Germany at 25: The Berliner and the Carnevale: An Unlikely Combination

Photo taken in February 2013

Author’s Note: This is a Throwback Article dating back to February 2013, where the author wrote about another typical German food a person should try: The Pfannkuchen (a.k.a. The Berliner). This article is being reintroduced as part of the series on Germany at 25. If you haven’t tried a Berliner before, here are some reasons why you should…. 🙂

Carneval Monday (Rosenmontag) in a typical German town- in the midst of Carnevale, all is going on during the 5-6 day long celebration that starts on the weekend. People are dressed up in various costumes, dancing to traditional German music near the cathedral, and some parading down the streets of big cities. This is the time when we indulge in our sins containing fat, sugar and alcohol before we start the fasting period, on Ash Wednesday. One will find Carneval celebrations everywhere, whether it is in Halle (Saale) or Erfurt in the eastern half of Germany, or in the traditional cities, like Mainz, Duesseldorf or Cologne, where hundreds of thousands of people attend the more popular festivals in Germany, including one at the Cathedral in Cologne, the site of the very first Carvenale celebration in 1823.

Cologne Cathedral: site of the largest Carnevale celebration. Photo taken in February 2010

While there are many specialties that are common during the Carnevale season, there is one particular one that stands out and has indirectly become a symbol of the festival- the German Pfannkuchen. During the Carnevale celebrations bakeries load up shelves upon shelves of these pastries that are covered in sugar but have marmalade on the inside. There are many names to call this pastry- most common is the Berliner, many regions have considered the Pfannkuchen, Krappen, Krapfen, Schmalzknudel, Little Carneval Cakes (in North Rhein-Westphalia and Rheinland Palatinate), Fastnachtskiechel (in the Sauerland region), Bismarcks (in Canada and northern USA), Creme pies and jelly-filled donuts (in the USA). Ironically, despite John F. Kennedy’s declaration of him being a Berliner, many Berliners still associate him with the pastry to this day, but would refer the pastry as Pfannkuchen.  As a foreigner, one should be aware that Pfannkuchen can also refer to Eierkuchen, which means pancakes, another pastry that’s found its way into Germany’s kitchen as well. In either case, Pfannkuchen (as I will call them) is one of the first things people will see when visiting Germany and one that will always stick to the country’s stereotypes, together with Christmas Markets, Bratwursts, Beer, and the Volkswagen Beetle. One will find many with different fillings and coverings. Typical is the one covered in sugar and filled with strawberry marmalade, there are some with chocolate or vanilla coating with various forms of filling made of milk chocolate, apricot filling or even vanilla creme.

But why Pfannkuchen and its connection with the Carnevale? This is a question that will bother many people when staying in Germany, for although Pfannkuchen can be found year round, it is during the time between the Thursday before Lent and Ash Wednesday that they are exclusively popular, regardless of how they are decorated.  Legend has it that a very unhappy bakeress dropped a lump of pastry dough into oil, and after a certain time, it formed on its own, thus creating the pastry that is popular to this day. Yet history has it that the Pfannkuchen was popular in the Roman Empire, where pastries were deep fat fried and covered with honey. In the Medieval Period, other toppings were used, and with that there were many names for the pastry. But in modern times, the Pfannkuchen is treated like any pastry that is served at Christmas time. Tradition has it that the Thursday before Lent starts the Carneval period, commemorating various rebellions and events in the 1800s. At that time, most Pfannkuchen are baked and ready for eating on the Sunday before Lent and the days leading up to Ash Wednesday. It is possible that because they are still deep fat fried and covered in various toppings, like sugar, chocolate, and other creme toppings, that they are in connection with the “fat eating” indulgence one can see during the Carnevale period. However if legend did hold true, the Pfannkuchen is the sign of love and happiness with the unhappy bakeress (un)knowingly providing this with a small pastry that anyone can eat, even children.   Religion, happiness, indulgence, no matter how a person can turn the story and pick apart the legend, the Pfannkuchen has made it way to being a popular figure to be eaten during the Carnevale period.

But if the Pfannkuchen is the sign of indulgence and happiness, then one should finish reading this article and go out and  try one, especially at this particular period of celebrating before Lent. It is ok to imitate Garfield the orange cat, who loves jelly-filled donuts and will stop at nothing to eat the entire lot at a bakery. After all, the Carnevale period is the time of celebrating and sinning before the fasting period (and the regrets of sinning) arrive. However, even when the Carnevale period is over, one can still find the Pfannkuchen at the bakeries to try out, whether if it’s for the first time ever or if it’s for tea time (in German Kafeetrinken). In either case, the Pfannkuchen is one of the most popular pastries in Germany’s bakeries and one that makes a true friendship if shared with others. So without further ado, enjoy! Guten Appetit!

Photo taken in February 2013

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