Reviving Berlin's Comfort Food - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Reviving Berlin's Comfort Food

Reviving Berlin's Comfort Food

By Constanze Nauhaus and Marius Elfering

Bakers at work in a German Army field bakery in 1916.


Because old-fashioned foods, sometimes expensive to make, have a place on the modern plate and palate.

By Constanze Nauhaus and Marius Elfering

What would life be without Butterbrot? Sandwiches — literally, buttered bread. To borrow a phrase from Loriot, the German humorist, referring to life to without pugs: possible, but senseless. Even Martin Luther appreciated the bread with topping and mentioned the “Putterpomme” as a beloved childhood food in a letter from 1525. And what person from Berlin doesn’t remember Mother’s simple answer to the question, what’s for dinner? Sandwiches.

Sandwiches were often served in the home of Jessica Horn. And there was no doubt in her mind as to what she would call her own shop. For two years now, the 35-year-old from Potsdam has been running the lunch café Stulle mit Brot (Sandwich with Bread) at Savignyplatz in Charlottenburg, together with Jessyka Mathuschek, also from Potsdam. Here, there are soups and quiches, fresh cheesecakes, but above all sandwiches. “They used to be the best thing,” Horn says with delight. “When Mother brought home fresh bread, cut the crusts off and spread liverwurst nice and thickly for you!”

With a sandwich, you know what you’re getting.

— Jessica Horn, owner of Stulle mit Brot

The love of a sandwich led the two friends, who met while studying business management, to the little shop in the historical city train arch with the cozy brick vault. By then, they had harbored the plan for their own cafe for awhile. But what would work? “As children we both loved to eat sandwiches,” says Horn. “And they’re simply a true piece of Berlin.” Mainly nearby office workers sit here at lunchtime at one of the high tables at the window or the wall, a soup of the day in front of them and beside it a large sandwich with salted butter. This immediately passes the Berlin palate test. Still warm from the oven, the inside of the sourdough bread from wheat and rye is moist and fluffy, the crust crispy.

But the bread goes with more than just butter. At Stulle mit Brot is a broad selection of spreads and toppings, most of them homemade, regional and organic. The offerings range from vegan chutney and homemade cream cheese with leek and honey to Alpine cheese with arugula and fig mustard, and juniper-wood-smoked bacon with cabbage and gherkin. “The best seller is our tuna cream,” says Horn. “Simple is tastiest, without much pretentiousness. With a sandwich, you know what you’re getting.” But it is becoming increasingly difficult for normal people to get hold of good bread, says Horn. The rise of bakery shops on every street corner is resulting in the quality of bread going downhill.

A thickly cut farmhouse bread still has that certain something.

— Marlene Richter, owner of Die Stulle

This is an opinion shared by Jörn Persicke. “At every corner there is stone-baked bread at prices which lead one to conclude that they cannot be of high quality,” says the 44-year-old from Berlin. For almost 15 years, he has been running Die freundliche Butterstulle (The Friendly Sandwich), a café and health food shop rolled into one, on Marienstraße in Berlin Mitte. Despite the name, there are no sandwiches here. “In the beginning, we tried it for quite a while,” says Persicke. But there was no demand. As a result, salad, quiche and soup can be enjoyed here at lunchtime, as well as warm meals of the day. But what is disdained by the hip lunch guests in Mitte is appreciated by Berlin’s political elite: Persicke caters in the Bundestag, in various ministries and in the Federal Press Office, and the most popular order is sandwiches.

A baker visually inspecting manufactured bread in an industrial bakery in Germany.

A baker inspects manufactured bread in an industrial bakery in Germany.

Source Michael Rosenfeld/Corbis

“I always say that we have to go back to the roots, to the basic product of bread,” says the owner of the Charlottenburg shop Die Stulle (The Sandwich), Marlene Richter. Since April 2013, she’s been focusing on high-quality sandwiches, with everything handmade by a selected baker. Customers can refine the sandwiches with herbs or spices themselves. “A thickly cut farmhouse bread still has that certain something,” says Richter. She would never eat bread from mass production. It’s far too cheap, she says, nothing good can be produced at such prices.

Of course, it’s precisely these discount products that are on the rise. Nevertheless, she’s certain that home-baked bread continues to be important to many people. And she knows exactly what makes a good sandwich. “The bread has to taste great even without butter,” she says.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories