My fascination with composers’ eating habits began innocently enough in my undergraduate years. Between long stints in the practice room, I would sit in the music building break room where I would invariably find myself in the company of many of my classmates. We were always in various stages of pain or ecstasy with our homework or practicing.
During one particularly long spell of analyzing the harmony and form of a Bach prelude, one of my classmates became frustrated and sighed, “I don’t care what Bach ate for breakfast, I just need to get through this assignment!” We all chuckled because we understood the sentiment; getting bogged down in the minute details of a piece was often exhausting while it was pure bliss to simply get lost in the beauty of its sound.
Later, I found myself casually wondering, “What did Bach eat for breakfast?” I carefully filed that curiosity away for a more appropriate time, since there were more pressing matters at hand. But, now that I’m no longer a student and can study anything I choose, I’ve decided to dust off that quest and go off in search of my favorite composers’ favorite breakfasts!
Which, of course, eventually leads us to Germany in the early 1700s and may involve some “dramatic interpretation” on your narrator’s part…
Johann Sebastian Bach, who had just entered his twenties, had recently been appointed organist at St. Boniface’s Church in Arnstadt. Disenchanted with the choir and his responsibilities, he applied for a one month leave of absence to visit and study with the great organist/composer, Dieterich Buxtehude in Lübeck.
While it’s fascinating that Bach was so intrigued by Buxtehude that he abandoned work and steady pay to study with him, it’s even more daunting to realize Bach made the journey from Arnstadt to Lübeck (more than 260 miles) on foot… in the winter of 1705. Now that’s what you call suffering for your art!
So enamored was Bach of Buxtehude’s music and technique, he over-stayed his leave by a few months and did not return until February of 1706. Remarkably, he also made the return journey on foot, but this time he was carrying on his back several handwritten manuscript copies he’d made of Buxtehude’s works!
Travel by foot was very common in those days unless you were very wealthy, so it’s likely Johann wouldn’t have stood out from any of the other wanderers looking for food and shelter. So, historians know very little about this entire, life-changing episode in Bach’s life. Perhaps that’s why it has always fascinated me. How many days did his journey take? What route did he use? Where did he sleep? More importantly, what did he eat?!
I like to imagine the young, carefree Johann stopping off in some wayside town. Maybe a charming little village where he was offered lodging for the evening and a simple breakfast by some adorable, matronly hausfrau. And what might this hausfrau have served him for breakfast? According to some food historians, it may have been Brot und Biersuppe (Bread and Beer Soup).
Here follows the Woodwind Gourmet’s take on this very old breakfast specialty that’s been in existence since medieval times. Baking the oaty, mellow homemade bread will make it a cozier meal, but feel free to substitute any hearty bread you might already have on-hand. For the beer, I used a Guinness Extra Stout, but any dark beer or stout that you prefer would work for the soup.
Bach’s Bread & Biersuppe
Yields 1 loaf
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 1/4 cups warm milk (100-110-degrees)
1 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
3 tablespoons honey
In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warmed milk. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, or in the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the remaining ingredients. Pour in the yeast mixture; stir to form a shaggy dough. Knead dough, by hand (10 minutes) or by machine (5-8 minutes) until smooth and elastic. Place dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover and allow it to rest for 1 hour until doubled in size. Gently deflate the dough and transfer to a lightly oiled surface.
With your hands, press the dough into a rectangle and then tightly roll into a log, pinching the seams to seal. Place in a lightly greased 9″ x 5″ loaf pan, cover the pan loosely and allow dough to rise for 60 to 90 minutes, just until it’s crested 1″ to 2″ over the rim of the pan.
Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center registers 190°F. Allow to cool before slicing. This loaf can be made in advance and freezes well.
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons minced shallot
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon
1/2 teaspoon dried sage
1 cup dark beer or stout
1 cup chicken or beef stock
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea salt (or to taste)
In a 2-quart saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Sauté the shallots and garlic until softened; add the thyme, tarragon, and sage, stir for 30 seconds. Add the beer, stock, and brown sugar; cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture comes to a low boil.
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and flour. While whisking, slowly pour in about half of the hot beer mixture. Pour the contents of the bowl back into the saucepan and continue cooking until mixture returns to boil and thickens sufficiently. Stir in the mace, pepper, and salt.
To serve, toast slices of bread and generously butter. Place the toast in shallow bowls and ladle soup around toast.
To accompany your stirring, kneading, whisking, and slurping, here is a signficant collection of Bach’s organ music (The Orgelbüchlein) — most of which was likely composed after his visit with Buxtehude.
Looking for more recipes? Check out the other recent Woodwind Gourmet series: