The Great German Bake Off: Forget Black Forest gateau – we’re in Bad Urach for a pretzel pilgrimage

I’ve always loved pretzels. For my hen do, I dragged 10 friends to Cologne for a weekend of wheat beer and salt-crusted doughy deliciousness. So it’s hardly surprising that, hours after arriving in Baden-Württemberg, a mountainous region of southern Germany with the Black Forest at its heart, I’m polishing off my fourth one – a golden twist of dough sprinkled with diamond-like salt crystals. 

My excuse? I’m honouring its birthplace. The Baden-Württemberg town of Bad Urach, famous for its half-timbered, flower-bombed buildings, huddles in the foothills of the Swabian Alps. Centuries ago, Bad Urach’s Count Eberhard (the first Duke of Baden-Württemberg) fell out with the town baker, who was thrown into the prison beneath the town palace – a gothic, timbered mansion which can be explored on guided tours. 

When his wife begged for her husband’s freedom, the count agreed, on the proviso he invented a type of bread with three holes through which sunlight could pass. The baker’s lightbulb moment occurred when his wife arrived to check on his progress, standing in a sunlit doorway with her arms crossed in a way which inspired the pretzel’s famous shape.

The Baden-Württemberg town of Bad Urach is famous for its half-timbered, flower-bombed buildings. Pictured is the beautiful Marktplatz

First on my pretzel pilgrimage is Uracher Brezelbäck, a Bad Urach bakery where the pretzel’s origins are proudly written on a scroll-like plaque next to the front door, beneath a golden pretzel dangling above the entrance. The pretzel I’m handed – said to be amongst the best in Bad Urach – is hot, soft and delicious, although as I wander towards the town square Gerhard, my guide, becomes nervous. 

Apparently, we’re nearing a café owned by BeckaBeck, a baking behemoth with cafés throughout the Swabian Alps. ‘Quick, dispose of the evidence,’ whispers Gerhard, stuffing the rival’s pretzel wrappers into a bin.

I meet BeckaBeck owner Heiner Beck outside his café in Bal Urach’s pretty Marktplatz, it’s clear he takes pretzels seriously. 

Tasty: Stack of pretzels, a treat created in Bad Urach

Tasty: Stack of pretzels, a treat created in Bad Urach

En route to his factory, on the town’s outskirts, he stops next to a golden field of spelt and explains that all of his wheat is grown in the Swabian Alps, and that the wildflowers surrounding the crops are planted to attract insects which improve the wheat’s quality.

A few kilometres away is the dairy which produces what Heiner refers to as pretzel milk – not pretzel-flavoured milk but the milk added to the pretzel dough. 

It’s like something out of The Darling Buds of May; calves totter across the lower slopes of the Swabian Alps, under the protective gaze of the farmer’s huge, pancake-pawed St Bernard.

At BeckaBeck’s nearby factory, surrounded by rolling hills, 9,000 pretzels are baked to perfection every day. There’s something hypnotic about watching bakers roll out strips of dough before swinging them in the air to create a loop, folding the ends across the centre to create the distinctive shape, then making a short cut in the dough – the ‘smile’ Baden-Württemberg pretzels are known for.

By the time I arrive in the historic, bakery-filled city of Ulm, I’ve reached peak pretzel, so I start with a visit to Ulm Minster, which dates back to 1377 and is the world’s largest church – anyone who’s overdone the pretzels can offset the damage by summiting its clocktower. 

Equally ornate is the town hall, built around the same time. It’s an explosion of colour, thanks to the elaborate frescos covering every inch; it’s also got the world’s coolest clock – a huge timepiece which was designed in the 1500s and displays 14 different readings, including zodiac and lunar cycles. In the nearby Saumarkt (Pigs’ Market), a statue dedicated to Baden-Württemberg’s farmers depicts two locals and a herd of pigs. I notice a reminder of Ulm’s other claim to fame – one of the farmers clutches a pretzel.

Ulm is a city built on bread. It’s got the world’s second tallest grain silo (the 115-metre Schapfen-Mill-Tower, a model of which is in Ulm’s bread museum – more of which later) and its position, on the banks of a river dividing Baden-Württemberg from Bavaria, made it perfect for bread production, a reminder of which are the waterwheels rumbling away between Ulm’s gabled houses. 

Ulm is a historic, bakery-filled city that is home to the world's second tallest grain silo and Germany's first bread museum

Ulm is a historic, bakery-filled city that is home to the world’s second tallest grain silo and Germany’s first bread museum 

There are dozens of bakeries, and many modern buildings bear faded images of pretzels on their walls, a reminder that a bakery once stood there. I notice that the oldest bakeries are on corners – oven fires were common, but fires engines struggled to navigate the narrow streets. A coveted corner spot improved the odds by allowing multiple fire engines to approach from different directions.

Then there’s the Museum of Bread Culture, inside a former salt store. It’s Germany’s first bread museum, founded in 1955 by two entrepreneurs with a devotion to dough. The museum’s exhibits include still life paintings of bread by seventeenth-century artists, and a (somewhat shrunken) head-shaped loaf of bread, designed to represents the foodstuff’s evolution. 

I learn that anyone wishing to open a bakery in Germany must complete a three-year course with the German National Bakers Academy, and that any of the academy’s 50 examiners can conduct surprise visits at any time. They’ve got their work cut out – officially, there are 3,200 types of German bread. A job which involves munching my way through 3,200 types of bread? Sign me up.