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Culture

San Francisco rises to German bread challenge

Add one self-made San Francisco entrepreneur and one master baker from Bavaria. Stir well and let rise. The result, it seems, is pretty yummy and proves tastes across the Atlantic aren't so different after all.

"If you can't slice bread, you can't be wed!" So goes the old German saying, speaking to the significance and ubiquity of bread in the culture. Josey Baker (yes, that's his real name) and Josef Wagner have come together over bread - incidentally, in the home of the sour dough: San Francisco, California.

The two professional bakers and café owners will be baking, trading and slicing quite a lot of the carb-heavy staple together in the coming weeks.

Earlier this fall, the Consul for Cultural and Press Affairs Julia Reinhardt set up a conference call from her sunny office overlooking the San Francisco Bay to introduce the two. The culinary cultural exchange was her idea - a way to capture the current zeitgeist of bread fever in the Bay Area and showcase German culture beyond the typical "Beethoven and Wagner and Goethe and so on."

Josey Baker and Josef at The Mill in San Francisco Copyright: DW/Candice Novak

Josey Baker (left) is self-taught, but brought some natural talent

She wanted to showcase a much different Wagner, namely the baker she was ringing up in a town near Munich, where he runs his family's bakery café. Reinhardt braced herself for some translation, but after introducing the two men, she said, she was the one who didn't understand. The two men immediately found common ground in the language of bakers: wheat percentages, poolishes and ovens types. "We got along swimmingly," Josey Baker later wrote on his blog. "It's going to be awesome."

Differences aside

Josey Baker, a tattooed, smiley, media-savvy American, has only been baking bread seriously since 2010. After leaving his job as a curriculum designer, he taught himself the trade and began delivering his sought-after bread on his bicycle - something his counterpart says would be "impossible" in Germany. Baker wears t-shirts and jeans to work, and could easily be mistaken for a bike courier or barista.

The first few days hosting Wagner in his bakery (complete with a visit from a local German immersion school) was the most exposure to German culture he'd ever had, though he readily offers to sing the one German song he learned in high school, "Bist Du bei mir," and does so in perfect pitch. He sang the song for Wagner the day he arrived, he told me later.

Wagner, a seasoned baker, went through the traditional vocational training to become a Meister baker. When he's in action he dons his white baker's clothes, white socks and white rubber sandals, clashing somewhat with the hip skinny jeans-clad crowd that fills the café.

"I think San Francisco is great," he said, "but one thing is horrible: When you go out to a bar or café - anywhere - everyone is looking at their laptops or their phones."

Josey Baker and Josef at The Mill in San Francisco Copyright: DW/Candice Novak

Josef Wagner (left) has cleared up a few misconceptions about Americans' appreciation for bread

Welcome to San Francisco.

Curing carb fears

Back in Germany, the Bakers' Association is working to catalogue the country's bread diversity in order to apply to be recognized for what the United Nations' cultural organization, UNESCO, calls an "immaterial world heritage artifact."

"Why not show this interest to Germans and show the Californians that this is something very fundamental to German mentality and tradition?" Reinhardt asked. "They are two different worlds, but they still share this interest in bread."

Why San Francisco? "If this project could be done anywhere in the US, you can only really do it here in San Francisco," commented Reinhardt. Beyond the incomprehensible variety of restaurants and cafes in this Silicon Valley metropolis - beyond the endless mix-match of fusion and locally grown - a very basic trend is rising: the passion for a good loaf. It's something of a welcome antidote to the no-carb hubbub.

"People in the Bay Area have a great awareness for what good food is," explained Reinhardt, "but this particular focus on bread is recent."

The value of tasty toast

With so many options, where to host a master baker from Germany? Reinhardt settled on a shop that she felt speaks directly to the San Francisco start-up mentality: The Mill, on the up-and-coming Divisadero Street.

Asked if The Mill's bread holds up to the German standard, Reinhardt said, "It's really good! I mean, I'm not an expert. I'm just German." Only eight months old, the spot is a partnership between a self-taught, self-described "funny little fellow who fell in love with baking bread" and the single cup drip coffee maker, Four Barrel. What could sing of San Francisco any louder?

Josey Baker slicing bread at The Mill in San Francisco, Copyright: DW/Candice Novak November 2013 in San Francisco

$4 toast!? Apparently San Franciscans are willing to pay for what they like

"Many people think it's not difficult to make bread," said Wagner. "It is." And San Franciscans - so far - have been more than willing to pay for it. The Mill's toast has been in the local news a lot lately - used, somewhat strangely, as an anecdote in the public debate about rising rents, gentrification and other cosmopolitan ills. Headlines read: "$4 toast prompts housing petition" and "$4 toast: Why the tech industry is ruining San Francisco."

First off, Baker says with a grin, "It's not $4 toast. It's $3.50 or $3.75, anyway." And secondly, "It's proven to be something that people value."

Before leaving Germany, says Wagner, "People asked me, 'What will you teach there in America? You won't be able to teach them anything because they have no bread culture.'" But when he arrived he was taken aback by the level of baking at The Mill. "I don't want to be here as a teacher," he said. "I want to learn."

A temperamental dough

The secret to The Mill's recipe for success originates from a closet-size room in the back of the shop. That's where both the actual mill - to literally grind the flour, corn, rye - as well as the poolish, a house-made sour dough starter, are kept.

"I like to think there's something sacred in that room. That's where the grains make the transformation into flour," Baker said.

Josey Baker with a handful of flour at The Mill in San Francisco, Copyright: DW/Candice Novak

The Mill grinds its own flour - with a mill

But it's the sour dough that's the real specialty. The entire bakery only uses about two grams of factory-made yeast per day. "Everything else is from our own sough dough starter that we maintain and feed. It's a somewhat temperamental pet that you have to keep happy," Baker explained. "It's this wild creature."

"At home we're always working with yeast," Wagner says. "We never think to make a poolish."

Diplomacy in the kitchen

Just 48 hours into the exchange, the Munich-based baker was deeply impressed. "Coming here has really solidified an idea for me: The young people from California work hard and are creative." Bread has been a way for him to form relationships with people, added Wagner.

The two plan to start with a few recipes Wagner brought with him and replace the yeast with the bakery's sour dough to make a unique loaf, which will be sold in a special bag stamped "Josef + Josey's Bread, sponsored by Consulate General of Germany."

Asked whether he's ever thought of food as diplomacy, Wagner didn't hesitate: "Absolutely. When Josey comes to Germany it will probably change his idea about Germany."

"I can't wait," Baker added.

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