Legend has it that pretzels were first developed in the seventh century, making them one of the world’s oldest snack foods.

They are believed to have been invented by a monk from northern Italy or southern France, who was baking unleavened bread for Lent. "Pretzels were then fasting food, but are today’s fast food," says Bernard Vetter, research and development manager at Brezelbäckerei Ditsch.

Ditsch’s first UK store was set up in Cambridge and its second UK store is located at the Coopers Square Shopping Centre in Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire. "We have found that British people loved pretzels," says Vetter. "We think that soft pretzels are going to be like ciabatta; once upon a time, not many people had heard of it. Today, almost every baker sells ciabatta."

He says the shape of pretzels is a tribute to Jesus, who, when laid in the tomb, had his arms crossed over his chest. Over time, the pretzel’s shape has become a symbol of good luck and good health.

Pretzels now come in all shapes and sizes. Brezelbäckerei Ditsch, makes a wide range of pretzel products, including: pretzel breadsticks; onion, tomato, ham and cheese pretzel rolls; and pretzel-style croissants. The company’s flagship product is its soft pretzel, the ’Filialprodukte’. It has 278 calories, 8.4g of protein, 50.9g of carbohydrate and 4.2g of fat. Soft pretzels can be eaten like sandwiches or rolls, have a much higher moisture content than hard pretzels and, therefore, a shorter shelf life.

Brezelbäckerei Ditsch was founded in 1919, when master baker Wilhelm Ditsch opened a confectionery shop in Mainz, Germany - the soft pretzel capital at the time. To keep up with the high demand, "pretzel men", dressed in white, were sent out into the streets and to the restaurants and inns of Mainz, offering basketfuls of fresh pretzels. The third generation of the Ditsch family, Peter Ditsch, used the family recipe to produce soft pretzels in unbaked form, which were frozen and delivered.

Store development

Since then, the company has become the world’s largest manufacturer of freshly baked soft pretzels, with 180 Ditsch stores across Germany and expansion plans in the UK. The stores account for 20% of the business, the other 80% is stock that is sold to other companies, including specialised wholesalers for bakery and restaurant suppliers, bakery chains, caterers, restaurateurs and home services.

The thick part of the soft pretzel is called the tummy and the folded parts are the arms. "This is what makes a pretzel great," says Vetter. "You have the softness of the tummy and the crispiness of the arms. It’s almost like two products."

The main ingredients in pretzel dough include soft wheat flour, shortening, water, yeast, salt and sugar. These form a gluten that can be formed into various shapes. The product is then dipped in lye (a caustic solution). Salt is usually sprinkled on top to finish the product, but can be scraped off. When Vetter was asked about his concerns over reducing salt levels in products, he replied: "It’s all a question of how much you eat. If you eat fewer cakes, then you have more room for pretzels." n

? Bernard Vetter studied bakery technology in Berlin from 1990 to 1992. He started his career in the baking industry in 1996 and, since 1998, has worked for Brezel- bäckerei Ditsch.