If you’ve ever wondered why bagels in Berlin, the capital of bread-obsessed Germany, have sucked for so long, read this Taz article from 1996. Never has the beloved US breakfast staple sounded less appealing than when referred to as a “Hefekringel” that tastes “like a mix between Brot and Brötchen”. (Reminds me of when Western journalists today confidently call a dosa a “crepe”, roujiamo a “burger”, or banh mi a 'Korean craze'.) Inaccurate comparisons demean us all!
A full 25+ years later, it’s still frustratingly hard to find a decent bagel in this city. You can blame the German-owned bakery profiled in that article, whose dryish, cakey version has become the default in most cafés. Yet all is not lost. Near the top of Warschauer Straße, in the front room of a bookstore, homesick Americans and other discerning carb lovers will find their hole-y grail.
It was 2013 when Jewish-American transplant Laurel Kratochvila, inspired by internet recipes and friends’ complaints about Berlin bagel quality, began selling her own creations out of Shakespeare & Sons, the English-language bookshop she ran with her husband. The operation, dubbed Fine Bagels after Kratochvila’s grandmother, was a hit, and hungry customers followed it from Prenzlauer Berg to Shakespeare & Sons’ current Friedrichshain location.
So what is a good bagel? It’s got a shiny, snappy crust that resists for just a moment before giving way to an interior that’s dense yet pillowy, not unlike a memory foam mattress, with a chewy texture and slight sweetness imparted by barley malt syrup. Kratochvila and her team achieve this bagel nirvana the traditional way: by hand-rolling their doughy rings, letting them proof overnight and giving them a quick dunk in boiling water just before they hit the oven.
The variations likewise don’t stray far from the NYC-norm, with the possible exception of za’atar. There’s egg, rye, cinnamon raisin and of course the 'everything', that irresistible combo of sesame and poppy seeds, onion, garlic and sea salt. At the café, you can get them topped with avocado, hummus, pastrami, Vegemite or the classic cream cheese and lox, but why not take home a batch and get creative yourself? This is the city of Rogacki and its magnificent smoked fish after all, of Lino’s pastrami brisket, and Otto’s koji butter. For a while, you could order Fine Bagels delivered along with Kanaan’s excellent hummus; there’s still nothing stopping you from combining the two on your own, especially with the recent opening of Kanaan's Friedrichshain deli.
Whatever you decide, leave room for dessert, be it a fudgy flourless chocolate brownie, a soft US-style cookie with fleur de sel and chocolate chunks, or a miniature babka, the chocolate- or cinnamon-laced knotted brioche immortalized by Seinfeld and as a time-intensive quarantine baking project. Jewish holidays see specials like sufganiyot, donuts made in accordance with the Hanukkah mandate to eat fried food (it’s a long story), and hamantaschen, triangular poppy seed-filled cookies eaten for the carnival-like celebration Purim.
Other good bagels have come and gone, and new contenders arise on the regular. But if you ask this bagel snob, Fine is still pretty much the only game in town. Despite loads of demand, Kratochvila has yet to scale up, preferring not to compromise the quality of her handmade, small-batch product. So anyone looking to get their fix will have to make the schlep to Warschauer Straße.