Bread of the Magi

Where does kugelhopf come from? The Holy Roman Empire. That term isn’t terribly helpful since at its height the Holy Roman Empire comprised everything from Belgium to the Czech Republic, Northern Italy up through Switzerland, Austria and Germany to Western Poland. That’s a big area, can we get any more specific? Well we know that kugelhopf, which is German word, is made from brioche. That’s a French word for a Viennese bread that was probably first invented in Poland. Does that help any? Nah, not really.

These days kugelhopf is considered a traditional bread in much of Central Europe, though Alsatian kugelhopf is probably the most famous. This region, which runs along the eastern edge of France where it borders Germany, has changed hands many, many times over the course of European history, most recently after World War II. Is it really French or is it really German? Many people who live there now can’t quite decide.

Local lore has it that kugelhopf was invented in Alsace by The Magi of Jesus Christ-in-the-manger fame. So the story goes they prepared kugelhopf there as a gesture of thanks to a local innkeeper who gave them shelter as they made their way toward Bethlehem. The turban-like shape is a testament to the bread’s origin. That myth of course jibes neither with culinary history nor the Gospel of Matthew (the Gospel in which the Magi appear), which says they came “from the East.” Of Bethlehem that is. Take a look at a map and you’ll see that, if these dudes were meandering around France looking for the nascent son of a Jewish carpenter, either their maps were upside-down or their camels were drunk. Still it makes a good story.

Another popular myth is that kugelhopf was invented in Alsace by Stanislas Leszczynski who was in fact exiled there, and right about the time kugelhopf first appeared on the culinary scene, the early 1700’s. Though likelier than the Three Wise Men story, the odds of that being true are probably near zero. More likely kugelhopf is yet another one of those impossible-to-pin-down classic preparations that wasn’t invented by a person but rather a culture.

5 thoughts on “Bread of the Magi”

  1. The Magi are traditionally represented as being one European, one far Asian, one African (arriving respectively on horse, elephant, and camel) as a symbol of all the peoples of the world coming to greet the newborn king. There’s lots of room for pious decoration of the Magi tradition, from Polish king bringing kugelhopf, to the “king of the United States of America” bearing a broken phonograph in Donavan’s Reef.

    1. Ha! True enough, GK! When I was a kid we were taught that Balthasar was king of Arabia, Gaspar king of India and Melchior king of Persia. I think that was pretty conventional Catholic thinking for most of the Church’s history, though of course the Gospels say no such thing. These days, or so it’s my understanding, many biblical scholars think The Magi were astronomer/astrologers (the two words being interchangeable in those days) from around the region of modern day Pakistan. But honestly who knows? It sure is fun speculate though. King of America indeed! What gift would he bring? Steaks, is my thinking.

      Thanks GL!

      – Joe

  2. More than just a question of the bread, is Alsace french or German? Its a region that has been fought over & changed hands a few times. They brew some darn fine German beers & German is spoken by many (or was 40 years ago). Its not surprising that this cultural cross-roads would produce a food that appeared in variation in countries all around there – it is come together there or spread out from there? We’ll never know.

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