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The Village Baker and His Pretzels

A few days before I visited baker Arnd Erbel in his southern German bakery, a Hamburg newspaper described him as a “bread god.” Erbel’s breads are renowned among baking connoisseurs and served in many of Germany’s best restaurants, but he was not comfortable with deification. “I’m not a bread god,” he told me in his bakery kitchen after I arrived. He sees himself more as bread’s humble servant: “My being is here to help with sourdough.”

With his bald head and round glasses Erbel appears more monkish than almighty. It was fitting, then, that he was baking (as they are called in Bavaria), German-style soft pretzels, a baked good that originated in European monasteries in the Middle Ages. While Americans tend to see soft pretzels as a simple snack eaten at ballparks or mall food courts, Germans cherish them as a national symbol. Pretzels were once so special that Medieval painters would dab a few on the table of the Last Supper, and for centuries, pretzel-shaped signs were the emblem of bakers and their guilds, hanging above doorways as a symbol that you could find fresh-baked breads inside. Today, you can find them at the counter of any German bakery or beer hall, but also around the world: No other German food item has

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