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Medieval Inventions: The Pretzel

Who invented the pretzel?

As the legend goes, you can can follow the plot twists all the way back to 610 AD in a monastery in Southern France or Northern Italy.

Supposedly, frugal monks first created the treat with leftover dough. The strips were then formed to represent a child's arms folded in prayer.

The monks called it a Pretiola, Latin for little reward. From there, the pretiola transformed into the Italian word, brachiola, or "little arms." The popularity of the brachiola journeyed beyond France and Italy to where it really found favor, in Austria and Germany, where it became known as the Bretzel.

Since pretzels didn't contain any ingredients that weren’t eaten during the pre-Easter season - eggs, milk, butter, lard - the pretzel became a popular Lenten food throughout the Middle Ages.

One of their earliest depictions were included in 1440 on a page in the prayer book portraying the martyred St. Bartholomew - surrounded by pretzels - since by that time they had come to symbolize good fortune.

Bakers who sold the treats were in luck, too, since the treats were always in demand. Another early graphic view of pretzels (at left) show them cleverly hung aloft from a stick for all to see, hawked by a German street vendor in approximately 1483.

Evidence suggests, however, that the medieval treat might not have been the popular salty junk food we have all come to love. In fact, a very different kind of pretzel can be had throughout Vienna even today. The sugar or chocolate-coated varieties popular with tourists hark back to a 16th century recipe, translated below:

Take white flour, only the white of eggs and some wine, sugar and anise, prepare a dough with these ingredients, roll the dough with clean hands such that it becomes longish and round. Make small pretzels from it and put them into a warm oven and bake them so that you do not burn it but that they are well dried. This way, they will become crisp and good. If you like, you may take cinnamon as an ingredient for the dough, too (but you can leave it). This dish is called Precedella.

Today, no matter in what language or whether consumed soft, hard, chocolate-covered or salted, the humble pretzel has a proud heritage as possibly the world's oldest and most popular junk food.

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