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HEALTH

How Germany’s marvellous bread helped me overcome food anxiety

Back in the UK, Rachel Loxton avoided eating bread after reading too many articles on its alleged health risks. But seeing how readily Germans snacked on wholegrain Schrippen caused her to re-evaluate her attitude.

How Germany's marvellous bread helped me overcome food anxiety
Photo: DPA

We've updated this to celebrate the Day of German Bread on May 5th 2020.

It was only as I bit into my second Laugenstange (pretzel stick) of the day that I realized I had rebuilt my problematic relationship with bread.

That was a few weeks ago, but for years I had tried to avoid any kind of bread, believing it was the root of my problems. It’s not that I had an intolerance to gluten and I’m not a sufferer of the debilitating coeliac disease. But I had read countless articles on why eating bread would lead to piling on weight and health difficulties.

I struggled with self-esteem and body confidence issues during my 20s and took these warnings to heart. Cheese on toast and tuna sandwiches were banned from my stomach, but this only led to cravings – and, looking back, it didn’t actually make me healthier at all, only more anxious.

Despite it being an integral part of our meals historically, bread today has become controversial and even a victim of the war against carbohydrates that rages in some parts of the world.

Yet in Germany, although the diet industry does exist, peoples’ love of bread seems to have endured. Thankfully, this has rubbed off on me and I am now no longer scared of a loaf.

READ ALSO: Five delicious breads you have to try in Germany

Brotzeit

I had only been in Berlin a few weeks when my first German flatmate arranged brunch or Brotzeit (literally bread time). We’d sit on the balcony of her Neukölln flat as friends brought over huge slabs of cheese, or apricot jam, fresh honey, cucumbers, fruit or pretend salami (for the veggies). There was every kind of spread available, from cream cheese to bright pink beetroot spread.

I watched in awe at how she laid out all the ingredients of the brunch with so much care, as if it was a theatre production. She would empty brown crinkly bags filled with Sonnenblumenkernbrötchen (sunflower seed rolls) or Kürbiskernbrötchen (pumpkin seed rolls) into a big bowl.

From Roggenbrot (rye bread) to Zwiebelbrot (onion bread) or Vollkornbrot (whole grain), there was never a shortage of carbohydrates.

To start with I was cautious and only nibbled on a small roll. It was only after several months of watching people in Germany eat up bready goodness with such gusto that I built up the courage to really enjoy it too.

'Quality and variety'

German bread is different to other kinds in Europe. It’s composed mainly of whole grains, like rye, spelt, millet and wheat, making it more dense than fluffy ciabatta or baguettes. It’s a huge part of the country’s food culture, from Munich to the Baltic Sea.

Bernd Kütscher, director of the German National Bakers Academy in Weinheim and head of the German Bread Institute in Berlin, says it’s the “quality and variety” that makes it special.

“While most countries only know wheat bread, we like to bake with rye, spelt and other grains that grow in different parts of Germany thanks to our different soil conditions,” he says.

Kütscher, who also runs a bread blog, adds that the rye needs to be mixed with sourdough, which helps to produce a distinct flavour and makes it easier to digest and conserve.

Bernd Kütscher. Photo: German National Bakers Academy

“In addition, only qualified master bakers are allowed to open a bakery in German,” he adds, emphasizing the skill needed to bake good bread.

Kütscher says the German Bread Institute has found that more than 3,200 different types of bread are offered in 11,000 German bakeries every day, which highlights its popularity.

Berlin-born writer Ursula Heinzelmann, author of Beyond Bratwurst, a History of Food in Germany, agrees that the choice is “legendary”.

“Germany is in the middle of a continent, we cover a lot of very different areas climatically, that makes not only for good bread, but great diversity of form,” says Heinzelmann. “That really is something special.”

Part of German culture

My ultimate favourite, I’ve learned, is Laugenbrötchen (pretzel buns), which taste salty and have a pleasing sheen to them like they’ve been varnished. This is the lye they’re dipped in.

But it’s not just traditional German bread I’ve fallen in love with. There are also many Middle Eastern supermarkets that sell huge breads covered in flour or poppy seeds. Dipped into a fresh dip like hummus or Paprikapaste, they can provide a nourishing meal when there’s no time to cook after a long day.

Kütscher says bread is “firmly established” in German culture, “starting with breakfast, break-time snack and ending with supper in the evening”.

In fact, the German way of having a big cooked meal for lunch and a lighter ‘evening bread spread’ or Abendbrot in the evening is one of the culinary habits I’ve picked up since arriving here almost a year and a half ago, along with maintaining strong eye contact when clinking glasses and saying ‘Prost’ before a sip of beer.

SEE ALSO: Prost! Why Germans make eye contact when they clink glasses

It’s clear in Germany that bread is king – you only have to look at the queues in bakeries with their mouth-watering goods. But has it always been this way?

Heinzelmann, who grew up in West Berlin, can remember bread being a huge part of her childhood menu. “The typical everyday bread was a large sourdough loaf with a bit of wheat – Mischbrot,” she says. “We would have called it grey bread which was not a derogatory term. It’s not white, it’s not black, it’s Graubrot.”

“Rolls were only for the weekend or special occasions. Something special and more expensive than bread.”

However, Heinzelmann points out that not all bread is equal and hopes that a new breed of artisan bakers will ensure quality is on offer in Germany.

“Nowadays you have, at every corner, the so-called bakers who are part of a larger chain and are really quite industrial. They have pre-baked doughs which they just finish.”

“We need a large base of affordable reliable quality at every corner for everybody.”

Photo: DPA

Journalist and author Samuel Fromartz, who worked at Weichardt Bakery in Berlin as part of his research on his book, In Search of the Perfect Loaf, says he found high quality bread on offer in Germany.

“There’s a bread culture in Germany so people eat and appreciate breads,” he says. “I love that you can buy pretty good bread all over.”

“Not all the bread I had in Germany was great but what I loved was the variety of breads and all the things they were doing with wholegrains, seeded loaves and how sourdough was essential to fermentation of their breads as opposed to just using commercial yeast.”

“All of that increases the spectrum of flavours and textures that you can get from bread.”

Fromartz says his favourite loaf is a Rogenweißen (rye wheat) from Weichardt. “It’s marvelous,” he says. “You have a couple of slices and it’s almost a meal in itself.”

'Everyone should eat bread'

Although I’m sure there are people who don’t like the wheat stuff, not one person I’ve met here yet has had a bad word to say about it. There also seem to be far fewer scare-mongering articles displaying how you can lose weight by ditching bread from your diet.

READ ALSO:

Kütscher says there is a trend in western media to sell “new nutritional wisdom” which creates uncertainty for people over what to eat.

But he says cutting out bread isn’t healthy. “Everyone should eat bread every day, including some wholegrain bread,” he says. “A hundred years ago people ate twice as much bread without being bigger than nowadays.”

For me, things changed when I left a city and job that made me unhappy and decided to take the plunge and move abroad. Perhaps shedding off the worries I’d built up led me to also ease up on my food anxieties and accept the German love of bread.

I’ve never looked back and I hope the popularity of bread in Germany continues. Eating Laugenstangen without guilt may be a small step for bread-kind, but it’s a giant leap for me.

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JOHN LICHFIELD

ANALYSIS: How sick is the French health system?

Amid warnings that parts of the French health system are on the verge of collapse and a new government plan for health reform, John Lichfield takes a look at exactly what - if anything - is wrong with healthcare in France.

ANALYSIS: How sick is the French health system?

Within 10 kilometres of my home in deepest, rural Normandy I have access to six doctors, a dozen nurses and a medical centre.

Two of the small towns within 30 kilometres have full-service hospitals. A little further away in Caen, there is one of the biggest and best hospitals in France.

Maybe I’m lucky. In the next département to the south, Orne, there are large areas where there are no doctors  at all – “medical deserts” as the French call them. One in ten French people has no GP or médecin traitant. Over 600,000 French people with chronic illnesses have no doctor.

Twenty years ago, the World Health Organisation declared the French health system to be the best in the world. In more recent surveys, France often comes in the top ten and sometimes in the top five.

You can hear John talking healthcare with the team at The Local in the latest episode of the Talking France podcast – download HERE or listen on the link below

And yet the French public hospital system is, we are told, close to collapse, exhausted by Covid and years of under-investment. Some GPs are threatening to go on strike for a doubling of their official fee of €25 for a consultation (less, as they point out, than you pay for a hair-cut or a manicure).

President Emmanuel Macron and his health minister, François Braun, agree that there is a problem. Macron is a doctor’s son. Braun is a doctor. They have diagnosed a number of problems; partly a shortage of money at the point where it is needed, partly chronic disorganisation and poor administration.

French health minister: We must reform the health system to reflect the France of today

President Macron, in his New Year message to health workers last month, promised that all the 600,000 sick people without a doctor would be offered one before the end of the year. He promised that there would be 10,000 “medical assistants” instead of 4,000 by the end of 2024.

He also promised an end to what he called the “hyper-rigidity” in the system of financing, administering and staffing of hospitals. (In other words, he gave no promise of extra money but the government has already committed to spending an additional €19 billion on hospitals over ten years.)

This is not just a French problem, as anyone who follows the news in Britain will know. All health systems in the world are struggling to cope with ageing populations, expensive advances in medical treatment and restraints on public spending.

The French health service is, overall, less impressive than it was 23 years ago when the WHO declared it to be the world’s finest. The same is probably true of all of the others.

The explanation for the French decline is partly universal and partly French; partly about money and partly about French politics, French attitudes and even French geography.

More than prescriptions: 10 things you can do at a French pharmacy

In purely financial terms, France  spends a huge amount of money on  health. Overall, the country invests 12.4 percent of its annual GDP on health care (mostly channelled through the state). This compares to 12.8 percent in Germany, 11.9 percent in the UK and 17.8 percent in the United States (much of it private).

In both GDP terms and cash terms, the amount has been rising despite the fact that investment in public hospitals was severely restrained for 15 years by Presidents Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande. In terms of health outcomes France, according to the OECD, remains the second best-performing country in the world, just behind Japan.

And yet there is something odd and unbalanced about how France spends money on health – an imbalance which has become more problematic as cash become scarcer.

Although France spends almost as much overall as Germany, it has fewer doctors and nurses and pays them far less. It has fewer hospital beds than Germany but many more hospitals.

The share of French health spending which goes on administration is 7 percent, compared to 5.5 percent in Germany.

The proliferation of hospitals is one explanation for this high admin burden. France has 4.42 hospitals for every 100,000 people, compared to 3.62 in Germany and 2.86 in the UK.

It should be remembered, however, that the number of hospitals is partly imposed by the fact that France is a comparatively large, empty country. Medium-size towns have their own hospital because it is a long drive by ambulance to a big city. Closing down rural hospitals would – rightly – provoke an outcry.

Even more striking – and less justified – is the French addiction to drugs and pharmacies. My neighbouring small towns in Normandy have two or three pharmacies each; almost every large street in Paris has at least one. It is scarcely surprising that medicines, and their distribution, account for 18 percent of all health spending in France, compared to 15 percent in Germany.

READ ALSO Why do the French love medication so much?

Another ‘French’ factor which has put enormous pressure on the French health service in the last two decades has been the 35-hour working week. Its effects on industry and office working have sometimes been benign; in the staffing of hospitals, it has been a calamity.

Macron in his New Year health address identified the application of the 35-hour week as one of the areas of “hyper-rigidity” in the administration of hospitals that he wanted to change this year. He has been accused of wanting to abolish the 35-hour week in the health service. That is not quite what he said.

As the more reasonable medical commentators’ admit, Macron (the doctor’s son) has done more for the French health service than his predecessors. Apart from the €19bn for hospitals, he has spent an extra €12bn on pushing up doctors’ and nurses’ incomes (which remain lower than they should be).

He also removed the absurd cap on the number of doctors which French medical schools were allowed to produce each year.

Macron is asking for trouble if he thinks he can resolve the present crisis without spending more money. But it is wrong to suggest, as some do, that France has the worst of all possible health services. 

The debate on the  French health service suffers from the same crippling ailment which afflicts other areas of political life in France: a catastrophism which ignores what is going well and fails to identify what needs to be changed.

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