Saturday, April 4, 2015

Oldest Surviving Pretzel!

 From the "Hortus Deliciarum" c.  1190*

Pretzels from Nancy (Jacob Foppens van Es) 17th c.*
Modern Philadelphia soft pretzels*
A few weeks ago, in Regensberg, a city in Bavaria, archaeologists made a fascinating discovery--the burnt but otherwise intact remains of a pretzel from the 18th century.  You can read about the discovery and see a photograph of the 250-year-old pretzel chunk here

Interestingly, the pretzel was not the only baked good found at this site.  The archaeologists also found a bread roll and a croissant in a similarly burnt but recognizable  condition. They theorize that these items must have failed  the baker's quality control standards and were consequently tossed into the fire to dispose of them.  Fortunately for archaeology, the long-term effect was to preserve these rejects instead.

The origins of the pretzel go back to the Middle Ages, when monks supposedly twisted salted bread dough into a shape resembling praying hands and baked them as a reward for children.  Supposedly the name derives from the German word Bresel which allegedly derives from the Latin word meaning "little arms" or "having branches like arms" (no two sources I've looked at on line cite the same Latin word or gives the same definition).  No one is quite certain of the exact circumstances of the pretzel's invention (which monastic order was involved or the country in which said order was located, for example), but the Wikipedia article on the subject lists some of the more notable and interesting theories.

The original pretzels were more like today's "soft" pretzels--breadlike instead of crunchy.  The modern-style hard pretzel is credited to Pennsylvania, particularly to the Lancaster County region near me where many Amish and other German-speaking farmers settled.  The frustrated baker whose pretzel the archaeologists discovered may have missed making the discovery of a lifetime by tossing out that pretzel, though his act will help contribute, in a small way, to our knowledge of the history of food.

*    All photographs in this article from Wikimedia Commons.

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