Without giving too much away my adventures in bread took me yesterday to Cologne (or Köln as it properly is in German).
There I met up with my old friend Dan Schickentanz, a.k.a. Dan DeGustibus and with Michael Zimmermann to record a segment for my forthcoming BBC Radio 4 series about bread.
Michael’s family have run this bakery in the city for almost 140 years. It’s not the grandest or most celebrated bakery in Germany, but he has a loyal following in Cologne and people there value what he does. And while people may not travel from far and wide to buy his bread, Kölners living elsewhere in Germany ask the Bäckerei Zimmermann to ship its bread across the country to wherever they may be. It’s a taste of home. In short it’s telling that a baker as good as Michael is not particularly remarkable in Germany, rather his excellence is typical of bakers in a country that values good bread.
It’s hard to walk around a city like Cologne and not be struck by the marvellous displays in bakery windows – even the windows of the chains. The loaves are richly dark, have a shiny glaze and come in a variety of shapes, sizes and types. German bakeries are the anti-Greggs. They are on the side of goodness and light just as Greggs seem to be on the side of pumping ghastly heaven knows what trans-fats into an evermore unhealthy British population. For all the Kolsch (the local beer) they drink Kölners are a pretty slim bunch.
As if the joy of hooking up with Michael and Dan wasn’t enough after we left the Bäckerei Zimmerman, Dan and I sat down for a coffee. While Dan was enjoying the facilities in the café I looked for a seat outside. A gentleman spoke to me in German and I apologised. ‘I’m afraid I’m English’ I said.
‘That’s OK,’ he said in a soft accent; ‘I’m Scottish’. So Dan and I sat down with the charming and remarkable Mr Percy Jack, whose vitality and wit utterly belied his 88 years.
Percy, whose mother was German, recalled how he had been comforted as a wee child in Edinburgh with pieces of German black bread and played in the bakery owned by a neighbour. His memory of the bakery was vivid, the sourdough rising overnight, the taste that stayed with him a lifetime.
Dan was as charmed as I. Percy not only knew what he was talking about but brought the most extraordinarily long perspective to it. I had my microphone with me but being a modest gentleman of the old school was only just persuaded to allow me to take these photographs of him. I fear a mic might have stopped him in his tracks, so I have to trust my memory of what he told us.
Percy, in turn, was thrilled to have the company, in the shape of Dan, of a champion baker, and one who shares his views on the sanctity of a properly crafted loaf.
Happier serendipity I have not enjoyed in a long while. Leaving Percy after two of the most pleasant hours I have passed Dan and I eventually would up at the Paffgen brewery and rounded off a wonderful day with several glasses of Kolsch – Kolsch being what Kölners drink.