Germans have a sweet tooth. In high summer business leaders and politicians lick ice creams outside the Reichstag. On dark winter mornings office workers swallow vast hot chocolates topped with Matterhorns of whipped cream. And every afternoon, at precisely four o’clock, every adult in the land seems to stop for Kaffee und Kuchen.
How can a people who pride themselves on healthy living, who pay vast sums for annual health insurance, willingly clog up their arteries with trans fats and processed sugar? And what sort of mental gymnastics are performed by those cutting-edge business executives who – after closing a zillion Euro deal for BMW or cornering the market in aerospace widgets – stride alone into an ice cream parlour and order a triple scoop banana split cone with candy streusel topping? It’s a mystery to me.
The history of Kaffee und Kuchen is well-documented. Coffee reached Germany in the 17th century with the first coffee house opening in Leipzig in 1694. As in London and Paris, the coffee house became an important venue for business as well as cultural and political discussion. But as the houses were for men only, women began to organise their own afternoon Kaffeekränzchen, or coffee parties, at home. The custom soon spread from Leipzig and across Germany, bringing with it great, fatty slices of rich cake. Before one could say Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, every woman (and coffee-slurping-man) from Aachen to Zwickau was in danger of ruining their figure and shortening their lives in the quest for caffeine-charged, sugar-filled ecstasy. The wise words of American dieters -- a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips – cut no icing sugar in Germany.
But why haven’t Germans learned that hoovering up mounds of sweet nothings is bad for you? To answer this vital question, I employed my customary professional and stringent research methods (i.e. I called up a couple of mates and then asked the neighbours).
‘Kaffee und Kuchen is vital to every German’s sense of well-being,’ reported Steffi from Hanover. ‘It’s the one custom which never fails to buoy up our spirits and assures our general joie de vivre. Imagine how grouchy we’d be without a daily slice of Butterkuchen?’
Birgit from Lübeck told me, ‘Kaffee und Kuchen is Germany’s social glue. It’s the best time – whether once a day or once a week – for mothers and daughter, partners, even work colleagues to get together for a chat.’
‘We need the sugar blast to keep up with our British competitors,’ revealed Werner, a businessman from Frankfurt with a dubious sense of humour.
‘Let me make myself a “Nutella bread” and get back to you later,’ said Frau Hut, my upstairs neighbour.
Canadians have maple sugar. Americans have Hershey’s Kisses and Aunt Jemima Pancake Syrup. Scots have deep-fried Mars bars. But for true aficionados of unsaturated fat, Germany is a kind of promised land. So whether your poison is Käsekuchen or Kugelhupf, honey-glazed Bienenstich cake or Pfannkuchen, Germany is the place to really ruin your health – and have a delicious time while doing it.
(By the way, tea doesn’t get a look in during the Kaffee und Kuchen hour – except in East Friesland, a sparsely populated region which scoffs a quarter of all the tea imported in Germany).