Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Religious Symbolism Behind Pretzels

      A pretzel (known as Brezel in German, sometimes also Brezn or Breze) is a type of baked food made from dough in soft and hard varieties and savory or sweet flavors in a unique knot-like shape, originating in Europe. The pretzel shape is a distinctive symmetrical looped form, with the ends of a long strip of dough intertwine brought together and then twisted back onto itself in a certain way ("a pretzel loop"). Pretzels in stick form may also be called pretzels in the English-speaking context. For seasoning and decoration various glazes, salt crystals, sugar and various seeds or nuts can be used. The size varies from large enough for one to be a sufficient serving, to much smaller.
      A bread pretzel popular in southern Germany and adjoining German-speaking areas, as well as in some areas of the United States, is made from wheat flour, water and yeast, usually sprinkled with coarse salt, hand-sized and made for consumption on the same day. It is relatively soft, rather than brittle. To avoid confusion with any other kind of pretzel, German speakers call this variety "Laugenbrezel" (lye pretzel) because it is dipped in lye solution (NaOH) before baking. Sweet pastry pretzels with many textures, toppings and coatings, are made. Crisp hard pretzels, e.g. pretzel sticks and a variety of shapes basically made from the same ingredients, have evolved from the lye pretzel by baking out excess moisture, thereby increasing shelf life and crispness.
Variety of south German lye breads (Laugengeb├Ąck)
      There are numerous accounts on the origin of the looped pretzels, as well as the origin of the name; most agree that they have Christian backgrounds and were invented by monks. According to The History of Science and Technology, by Bryan Bunch and Alexander Hellemans, in 610 AD "...an Italian monk invents pretzels as a reward to children who learn their prayers. He calls the strips of baked dough, folded to resemble arms crossing the chest, 'pretiola' ("little rewards")". However, no source is cited to back up these details. Another source locates the invention in a monastery in southern France The looped pretzel may also be related to a Greek ring bread, derived from communion bread used in monasteries a thousand years ago In Germany there are stories that pretzels were the invention of desperate bakers. Meyers Konversations-Lexikon from 1905 suspects the origin of pretzels in a ban of heathen baking traditions, such as in the form of a sun cross, at the Synod of Estinnes in the year 743. The pretzel may have emerged as a substitute. The German name "Brezel" may derive also from Latin bracellus (a medieval term for "bracelet"), or bracchiola ("little arms").
      The pretzel has been in use as an emblem of bakers and formerly their guilds in southern German areas since at least the 12th century. A 12th-century illustration in the Hortus deliciarum from the southwest German Alsace region (today France) may contain the earliest depiction of a pretzel.
      Within the Catholic Church, pretzels were regarded as having religious significance for both ingredients and shape. Pretzels made with a simple recipe using only flour and water could be eaten during Lent, when Christians were forbidden to eat eggs, lard, or dairy products such as milk and butter. As time passed, pretzels became associated with both Lent and Easter. Pretzels were hidden on Easter morning just as eggs are hidden today, and are particularly associated with Lent, fasting, and prayers before Easter.

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