to the suburban New York kitchen in which my grandmother would bake cheesecake and lemon meringue pie for me as a child.

The bagel flavours at Barcomi’s range from classic sesame and poppy but also more adventurous flavours such as 'spicy' and 'chocolate chip'. Not blueberry, though, because “that’s not right.” Yet there seems to be no problem straying from what is “right” when it comes to schmears; Barcomi's black bean spread is far from orthodox but damned good, and she also serves hummus - as well as Philadelphia for the purists.

Barcomi's idea of the perfect bagel is in line with that of many New Yorkers: “A poppy seed bagel lightly toasted with Philadelphia cream cheese with smoked Scottish salmon, very thin slices of red onion and slices of red tomato, with a tiny bit of sea salt and pepper. If I ate that on a Sunday with coffee and had the New York Times, I would be speechless. I would literally be in heaven because its like a symphony - it’s the perfect combination of taste, texture, colour and flavour - you cannot improve on that.”

Barcomi emphasises the importance of the hole size in bagels. “Holes are like belly buttons, they have different sizes,” she explains. “You need to be sure that the hole in the middle is not too big. The hole has to be neither too big nor too small - if it’s too small it won’t bake properly, it will steam itself in the oven, you need some air and you need to see the seam.

And how does she rate her bagels? Are they the best? “Absolutely. We do the best we can, rolling them by hand and baking them fresh every day.”

“Cream cheese and lox. Dairy meets something that is almost meat but which isn’t. This is my idea of a bagel,” avers Andreas Pfeffer of Salomon Bagels.

Although Barcomi was the first in Berlin, Pfeffer wasn’t far behind. In 1995, he started selling bagels ordered from New York’s legendary H&H in various Berlin outlets, and opened his own shop in Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf just a year later; his firm now makes a staggering 150,000 bagels a month that are delivered across Germany and Europe.

An archaeologist by profession, the slightly balding, middle-aged Pfeffer started out in the food business by selling another all-American classic - the donut. “Then I discovered bagels,” he tells me as we sit in his Kreuzberg bakery and await the morning’s first batch of bagels ready for tasting.“I’m from a Jewish family and this product had more depth. I had always searched for depth in donuts and found none, but bagels were right for me.”

He learnt how to make them in Montreal and New York, bought a Canadian bagel machine and opened up. “I chose the name Salomon for several reasons,” he explains. “There’s a Jewish tradition which says I’m a ruler and not only a victim and I wanted to come away from the victim tradition. Solomon is also associated with wisdom.” Indeed, Salomon Bagels’ motto is: “Wisdom you can eat”.

Salomon’s website goes deeper into bagelology: “The bagel is a circle that links, connects. It represents a cycle - the end of a year and another one beginning. In its production, the bagel connects water and fire. It also links east and west - it rolled from Poland to the US with Jewish emigrants and has come back to Europe. It connects Russia and America, Germans and Jews.”

Like Barcomi, Pfeffer has a clear opinion regarding the size of the bagel hole.“It corresponds to a particular sense of harmony,” says Pfeffer as we tuck into a bagel fresh out of the oven, covered with goat’s cheese and smoked trout.

“You just feel when it is the right size. If the dough is too thin, it looks miserable and if it’s too thick then it becomes a kind of bread roll. There has to be a certain harmony between the hole and the dough. You know when the proportions are right. But although it begins with a hole - symbolising nothingness, emptiness, death - the visible seam represents connection…”

Paradoxically, for somebody who has put so much thought into the bagel and has embraced its Jewish identity, Pfeffer is also partly responsible for the phenomenon that has prompted a new generation of bagel makers in Berlin: young Americans who feel that bagels in Berlin are simply not the real thing.

“They’re everywhere, but they’re wrong,” tuts Laurel Kratochvila from Fine Bagels, an atmospheric café located in her husband’s gorgeous Prenzlauer Berg bookstore Shakespeare and Sons, a second branch of which opened earlier this year in Friedrichshain.

Laurel is a young, lean, fairly shy American with long brown hair, and a wry sense of humour. I sit with her at one of the bookshop’s wooden tables, surrounded by shelves lined with English and French novels and works of history, philosophy and theology. It’s so cosy and laid back, it feels like I’m sitting in the library room in an English country home. She has prepared for me a double sesame bagel with a horseradish beet schmear and smoked salmon, which I devour while she laments the city’s bagel situation.

“Bagels here are already prepared,” she sneers, as if there were no worse crime imaginable. “You’ll see them cold on the shelf, slathered with mayonnaise, a bit of dried tomato hidden inside it, maybe some ham, some sad lettuce…It’s an abuse of a bagel and frankly if that was the only bagel I knew I wouldn’t eat bagels.”

“I take offence at those sad old bagels sitting outside all day. For me, it’s not about bringing a Jewish product to Berlin but bringing a wonderful food that I hate seeing misrepresented. It seems that the Berlin definition of a bagel is a bread roll with a hole in the middle whereas a bagel is a lot more than that. I was unable to find one to my satisfaction in this city, so I started doing them myself.”

After a year of testing recipes, she started selling her own bagels, adopting the motto “We Keep it Real” and choosing a name inspired by her grandmother (whose maiden name is Fine). Purists can opt for a classic sesame, poppy, onion, garlic or everything bagel, while the more adventurous might order a chernushka (nigella seeds) or zaatar. Those with a sweet tooth can choose between cinnamon raisin or cinnamon sugar. And the cream cheese range includes plain, chive, avocado, horseradish beet and fig.

A bagel with a schmear “as it should be” will set you back a mere 2.70 euros - a steal for a bagel that's for me the best in town and comparable to my favourite places in New York. Laurel recommends getting there earlyish. “The best time here is 10 in the morning for bagels fresh out of the oven,” she says, her eyes lighting up. “It smells like a dream in here - sun comes through the window, illuminates the bagels, it’s magic…”

On the other side of the city, Kreuzberg’s Five Elephant has already made a name for itself with great coffee, fair-trade sourced from all over the globe, and a city-famous cheesecake. But owners Kris Schackman - another friendly young American - and his Austrian wife Sophie Weigsamer have also been producing some serious bagels. And for the same reasons as Laurel at Shakespeare & Sons.

“It’s true there are no good bagels in Berlin,” Kris tells me. “I wanted to eat them and that’s why we started making them here, although we are keeping them simple as we are a coffee shop, not a deli….”

It almost didn’t happen at all. As an eight-year-old, Kris cut his finger trying to cut a bagel in half, and Sophie’s first ever bagel experience - in Vienna - was “not good…it was complicated and I told myself it was my last bagel ever. Then I went to New York and the taste was so good, I was reconciled…”

After experimenting with garlic and onions, the pair decided to keep it simple as it was easier on their colleagues in terms of breath - and they’re also not going to be serving fish with their bagels any time soon. Customers currently have the choice of cream cheese or butter and jam - both incredibly delicious in their simplicity - though the pair are not completely averse to expanding their range.

By chance I was with them (and their bagel bakers Vanessa and Sarah) when they tested out their very first batch of blueberry bagels: a pleasant violet-blue colour, with perfectly crunchy crusts and doughy insides, they had a gentle, subtle flavour that made me hanker for something stronger, like cinnamon and raisin.

Two Planets, an airy minimalist space with wooden floorboards and vintage lamps in Neukölln’s Hermannstraße is one of the latest cafes to offer New York City-style, handrolled boiled bagels, “made fresh daily”.

The café was founded and is run by Kyra LaMariana, a Manhattan native who had never baked a bagel in her life before she decided to start selling them to Berliners. “I only made them twice before I opened,” she admits. “I found a recipe and read it at home for a week and a half. Then I made six and another batch. My boyfriend and I tasted them. And I opened.”

At Two Planets you can either have Kyra’s favourite, “an everything bagel toasted with cream cheese on the side because I like dipping it in - I like a lot of cream cheese", or a New York classic with sensational salmon from Glut & Späne which is served in a closed sandwich cut in half (“no open-faced bagels. I just don’t believe in them”); if you want capers and onions too you’ll be charged extra.

While there is definitely room for improvement with Two Planet's bagels, they're still above the average fare that's offered around Berlin. Although it will make the purists wince, Kyra has developed a marvellous waste-saving habit of turning any left over day-old bagels into…French toast!

While the availability of 'high end', authentic bagels still isn't quite at the same level as, say, the trendy burger or third wave coffee scenes in Berlin, the movement is growing inexorably. More and more outlets are popping up around the city, reducing the need to order anything that's sad and sorry looking.

And that has to be a Fine thing.