Our daily bread: about fake bakeries, “gesneden brood” and “broodautomaten”

Belgians love bread. They eat it often, mostly on a daily basis. And they eat it at any time of the day, which makes, for instance, sandwiches (in Dutch: broodjes) a huge thing – well, at least around Flanders. Flanders is the Dutch-speaking northern part of Belgium comprising its own community, region and language area. Since I live in Leuven, which is a Flemish city near Brussels, my descriptions primarily relate to this part of Belgium. These descriptions originate from three major observations of mine about Belgians and their relationship with bread, which I also reflected on by discussing them with my Flemish hallway mates at my student residence, as well as with my international fellow students while having a Stella.
My first observation is about how Belgians like their bread. They like it fresh and it must come from a bakery with real human beings. I am not talking about factory workers of a large industrial bakery – it is about the baker next door and his/her small bakery who crafts authentic bread and baked goods using regional ingredients only and most certainly no food additives. Visiting one of those lovely places, you can often catch a glimpse of the traditional handicraft yourself because most bakers produce their delights virtually in the same room as selling them afterwards. Through my hallway mates, however, I learned about an important distinction regarding bakers next door: There are fake bakers (“fake” might be a bit harsh but it is contemporary), who order their dough from large industrial bakeries, and there are true bakers (in Dutch: warme bakker), who mix their very own dough. Well, mass-produced industrial dough usually comes with food additives, such as certain enzymes for longer food durability. Despite this fact, fake bakeries are well attended. Actually, Belgians tend to behave inconsistently in regard to the dough’s origin. Concerning an authentic customer experience, larger grocery stores, for instance, caught up with bakers next door by setting up beautifully decorated in-store bakeries. Spreading the smell of freshly baked bread, they aim to truly imitate the environment of a traditional, small bakery. And in the view of my hallway mates, it seems to work – although the dough used in grocery stores is industrially mass-produced, too.

My second observation is another one about how Belgians like their bread. Not least because of their obsession with “broodjes”, they like their bread cut in slices. Obviously, nobody usually eats a loaf of bread like a raw carrot. In Belgium, however, this is a serious topic. Bread is primarily bought in slices (in Dutch: gesneden brood), which can occur in a number of ways: Either your baker next door cuts the loaf of your choice just in time or you do it yourself – by using the slicing machine at the grocery store (even before you pay for the bread), a slicing machine at any other grocery store, or your own slicing machine at home. Furthermore, there is an unwritten Belgian standard for slice thickness, which is about seven millimeters. My international fellow students complained about it because the slices seem to be too thin to make a decent “broodje”. Filling it with cold cuts, lettuce, vegetables and sauce andalouse (Belgian invention, no connection to Andalusia), a “broodje” often falls apart because the slices get completely soggy. Of course, I had to contrast this with the judgement of my hallway mates. In their opinion, a traditional “broodje” is not made with, for instance, multiple vegetables – rather, you limit yourself to a main topping and add a delicious sauce, that is it. Nonetheless, they told me about the recent rise of street food stalls that offer stacked sandwiches. Needless to say, most of them use foreign types of bread, such as baguettes or ciabattas, rather than bread cut in slices the traditional Belgian way.

To conclude, I would like to share my third observation, which is about how much Belgians love bread. As mentioned earlier, most of them prefer bread from the baker next door (never mind the distinction between fake and true bakers for a second). Unfortunately, local bakeries typically open and close early. Therefore, the Belgian worker sometimes cannot make it in time to get fresh bread for this night’s dinner or next day’s breakfast. The motto in such cases: Keep calm and look for a “broodautomaat”. “Broodautomaten” are stand-alone vending machines for fresh bread. They are mainly located in front of or next to the bakery that stocks them daily with loafs. By inserting a few euro coins, people can still buy fresh bread even after closing time of their local bakery.

Although I myself do not have a comparable relationship with bread, my observations led me to continue thinking about this. They took me back to the days where I used to live at my parents’ place. There was always at least one loaf in the bread box because my parents ate – and still eat – a couple of slices daily. Obviously, I did not inherit this habit, which led me to the question about the reasons why we stick to certain habits and let other ones go when our living environment alters, for instance, if we go study abroad. I would like to take this question with me and continuously reflect on it during my remaining time in Leuven.

Stefan Müller

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