With Oktoberfest celebrations almost upon us, Annette and Les Sullivan’s bakery, in Melbourne’s western suburb South Kingsville, is a flurry of doughy activity.
This time of year the husband and wife duo’s small team hand-roll up to 6000 of the salty knots known as bretzels weekly. After each twist is dipped in the lye (liquid baking soda), giving them their distinctive flavour, great stacks of bretzels trundle into the standing oven that warms this small, industrious space, wafting a stomach-rumbling scent that still makes Annette smile.
Growing up near the Black Forest in Germany, she would look forward to monthly trips into Mannheim where her mother would buy her a freshly baked bretzel from women carrying cloth-covered baskets in the street.
“Those memories made me think that my kids didn’t have bretzels when they were little,” Annette says wistfully, taking a break from the Bretzel.biz production line to sit down in a little nook with red lather banquettes and bretzel wallpaper at the front of the bakery. It’s here that they sell direct to locals on baking days. Behind us machines whirl and crescent cut the dough it took them years to perfect.
“It warms my heart to see a little one coming up or a mum getting a bretzel and handing it to their child in their pram,” Annette says.
She met Les in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she spent 15 years of her life. But there were no bretzels to be had as monthly treats for her kids Sasha and Zinzi. Increasingly disturbed by the apartheid regime, they decided to leave after Les was sent to jail for a couple of weeks for staying with a black family while trying to learn a new language.
A nurse at that time, Annette was told by friends in Australia that the profession was in demand. That’s what brought them to Melbourne, where she worked in a nursing home and Les worked as a personnel manager for Myer, but the craving for bretzels persisted.
It was a visit from Annette’s cousin Gabi, a baker, that inspired her to embrace bretzel-making herself. After a few years establishing Bretzel.biz in the coastal city of Geelong, they relocated to the Victorian capital, quickly becoming part of the fabric of German society in Melbourne. Annette and Les supply German-speaking schools, clubs and Lutheran churches, as well as showing up at more than 200 events annually, with Oktoberfest by far their busiest time of year (when we visit, they're madly preparing for Royal Melbourne Oktoberfest on Saturday September 23).
It’s this community spirit, and the idea of keeping German tradition alive, that really drives Annette. “Look, there are other countries that try to claim it, but bretzels are so German,” Annette insists. “I think it became a ‘pretzel’ once it hit America, because they always change things to make it their own and now they pretend they invented it, like the hamburger.”
Despite her passion for bretzels’ Germanic origins - importing not only German equipment for the bakery, but also specialised German bretzel salt - Annette has been willing to shake traditions up. Picking up a tip from Zinzi’s German cousin Benedicta, who spread Nutella on her salty bretzel before the savoury sweet combination was cool, Annette has created a sweet bretzel variation using vanilla-infused dough. A multi-pronged machine in the bakery injects them with Nutella or salted caramel. There are also cinnamon and sprinkle-topped versions.
“That is something that is unthinkable for the Germans, because it’s got to be salt and that’s it,” Annette chuckles. “Germans are often very… ‘this is how we do it,’ but once they try sweet bretzels, they’re like, ‘how come we’ve never had them in Germany?’ ”
Melbourne is the perfect home for more adventurous palettes, Annette says. “The great thing about Australia is that we embrace this culture of you can do. You can be a bretzel baker even thought you’ve got no qualifications. You could never do that in Germany. You have to be a master with all sorts of certificates.”
Les chips in with a grin. “Annette’s one of these pioneers who doesn’t believe in just doing everything the way it always was. Australia is a marvellous place for that sort of thing.”
Like Annette, Sophia Brill, an intern at the Goethe-Institut Melbourne, a German cultural centre, has very fond of memories of bretzels from her childhood growing up in a small country town near Frankfurt. She laughs as she recalls her father buying her one for breakfast from the local bakery on their walk to her to kindergarten each morning.
“It’s really traditional and you always see toddlers with bretzels in their hands,” she says, noting that their softness is ideal for kids who have not yet acquired a full set of teeth.
“My first four months in Melbourne I actually quite missed bretzels,” Sophia adds. Living in the eastern suburbs and working in the city, she’ s not quite ready to trek across town for one, but has cottoned on that a local supermarket gets two delivered every morning. She races to grab one. “I was quite happy with that.”
Sophia’s colleague Kaga Eling, who comes from Berlin and recalls bretzels being ever-present at street markets and in cinemas, doesn’t yearn for them quite as much. “They are pretty present here in Australia at German-themed events,” she says, “so I am always reminded that I should miss them more than I do.”
Annette is heartened by the way Australians have embraced Oktoberfest and is looking forward selling bretzels to the masses, just like the ladies of Mannheim all those years ago, but she tells me there is one sight that cracks her up every year. “You would not dream of seeing a guy dressed up in a dirndl in Germany, I can tell you that right now. It would not happen. But Aussies will do it and have fun with it and it’s just wonderful. I love it, it’s great.”
Catch Bretzel.biz at the Royal Melbourne Oktoberfest at the Royal Exhibition Building on Saturday Sep 23, Oktoberfest Mornington on October 7, Oktoberfest St Kilda Oct 14-15, Oktoberfest in the Gardens at the Melbourne Showgrounds on Oct 14, Oktoberfest Drouin on Oct 21 and Oktoberfest Geelong on Oct 28. Follow them on Facebook for updates on baking days. You can also regularly find Bretzels.biz at the Mornington Racecourse Market, Mt Eliza Farmers Market and Gisborne Olde Time Market and a small number of stockists.
While not as well known as the traditional pretzel, these soft pretzel rolls with their salty exteriors and soft, milk bread interiors are just as addictive. Don’t be tempted to skip the boiling process before baking as this is what gives them their lovely dark colouring.
Pair these soft twists with a classic American dressing.
I found the food in Alsace completely different to anywhere else in France. Being very close to Germany gave the food a very strong German accent: dishes served with lots of sausages, pork knuckle and sauerkraut. Bretzel was another great example of this crossover - it is basically an Alsatian version of the German pretzel.
Next time you feel like baking, try this recipe for homemade pretzels. Don't be put off by the look of these salty, golden plaits, they are super easy to create and make a great movie-night snack.