Frau Balzer is 77 and her family’s bakery has existed in Berlin-Mitte since 1926. Located in Sophienstraße, once the historic artisan street of the city centre, the bakery’s ownership is continuous from the beginning of the last century. In fact, it is one of the oldest bakeries in Berlin, and one of the few that operated throughout the GDR period.
Organisational talent was just as important as baking skills. The trio of women behind the counter, Frau Balzer and her assistants who call themselves the Bäckermädels, had both during the Communist period. We have apples this morning? So then, Apfelkuchen! Fruit was baked according to the season and what was available. Raisins, nuts: these were ingredients that were hard to find. They were saved when they were available in April for months for the Christmas desserts. It was important too that that baking could age then keep: like the Raisin-Almond Stolle cooked months before Christmas, but good until April. I was impressed that they could cook then what they do now, just with more planning and not every day.
Flour, yeast, milk and poppy seeds. There was a consistent supply of these ingredients, even in the GDR period. In fact, the bakery can be more vulnerable today if a delivery fails to show up. Back then, they were dependent on many small suppliers (which have since been put out of business) instead of a single mass distributor. There were other advantages in the past: the quality of the flour was better in Communist times, it had a better consistency and capacity to bind. Today, industrial production has impoverished many of the ingredients, and the Bäckermädels have a vocal pet-peeve about ingredient quality in the modern age, which they are more than happy to discuss!
Frau Balzer and co. still make everything themselves and in small quantities, and by the end of the day their shelves are mostly empty. One of the bakers rushed outside when she saw I was eating my cherry cake too quickly. No, don’t! We pit the cherries one by one, we don’t want you to choke in case we missed one! And in any case, you must take your time to enjoy it.
Enjoy it I did, along with a delectable Rhubarb Streuselkuchen (also available with Gooseberry). I’ve also tried the moist Pfannkuchen, with strawberry-apple marmalade (the others use plum, so we don’t!). Perhaps the Mille-feuilles are something Frau Balzer learned in Paris, where she studied and eventually worked in business with French clients, until the DDR put an end to her travels telling her to go back to her family’s craft of baking. She took over the bakery from her parents in 1984, in its present location (it used to be located in larger premises across the street and around the corner). Perhaps the Stasi had descriptions of her family’s Spritzkuchen, those delicately spongy doughnuts, in their files, and it was a private indulgence that ultimately constrained her liberty.
Frau Balzer spoke to me in German; although, a polyglot, she could have done so in Spanish, French or English. She is small, sharp and has a wide smile, but spoke sadly of Mitte. It’s not how she imagines a city centre: ‘I know London, Florence, Paris well. In those days, the centres of those cities were full of artisans, proud of their work. Look at this street, how few of us are left. It’s atrocious what has happened to Berlin-Mitte’.
Behind the counter, one of the Bäckermädels says, ‘But young people, who know more about the problems with the food industry, the ingredients they consume, they are the ones who now come looking for us. They don’t want a mass-produced pastry. They want something from the old days’.
I look up at a photograph on the wall, of Frau Balzer’s mother and three baker men proud before the shop in 1936. I think it is miraculous that the shop has survived the wars and regimes of the 20th century, and I hope it will manage the competition of the 21st.
Outside, I finish my cherry cake, slowly, and take care with the pits.