Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Hermann: the gift that keeps on giving... and giving... and giving...

If you’re German, you may have encountered the “Hermann” (or “Herman”), sometimes known as a “friendship cake”. The idea is that somebody gives you a tub of cake mix and a set of instructions: over the next ten days you follow the instructions, adding ingredients like flour, milk and sugar, as it sits there bubbling away and smelling of beer. Then you divide the mix into four or five portions, bake one, keep one to start a new batch, and give the others away.

It’s a sort of culinary chain letter, a bit like the Amish friendship bread. And like the friendship bread, if you’re not careful, it can take over the world. Or at least make you heartily sick of the sight of it.

My wife acquired a portion of Hermann just before Christmas, explaining to me that she’d wanted one. Well, okay. This one came with a set of instructions that claimed the original batch had been made by Pope Francis himself, a claim neither of us was prepared to believe. Pope Francis, being a theologian, is no doubt familiar with the Biblical image of a small amount of yeast working its way through the whole batch of dough, which of course is how the Hermann works. And also why it stinks of beer. Pope Francis, though, has more important things on his mind, and even if he does take the bus to work, I don’t know how much baking he does these days.

Be that as it may, the thing bubbled and fumed all over Christmas, as if we didn’t have enough to eat. And the time came to bake one portion and give the others away in a beautiful gesture of human sharing, community and love.

Which is where we hit a snag. The baking part went well — although, having just feasted on unacceptable quantities of fine food, it took an effort of will to eat a slice of Hermann.

The giving away part fared less well. In fact, it was a complete disaster: nobody wanted any of it.

The problem is that most of our friends and family here in Germany, not to mention all of our neighbours, lived through the Peace and Ecology Era of the 1980s — a decade in which Hermann featured as heavily as it did in the nation’s stomachs. The downside of this outpouring of metaphorical whatnot was the glut of Hermann, a bubbling mass of sourdough that threatened, like a poorly-conceived Doctor Who monster, to take over the planet and wipe out the human race. Nobody got around to baking anything but Hermann, because that was all there was. No sooner had a family laid the last bit of Hermann to rest than they were confronted by a neighbour bearing a Tupperware bowl, a grubby piece of paper and a cheery smile.

Everyone now alive and older than about 30 vividly remembers months of Hermann. And when the Hermann curse was finally lifted, Germans collectively vowed: “Never again.”

So we never did find anyone to give Hermann a loving home, and we couldn’t face the prospect of baking even more of it. Eventually, it grew a crust and stopped bubbling, at which point we surreptitiously disposed of the remains.

Please don’t tell the Pope.

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