Alto Adige's best-loved street snack.
TRENTINO ALTO ADIGE is Italy's north most province. The marriage of Trentino (governed by the Italian city of Trento) and Alto Adige (marked by the Adige river and governed by German-speaking Bolzano) brings a decidedly Saxon flavour to these parts. Since 1923, Alto Adige has 'belonged' to Italy, however it's still known as Südtirol and as an autonomous province, retains most of its original culture, and food.
The brezel is a popular Bavarian bread in the shape of a knotted loop dotted with salt crystals or made as a sweet version covered in chocolate or icing sugar. In Bolzano, the brezel (bretzel in Italian) is found in bakeries, restaurants, bars and street food stalls 'as is' or stuffed with cheese and meats.
Legend says around 610, the brezel was fashioned as prayer bread symbolising crossed arms in prayer and allegedly given out by Monks as rewards to the pupils who could say their prayers correctly. Latin for 'little arms' is bracellae, in German the twisted treats would have been known simply as brezel.
Since the monks bake in the basements of their monasteries, in 1510 when the Ottoman Turks invaded Vienna it was these bread-makers who heard the attempted attack first and alerted the rest of the city. The Turks, busy digging tunnels underneath the city walls, were swiftly intercepted by the monks who grabbed whatever make-shift weapons they could muster and helped ward off the invaders to save the city, rewarded with high baking status and their own coat of arms by the Austrian Emperor.
In 1710, German immigrants known as the Pennsylvania Dutch brought the soft brezel to the United States. They became so popular that two versions were made in America, soft and hard. In 1861, Sturgis Pretzel House in Lititz, Pennsylvania, became the first commercial hard pretzel bakery in the United States and the pretzel began to take on many forms as a popular culinary reference throughout northeastern Pennsylvania fashioned into long and short, stuck into ice-cream and immensely popular as a small, salty bar snack sold in packets beside the roasted peanuts. To throw a spanner into the linguist works - in 1911, Adolph Benzel, an immigrant from Germany, gave his Pennsylvania bakery the name of Benzel’s Bretzel Bakery and 100 years later, the name on the door of his family business remains the same. So, whether Adolph arrived in the Americas to feel shocked by the name-change of his nation's favourite bread and tried to put things right or whether pretzel vs bretzel vs brezel has been a mix-up in translation over 300 years or whether nobody really cares anymore (except perhaps the monks in Vienna and the Bavarians), it's pretzel in the US and bretzel in Italy and brezel or laugenbrezel or brezn in Germany.
Made from a few simple ingredients including flour, butter, yeast, water and salt, brezel are shaped into a large, open knot and then boiled in water with baking soda or lye to facilitate a particular chemical reaction which occurs in a hot oven - the Maillard reaction. Using lye or baking soda allows the inside of the bread to stay soft and chewy while the treated exterior turns a deep, golden brown when baked.
These simple knotted breads are a symbol of well-being and good luck once worn around their necks by children on New Year's Eve and traditionally baked as a big, sweet plaited bread during the festive season - Grosse Neujahrs-Breze. This is the first thing Germans eat when the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve because it brings good luck.
Go find the best softly baked brezel at the Christmas Market in Bolzano or seek out one of our favourite tiny hamlets San Paolo on the South Tyrolean Wine Route. Here, the busy village bakery will keep you mesmerised for much longer than you expected, walking about the medieval Alpine streets with the taste of freshly-baked brezel on your lips as a memory for life.