Written by Joseph M Gaffney
Certainly St. John did not have German Konditorei delicacies in mind when he wrote his Gospel, but, given the attendance at German Konditoreien every Sunday afternoon following religious services, it’s entirely possible that his phrase puts a majority of Protestant and Catholic churchgoers in mind of their local pastry shop.
What makes a Konditorei special?
Konditoreien are more than pastry shops. They are a German cultural tradition, and their patrons deem their particular Konditorei to be both unique and the paragon of their class. Regardless of how old one becomes or how far they now live from the Konditorei to which their parents took them as children, no Konditorei measures up to the mouth-watering delights of their first Konditorei experience. One remembers one’s first Konditorei as one remembers their first kiss, the first time they rode a bicycle without training wheels, and their first Christmas. It is that sort of memory.
The Development of Bakeries
Like everything of quality in Germany, Konditoreien developed gradually and deliberately over many, many years. It all began with bakers’ refining their bread-making techniques. Starting with hearty farmhouse bread (“Bauernbrot”), the bakers gradually added ingredients to create bread that would delicately tempt many different palates. Always experimenting, the avid bakers first added sugar, then raisins, then other candied fruits and zests. Indeed, the word Konditorei comes from two combined Latin sources: conditure, which means candy, and condire, which means flavoring.
As the bakers’ skills improved and as their rivalries and competitions arose, the bakers’ imaginations seemed to be boundless. Until now, we’ve reached a point that, at the end of a hearty meal, diners can enjoy a wide selection of gorgeous, well-frosted cakes made with many eggs and nuts, coffee cakes made from sweet yeast dough, cookies, many other pastries, and even ice cream to top off their meal along with plenty of hot, fresh, strong coffee or steaming hot chocolate.
What began as a desire to improve the craft of baking morphed into an artistic endeavor that fed the soul as well as the body. The enjoyment of the delicacies of one’s local Konditorei with family and friends became a rite of passage, almost a religious ritual, that encapsulated family and, by extension, German society in a cocoon of well-being—and it all tasted sooooooooo good!
These specialist bakers began to call themselves Lebküchler, perhaps an awkward blending of Leben (life) and Kuchen (cake). Whatever the derivation, these former craftsmen had become artists and their creations have become an integral part of German culture. These artists founded a guild in 1643 in Nürnberg and, eventually, their shops became modern-day Konditoreien.
The Introduction of Spices and Herbs from Overseas
What we now understand as globalization is not a modern phenomenon. It existed millennia ago, as early as the 5th century, and is now distinguished more by its rapidity than by its pervasiveness. Perhaps the most interesting and well-known example of early globalization is Marco Polo, who traveled in the 13th century to and from China over a period of 24 years, from 1271 until 1295. The so-called age of discovery, which spanned the 15th-18th centuries, brought sugar, herbs, and spices from around the world to Europe and the Lebküchlern adapted them to their art. They had many home-grown flavorings, e.g., honey, that they used efficiently and imaginatively. The chief interest of the Lebküchlern was not only for sugar, but also for herbs and spices that improved their pastries, e.g., cinnamon, aniseed, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, clove, nutmeg, coriander, allspice, and various nuts, e.g., almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts.
The introduction of almonds in the 14th century was a boon for both the Lebküchlern and their customers, for it brought about marzipan, a delightful paste of ground almonds and either honey or sugar. It is probably the most versatile and most anticipated sweetmeat on its own as well as a much-loved component of icing for cakes, for fruitcakes, wedding cakes, and Christmas cakes and stollen. It’s often fashioned into animal figurines, covered with chocolate, and stuffed into tartlets. A typical German use of marzipan is forming it into the shape of a loaf of bread, known as Marzipanbrot, during the Advent and Christmas season, and shaping it into a pig as a New Year’s present referred to as a Glücksschwein, i.e., a lucky pig. One of the most popular uses of marzipan is in conjunction with the classically famous Window Cake or Battenberg Cake, a light sponge cake, constructed with pieces of yellow and pink cake held together with apricot jam and covered with marzipan.
An Overview of the Authors personal Favourites
All of these wonderful desserts and more are available regularly or seasonally at Konditoreien throughout Germany. Here are some of the most famous delights Konditoreien offer. I hope they entice you to visit as many Konditoreien as possible whenever you’re in Germany. These include Aachener Printen, a pastry available only in Aachen; a Berliner, a jelly-filled specialty of Berlin; Zwetschgenkuchen, a plum short-crust sheet cake; Black Forest Cake, comprising several layers of chocolate cake interlaced with whipped cream and cherries; Welfenspeise, a layered pudding with a bottom layer of beaten egg, vanilla, and milk and a top layer of an egg-wine sauce; Donauwelle, a marble-like sheet cake with sour cherries, buttercream, cocoa, chocolate, and layered batter; Spaghettieis, a unique German ice cream fashioned to look like spaghetti; Gugelhupf, a marble-like Bundt cake; Rote Grütze, a fresh red-berry fruit pudding; and Mohnklöße, a poppy-seed based dessert that includes dried figs, raisins, apricots, dates, etc., almonds and hazelnuts, flavored with sugar, honey, vanilla, cinnamon, and rum combined with a boiled milk-bread base. These are just a few of the treats on offer.
By now it should be crystal clear that Konditoreien are a big deal in Germany. In fact, they’re such a big deal in German culture that the Austrian composer Strauss, as loved in Germany as in Austria and Switzerland, paid homage to Konditoreien with his 1922 ballet Schlagobers (Whipped Cream), inspired by the cultural joy and love Germans have for their Konditoreien.