When a Brötchen is a Bömmel …


The definite preference in Germany may be for dense, dark bread made with various combinations of wholewheat, spelt, rye, seeds and nuts (it accounts for over 90% of bread consumption), but the small, white, crusty bread roll does maintain an iconic status – whether presented in a wicker basket to accompany a breakfast spread; ripped up and dipped into your Linseneintopf at lunch; or as a quick snack zwischendurch. Indeed, walk the streets of Berlin late in the afternoon and you’ll barely see a child go by who isn’t gnawing on one.

You’d have thought, then, that buying such a white bread roll is relatively straightforward. But it’s not. Why? Well, it’s not a problem of availability. Every bakery, supermarket and Spätverkauf (after-hours corner shop) will have shelves full of them. Nor is it a matter of price. Even your most expensive bio (organic) bakery will sell you one for less than 50 cents; cheaper outlets will be almost giving them away for less than 20 cents.

The issue is of nomenclature. Put simply: wherever you go in Germany these rolls are called something different – completely different. What’s a Schrippe to a Berliner is a Weck to a Swabian. And woe betide, you get it wrong. The stern bakery assistant will wrinkle up his or her nose and give you that look of chilling scorn, reserved only for those moments – enough to make the most confident German speaker want to be quickly swallowed up by a large sinkhole in the bakery floor.

To spare other expats and visitors to Germany this shame, I’ve pulled together a brief guide by region to what you should be asking for and where, along with the origins of the word where I could find them. Oh, and here‘s a handy map from Die Zeit, which presents the challenge visually rather prettily.

  • Brötchen (High German, Rhineland, parts of Northern Germany – simply the diminutive of Brot, which makes sense really, given that these rolls are little breads.)
  • Semmel (Bavaria, Saxony and Austria – derived from the Latin similia for ‘wheat flour’.)
  • Rundstück (Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein – a reference to the rounded shape.)
  • Schrippe (Berlin and parts of Brandenburg – comes from schripfen which means aufkratzen or ‘scratch’, referring to the indentations on the top of each roll.)
  • Weck (Baden-Württemberg, Franconia and Saarland – a throw back to the middle high German word Weck which means Keil or ‘wedge’, again a reference to its shape.)
  • Bömmel (Hiddensee, a little island in the Baltic Sea, and other parts of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern – I don’t know, but it is remarkably similar to the German word Bommel for ‘bobble’, as in on a hat … But that’s pure speculation.)

In all fairness, we Brits are not much better – try asking for a ‘floured bap’ or ‘breadcake’ in London and you’ll be laughed all the way to the nearest tube station …

3 thoughts on “When a Brötchen is a Bömmel …

  1. And woe betide, you get it wrong. The stern bakery assistant will wrinkle up his or her nose

    This is tricky for Germans, as well! And in some regions, getting the word wrong will have far more serious consequences – you may end up buying a baked good that is not actually the one you wanted at all.

    For example, naively buying “Brötchen” in the Saarland will land you with slightly sweet bread rolls of roughly the right size and shape, but entirely the wrong taste. Natives of the Saarland tell me they are made with milk, can also be termed Milch-Wecken, and are (of course) entirely distinct from Weckcher. Not at all what one expects (or wants!) when one hails from the Rhineland.

    • It’s good to know it’s not just us expats who struggle. I do so love the plethora of bread in Germany and the regional differences though, for all the added complications.

  2. Thanks Chloe for your neat article. I read it with interesting amusement — already living here for 40 years.
    What I would like to share with you is the commonplace: A Berliner (German pronounciation) is not always a Berliner (English pronounciation) but sometimes a Pfannkuchen… Dare you to ask a bakery assisstant in Berlin for a Berliner, best would be her or his blank face or she would like to call the police in fear of being eaten up by a customer.

    Cheerios (as the American version of British cheers)

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