“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.”
Home is where the bread is. Just think of childhood memories and you’ll realize that very few things in the world evoke home as much as the smell of freshly baked bread. But this smell can be very different from one European country to another. The soft and warm smell of the French baguette has little in common with the strong and dry odour of Norwegian Fjellbrød, or the herbal, salty Italian Focaccia. The memories associated with German Bretzel differ substantially from those of Hungarian Zsemle or Bulgarian Pitka. All types of bread they may be, but each evokes different experiences and recollections – and each is the result of a specific savoir-faire integrating centuries of tradition and culture. This diversity is precisely what makes Europe so rich and beautiful. That’s why a compendium of European breads was much needed – not least to pay tribute to this rich heritage. So be prepared! If you thought you knew which side your bread was buttered, go ahead on an exclusive European tour of breads: it’s the best thing since sliced you-know-what…
Let’s start with the quintessential of Portuguese breads: the Papo Secos, which is the most popular bread eaten all over the country both in homes and a staple at every restaurant. This bread roll literally translates as “dry throat” and is hard and crusty on the outside and soft and airy on the inside. It just consist of 3 ingredients – flour, water and salt (no oil or sugar is used). Those crusty bread rolls are just perfect for sandwiches and for absorbing sauces, or as a side for soups and stews. Papo Secos were originally baked in brick ovens heated with firewood. Portugueses better eat it fresh as it comes out of the oven, or toast it the day after. The Papo Secos are so much part of Portuguese culture and gastronomy that often people will say “I have a “Papo Seco”” to say that they need something to drink!
Let’s now move on to the northwest corner of Spain, Galicia, to taste the barra gallega, a crispy bread with light airy crumb. This traditional rustic bread with 500 years of history keeps fresh for longer thanks to its long fermentation. The lower salt content helps to keep the crispiness longer. Its the perfect artisan bread! In the early period of Hebrew history, pilgrims from all over Europe left their homes to travel along ‘The Way of St James’ or ‘The Pilgrims Road’ with a common goal: to reach Santiago de Compostela, one of the two main pilgrimage centers of the world. It is believed the gallega bread was a daily gift from every village along the road to Santiago to each pilgrim, whilst they traveled through Spain, to keep them from going hungry on their journey.
How could the French live without their baguette ? Let’s be honnest: the baguette is an integral part of our collective psyche related to the French and remains one of the most common stereotypes associated with them. If you’ve never tasted it -or in other words, if you live on another planet- it’s a thin, elongated loaf, made of water, flour, yeast, salt, instantly recognizable by slits cut in top surface before baking to allow gas expansion. Did you know that the word Baguette was not used to refer to a type of bread until 1920? Of course, they are much older than their actual name: long, if wide, loaves had been made since the time of King Louis XIV, long thin ones since the mid-eighteenth century and by the nineteenth century some were far longer than the current baguette.
Icelanders never do it like the others! When they bake their traditional rye bread, also called Rúgbrauð, they do it in natures geothermal ovens! Everything is actually said in the name of this surprising bread : Rúgbrauð simply means ‘Rye Bread cooked in a geyser’. It may sounds astonishing but those breads are indeed cooked for 24 hours in the steam from a geyser. Due to its long slow cooking process, they are very dark, dense and moist. For the full experience, Rúgbrauð are truly delicious topped with smoked salmon or lamb. But do not worry: if you obviously don’t have access to a geyser to cook them in, you can make this in a normal oven too. Oh, I forgot! Excessive consumption of this bread is said to cause flatulence, earning it its nickname þrumari which roughly translates as “thunderbread”. Classy! But you can’t say you’ve not been properly informed!
Throw away your yeast! Because in Ireland, you don’t need this leavening agent to bake the yummy Irish Soda Bread! Use sodium bicarmonate instead, and mix it with flour, bread soda, salt, and buttermilk! Filling and wholesome, Irish Soda Bread pops up at almost every meal, and is so universal that the more common wholemeal version is generally known simply as brown or wheaten bread. In Ireland, “plain” soda bread is as likely to be eaten as an accompaniment to a main meal (to soak up the gravy) as it’s likely to appear at breakfast. It comes in two main colors, brown and white, and two main types: cake and farl. The advantage of this quick bread is its ability to be prepared quickly and reliably, without requiring the time-consuming skilled labor and temperature control needed for traditional yeast breads.
As usual with our British friends, history is not far when it comes to gastronomy. This is in particular the case for their Coburg Loaf – a style of round crusty white wheatflour bread loaf formed without a tin and with crown-like radial slashes around the top. The Coburg loaf became popular in the Victorian era, and the loaf was presumably named after Queen Victoria’s hubby Prince Albert Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, as many things were in those days. The British public were fascinated by the royal couple, and really took to many German traditions. Another explanation is that a German baker living in London, as many did, gave it his family name, though no baker actually knows who this was. The loaves themselves were certainly around before the Victorian era, centuries earlier in fact.
If you’re all about a dense and hearty loaf of bread that’s free of sugar and crammed with tasty grains and seeds, and if you want to bake said loaf at home with ingredients in the pantry, the Fjellbrød, a Norwegian mountain bread, is all what you need: it ticks all the boxes and is also incredibly simple to make. There’s no dough-kneading, proofing, or even oven pre-heating required – just measure, stir, bake. There are all sorts of seeds in it, there is no white flour but a mixture of whole-wheat and rye flour, plus, there are rolled oats. In regular, basic bread recipes, there is always some time when you leave the bread dough to rise, and most of the time you also have to leave it for final proofing. But this bread does not need any of that!
Let’s now head up to the North, deep into one of the coldest regions of Europe: northern Sweden! There, we will be able to enjoy the Tunnbröd, or “Thin bread”, which properly belongs to northern Swedish cuisine where housewives used to share a common bakery to produce it. As the name implies the bread is very thin, for some historical and climatic reasons (for the full history, I suggest you have a look at this article). Tunnbröd can either be baked a short time to become a soft bread which Swedes roll and eat ‘burrito style’, that is to say, combined with mashed potatoes and roasted herring. Or it can be baked a little longer and become a harder bread similar to “knäckebread”. Either way, it tastes awesome and it is perfect for picnics, breakfasts and dinner – year-around.
The Danes are world famous for their love of Rugbrød. This particular kind of nutritional brown rye bread can be found in all supermarkets and local bakeries across Denmark. What makes this bread so special is that it’s very low in fat, contains no oil or sugar and is rich in whole grain and dietary fibre. It is considered by many Danes as a much healthy alternative to whiter types of bread. This is a simple bread that can be made with no special equipment aside from a long, narrow pan. The original recipe calls for baking the bread in a 13 inch Pullman pan, which is a tall narrow pan with a lid, usually used to make pain de mie. Rich and tangy, Rugbrød is delicious paired with a slice of aged cheese and some lacto fermented veggies.
Is it a Tiger? Is it a Giraffe? No! It’s a Dutch Crunch Bread, the so-called Tijgerbrood! Inside, it’s a regular white loaf of bread, fluffy and chewy, but outside it has crunchy spots — like a tiger! It’s easy to see how it got that name. The tiger spots are created by covering the dough with a slurry of rice flour, sugar, yeast and toasted sesame oil. The fragrance of the sesame is fantastic and the slightly sweet crispy bits on the loaf are hard to resist picking off and snacking on before you ever cut into the bread. This bread originated in The Netherlands, where it has been sold at least since the early 1970s, but it’s also now popular in the United Kingdom, in San Francisco and other parts of the US West Coast. Just for once in gastronomy, our Dutch friends may have the most appetizing dish in our list!
While everyone in Belgium is familiar with the Pistolet as this delicious puffy bread roll with the slit down the middle, a soft core and trademark crisp crust, the truth is, it did not always have this form or this crispness: it took several centuries for it to reach adulthood and become this tasty. What about its name? It is supposed to come from the price (one pistole, an early type of coin) or from the latin word pistor, meaning ‘miller’, which by semantic shift in the Middle Ages came to designate the baker. That being said, it is an essential part of the food heritage of Belgium for young and old alike to enjoy. The Pistolet is as Belgian as Tintin, the Manneken Pis or the Atomium and always will be! Don’t try to ask for it abroad, the baker will think it’s a hold-up…
The ideal Pretzel, as served in Germany, has a dark brown, crispy, salty crust, and inside a soft dough. It has a plump “body”, and thin, crispy (not dry) crossed “arms.” Though the exact origins of the Bretzel -with a B in German- remain mysterious, legend has it that the story began around A.D. 610, when Italian monks presented their young students with treats of baked dough twisted in the shape of crossed arms. At the time, crossing one’s arms was the traditional posture for prayer. As the custom spread through medieval Europe, the pretzel’s three holes came to represent the Holy Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and the twisty baked good became associated with good luck, long life and prosperity. Pretzels today continue to be formed by hand as has been done throughout history. Bakers spend years perfecting the pretzel-forming technique, so enjoy them!
They are small, lovely, crunchy and belongs to the great folklore of Austria. No, I am not talking about some Austrian Fairy tales or creatures but the world-famous Wiener Kaisersemmel –or in English, the ‘Vienna roll bread’. They are typically crusty round bread rolls made from white flour, yeast, malt, water and salt, with the top side usually divided in a symmetric pattern of five segments resembling a crown. Kaiser rolls have existed in this recognizable form at least since prior to 1760. They are thought to have been named to honor Emperor (Kaiser) Franz Joseph I of Austria (1830–1916). With its monarchal connotation, Kaiser rolls stood out against common rolls known as Mundsemmeln (“mouth rolls”) or Schustersemmeln (“cobbler rolls”). They are traditionally found in Austria, but have also become popular in other countries of the former Austrian Habsburg Empire.
The Swiss love good bread and they are excellent bakers. On Sundays they love to eat the Butter-Zopf, a soft milk bread baked in the form of a plait. It is usually served with butter and jam, although can also be served with soft cheeses and cold meats. It is a breakfast or dinner bread. The bread is traditionally baked in most households on Friday nights and eaten on Sunday mornings with other traditional items for breakfast. While there has been no recorded history of the bread in particular, the local legends speak of the origin which happens to be as early as the 15th century. The (weird) custom of the widows cutting off their braids and burying it with their husbands was replaced with burying the Zopf which is similar to the braided hair. The custom was followed more in Bern than in the other parts of Switzerland. However, the bread is relished all across the country and is considered to be a delicacy.
Can you smell the appetizing aroma of a tasteful pizza? Yes? It’s normal, it’s because you’re thinking of the Focaccia -one of the most popular and most ancient breads of Italy. It’s a flat oven-baked bread similar in style and texture to pizza doughs which can be topped with herbs, onion, cheese and meat and be seasoned with olive oil or salt. Actually, a simple focaccia dough lends itself to so many variations that once you master the dough, your options are endless. Focaccia belongs essentially to the northern shores of the Mediterranean and has its origin in classical antiquity. Early versions were cooked on the hearth of a hot fire, or on a heated tile or earthenware disk, like the related flatbreads. As it was common in the past, bakers still puncture the bread with a knife to relieve bubbling on the surface of the bread.
Can we say that Knedlíky are part of the bread-family? I think we can, as they can be either wheat or potato-based, and are sometimes made from a combination of wheat flour and dices made of stale bread or rolls. Those steamed and sliced bread-like dumplings are one of the mainstays of Czech cuisine and are typically served with meals. Originally, the Czech word of ‘knedlik’ or ‘knedliky‘ was used for round or elongated mixtures of meat and reconstituted bread-rolls. In the past, dumplings were not only a side dish, but mainly in poorer areas they were served as main course. Nowadays, dumplings demonstrate unhealthy and rich-in-calories character of Czech cuisine, but are so tasteful! When served as leftovers, sliced dumplings are sometimes pan-fried with eggs. You should definitely taste them!
If you have visited Slovakia, you surely came across little slightly-curved mini baguettes called rožky. These baked bread rolls are a huge part of Slovak cuisine. For most of our Slovak friends, the rožky reminds them of their early childhood, as this what their mothers left them in their school bags when they where looking for a snack. They have a specific shape due to the fact that the dough is cut into triangles and rolled into a tubular form and slightly curved. Baking these bread rolls is really easy, and you don’t need any fancy bread machine. All you’ll need is flour, milk, oil, yeast, salt and sugar. It will take you only about 20 minutes of actual work, two hours to let the dough rise and 20 minutes of baking work. So ready to bake your first rožky ?
This bread, guys, is so popular and traditional that it even got the status of a regional food with protected geographical indication! Obwarzanek krakowski, you may have difficulties pronouncing it, but you’ll definitely enjoy its taste. This braided ring-shaped bread is actually first boiled and sprinkled with salt, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, nigella seeds, mixed herbs or mixed spices before being baked. It has a white, sweetish, moist and chewy crumb underneath a crunchy golden-brown crust. The taste is sweetish, which is typical of bakery products that are first parboiled and then baked. Traditionally sold from street carts, it is a popular snack in the Polish city of Kraków – hereby giving it its name. An entry dated to 2 March 1394 mentions the product using both its Polish name and its equivalent in Polish Medieval Latin, circuli, or “rings”: “for the queen, for rings of obwarzanki, 1 grosz“.
Juoda Ruginė Duona
Bread has always been a Lithuanian staple. Bread-making is an old tradition, though very few people bake bread at home now. In fact, there’s an old belief in Lithuania that bread is more valuable than gold. Lithuanians believe for instance that their bread will save them from all kinds of evils and calamities. A piece of bread is placed on the foundation of a new house urging it to save them from all bad omen and natural disasters. Even until this day the Lithuanians are very fond of these rituals. At the center of this culture is the Juoda ruginė duona – one of the most traditional bread in Lithuania. This black rye bread is only made with coarsely ground rye flour, starter and water and all ingredients are combined in unique proportions and baked and stored in a cold place.
The Genuine Latvian Dark Rye Bread, the Rupjmaize, is made by hand, leavened in wooden dough-troughs, and baked in a real brick oven. This bread is something serious in Latvia : the Bakery and the raw materials it uses are certified by the National Environment and Health Center of Latvia! Rye bread has always been one of the staple foods in Latvian homes and, even today, represents a symbolic component of Latvian national identity. The Rupjmaize owes its specific character to its recipe and the highly specific technique used in its production, which does not involve the use of baker’s yeast. Note that babies teethe on the rye bread in Latvia and that, on long trips, Baltic sailors fill the holds of their ships with it – sourdough rye lasts for months. Latvians soak rye bread in milk and eggs to make bread pudding. Rupjmaize is also used to make Rupjmaizes kartojums, a delicious Latvian dessert.
Instead of wishing “bon appetit”, Estonians are prone to say jätku leiba (“may your bread last”). It’s normal for a country where there are at least three different names for the word ‘Bread’ – that’s how serious Estonians are about the loaf. So, if you want to also be serious about Estonian bread, try the Must Leib: it’s a ‘must’ (Well, you’ll excuse me for this poor pun…). Must Leib, or, in English, ‘Black rye bread’ is actually a healthy and very original gift to bring back from your trip to Estonia. You’ll find a range of different options with a thin crispy crust in all shapes and sizes from your local supermarket or speciality grocery store. Many restaurants also serve freshly baked bread rolls using their own secret recipes. With a spread of Estonia’s famous full-fat salty butter, the local bread is sure to tingle your taste buds.
черный хлеб (Chor-nee klebph)
The pride of the national cuisine is traditional Belarusian bread baked with the use of rye flour. Instead of yeast Belarusians used a special leaven. Belarusian bread is heavier and is a bit sour. In old recipes different additives were used like caraway seeds, linseeds and sunflower seeds. Bread was sometimes baked on the ‘pillow’ made from birch and oak leaves. In the old days, the dough would have been baked in the embers of the oven, then placed on cabbage or maple leaves, covered with a cloth to cool, and sprinkled with salt before eating. To be noticed: Belarus has to import much of its wheat, partly due to the effects of Chernobyl and partly because the short wet summers make growing wheat difficult. Since rye is a much easier crop and is widely grown in Belarus, rye bread is much more universally eaten.
Since ancient times bread has had a special position not only in Ukrainian cuisine, but also in Ukrainian culture. Even now bread plays an important role in different traditional ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. It was for instance forbidden to throw bread away, and if a slice of bread fell to the ground accidentally, it should have been picked up, kissed by the one, who picked it, and put on the table. Nowadays this tradition is rarely followed, but in all Ukrainian folk customs bread plays a really important part. In particular, the bread with salt called Palyanytsya is the traditional way to show hospitality in Ukraine. You’ll even find Ukrainian ambassadors presenting this bread to Royal families around the world. Palyanytsya is actually famously known for being difficult to pronounce for non-Ukrainian speakers!
Romania – Moldova
It looks like a pita bread, but it’s not. Let me introduce you to the Romanian Lipie, a round bread made with different wheat flour. It is round or oval, slightly raised or flat, usually unleavened dough made of flour of various cereals. The Lipie has been known since the 16th century. It is so much part of the Romanian culture that you can even see them on some Romanian tapestries and in religious art. A Lipie from the 17th century was discovered in a house in the medieval village of Dolhești, and it was named Dolhești’s bread. Bread is a sanctuary for Romanians. Like in many Mediterranean countries, bread is a must and served with nearly all dishes, especially in the countryside. Each small village had its stone mill where people brought their small grain production to get their own flour.
Beside bakery crescent, the Hungarian bun, called Zsemle is the other fundamental bakery product in Hungary. Hungarians don’t share the Nordic’s view that brown bread is morally and nutritionally better to white bread. That’s why they enjoy so much their Zsemle. The everyday Zsemle is a real crusty bun, both light and chewy at the same time. These round small breads, eaten cut in half, with butter, cold cuts or jam can be maked into a sandwich for breakfast or mid-afternoon snack. But it also shows up in several Hungarian dishes, many recipes call for Zsemleas a basis for various stuffings, such as fasirt, meatloaf or zsemlegombóc. In case you wonder where the word Zsemle comes from: it originates from the Middle High German word semel (which means ‘fine flour’) and from the Latin word similar (meaning ‘the finest flour’). That sounds promising!
Let’s move on to Slovenia and its delicious Potato bread, or, as it is called in the country, Krompirjev Kruh. This slovenian breads are loaves of moist bread with a yellowish crumb that are delicious fresh with butter or jam, or for sandwiches, French toast or bread pudding when it starts to stale, which is rather quickly as the bread has no preservatives. But it has a moist crumb that keeps it fresh for some days. This bread can also be a gift, so if you have time, divide the bread you are preparing into four parts and bake them in molds. In Slovenia, such gifts are always appreciated by friends and relatives. Speaking of bread, Slovenia also has an incredible assortment of baked goods, from the glorious rye breads to intricately braided wedding breads, Easter rolls, fig or olive bread, nut or fig potica (or even the savory chive potica). Just let yourself surprised by this rich Slovenian bread culture!
Croatia – Serbia – Bosnia and Herzegovina – Montenegro – Kosovo
This popular bread, also known in some regions as lepinje or somun, is eaten all up and down the eastern side of the Mediterranean (and a long way inland) and is by far the favorite accompaniment for savory meat snacks like cevapcici. This vaguely pita-like flatbread baked in an oven is actually the daily bread of the Balkans. It not only contains yeast but also baking powder which supposedly aerate the dough and make it lighter. Two layers separate during baking and form a hollow center pocket. It can be opened on one side and filled as a sandwich or cut into two or four to make smaller sandwiches. The quality that makes Lepinja stand out from other central and eastern European flatbreads is its beautifully tender, spongy, English muffin-like interior. Lepinja will stay good for 2 or 3 days in an airtight container on the counter. But after that, it will starts to dry out.
Bread is an integral part of Albanian culture and hospitality. Don’t they say indeed “për të ngrënë bukë” which means ‘going to eat bread’ instead of ‘going to have a meal’? Or don’t they use the traditional albanian expression “bukë, kripë e zemër” (In English, ‘bread, salt, and heart’) to welcome and honor guests? It comes as no surprise then that their beloved Bukë misri (corn bread) is ever-present on the Albanian table. Corn bread is actually one of the earliest Albanian cooking tradition and is often considered as the bread of the Ancients. Oldest generations still have in mind the Bukë misri they had during difficult times: a very healthy food that they shared in their large families. The main content of this bread is definitely cornstarch whose grain is rich and beneficial for the human body. Corn flour is a source of fiber which not only helps digestion but also absorbs cholesterol and lowers blood sugar.
Bulgaria – Macedonia
Bread is baked for every holiday in Bulgaria. It is decorated in various ways, depending on the established traditions. The most popular form of bread, which is present on the table of Bulgarian family every day, is the standard small flat loaf of bread. It is prepared by flour, water, salt, butter or other fat, and yeast. Ritual breads are also made according to this recipe; however they have various shapes and decorations, depending on the season, the celebrated holiday or the imagination of the host. In the past, all Bulgarian women used to learn how to prepare bread shortly after they had learnt to walk and talk. There is even a saying that reveals the attitude Bulgarians have towards bread and its importance, “Nobody’s bigger than bread.”
Greece – Cyprus
χωριάτικο ψωμί (Horiatiko Psomi)
In Greece, there are different breads for different occasions. But in villages and especially in the Islands, the classic bread χωριάτικο ψωμί, pronounced ‘Horiatiko Psomi’, was once the staple food of Greeks and still eaten at every meal. It is still baked in outdoor wood-burning ovens on a weekly basis. Every Saturday, the Village ‘bee-hive’ ovens get fired up and the air fills with the wonderful aroma of this thick and crusty, fresh bread. The Horiatiko Psomi, which means ‘village bread’ or ‘country-style bread’ is more dense than other types of bread (the loaf measures about 13 inches across and weighs a little more than 2 pounds) and can be made with a variety of flours or a combination of more than one. Its density makes it a perfect companion for sauces and olive oil dressings.
The foundation of Turkish food is, if anything, the dough made of wheat flour. Besides Ekmek, a simple sourdough bread for a standard and ordinary white loaf, Turks enjoy a wide variety of specific and delicious breads. The bakers of the Ottoman period believed that Adam, the Patron Saint of Bakers, learned how to make bread from the Archangel Gabriel, after his expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Obviously, the secret is still held dearly by the present-day Turkish bakers; no other bread tastes as good as even the everyday Turkish bread. Every neighborhood has a bread-bakery that produces the golden crisp loaves twice a day, morning and afternoon, filling the streets with their irresistible and wholesome aroma.