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European Christmas Market Goodies

December 22, 2011

One of the thrills of strolling through Christmas markets in Europe is being able to see all of the wonderful goodies they have to offer the hordes of guests who come to visit.  The idea of a traditional Christmas market of little wooden huts occupied by artists and craftsmen who bring their home-made and hand-made goods to the market to sell during Christmastime is alive and well all over Europe, especially Eastern Europe.  You can stroll down to the main city center, or town square in Munich, Nuremburg, Strasbourg, Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Salzburg and countless other cities and find a Christmas market.

Christmas markets, set against a backdrop of a large Christmas tree traditionally decorated, and perhaps a manger scene, fill town squares.  Often times, the backdrop of the city’s town hall, or historic church, or clock tower, provides the romantic focal point of the Christmas market filled with revelers who are out and about to celebrate the season, find traditional handcrafted ornaments and gifts, or those who just want to be merry, drink some gluhwein and enjoy some traditional food.  With a little bit of snow falling from the heavens, the scene is romantic and picturesque, like something out of the fairy tale.

The stalls that always are crowded, especially at night, when the temperatures start to fall, are the gluhwein stands.  Gluhwein is a hot mulled wine mixed with various spices.  Drinking gluhwein is probably the most popular thing to do at a Christmas market.  When you walk by the stalls, you can smell the hot mulled spices, they just draw you in.  Freshly mulled in huge vats, when you walk up to a stand and buy some, they ladle your gluhwein into special Christmas market cups.  You leave a deposit for these cute little cups and you get a cup of gluhwein.  If you return the cup when you’re done, you get your deposit back.  Or you can take the cup with you as a souvenir.  Each year, the vendors switch to different Christmas themed cups, so the cups themselves become collectibles as well.  For those who don’t drink wine, or for the kids, there’s Kinderpunsch, which is punch or cider mulled with the same spices, just less the alcohols.

Among the stalls that sell your handcrafted ornaments, hand blown glass, home-made potpourri sachets, and hand carved manger scenes, you can find all sorts of Christmas market food goodies, from trdelnik in Prague, to sausages and cheese in Budapest, to sweets and pastries in Vienna to lebkuchen in Munich.  There’s no shortage of food stalls to pick and choose to your stomach’s delight!  And of course, what would a Christmas market be if there weren’t numerous gluhwein stalls all over the place with revelers imbibing in this holiday favorite!

One of my favorite Christmas market food stalls are the ones that sell chocolate covered fruit.  Ok, so the idea of chocolate covered fruit is not a new one.  But the way in which it is done and presented at this Christmas markets seems a new idea to me.  Take fresh slices of your favorite fruits – bananas, raspberries, strawberries, and grapes – skewer them on a wooden stick and dip the entire concoction in white, dark, or milk chocolate.  Once the chocolate has hardened, the skewered fruit is ready to be sold!  Kind of like making chocolate covered strawberries, but doing it on a stick instead!  Some merchants have even taken this idea a step further by having working chocolate fountains at their booths, and running the fresh fruit under the chocolate fountain right in front of your eyes!  My favorite is the skewer that contains both banana slices and fresh strawberries.  I’m not discriminating, I bought skewers of both milk and white chocolate!

Apparently, nuts are super popular in Europe and candied nuts of all flavors and kinds are also a Christmas market staple.  Walnuts, pecans, macadamia nuts and pistachios candied, and flavored with everything from something sweet and sugar to hot and spicy can be purchased.  You can purchase these fresh roasted nuts by the scoopful into homemade paper cones.  They displays are both eye-catching as well as a bombardment to your senses.  You see people constantly walk by you with paper cones filled with all sorts of nuts as they munch their way through the aisles of Christmas goods!

Then, as if, there wasn’t enough chocolate during the holiday season, you can find stalls in Vienna loaded with bretzl, or what we know as pretzels, that are literally the size of your head!  Soft pretzels are a speciality in Germany and Austria, and you can find them served at every meal.  As a sweet or savory treat in Vienna, the bakers will sell these soft pretzels dipped in chocolate and covered with silvered almonds, or made with a pizza topping, or drizzled with both white and milk chocolate, or flavored like apple pie, and so forth.  It’s amazing all the creations you can make with a simple, flaky, soft pretzel.  And seeing them in their display case calling at you, it’s hard to resist.

Next, you’ve got your lebkuchen which I found everywhere in some form from Munich, to Prague, to Budapest, to Bratislava to Vienna.  Lebkuchen is a traditional German Christmas treat that somewhat resembles what we know of here as gingerbread.  You see stands filled with homemade lebkuchen, generally in shapes you’d recognize from hearts to trains to rocking horses to Christmas trees.  In order to entice customers, the lebkuchen will be decorated will brightly colored icing and inscribed with some sort of sweet saying such as “Ich liebe dich!” (I love you! in German).  You’ll see parents buy these lebkuchen for their kids, and kids will proudly display these lebkuchen around their necks using the ribbon that’s usually attached to the treat.

But, it’s not just sweets you’ll find in the Christmas market, there are plenty of savory foods as well!  As you might expect to find in Munich and Vienna, there were a lot of sausage stands.  Fresh grilled sausages, bratwurst, rotwurst, weisswurst and any other kind of wurst you can think up grilled in front of your very eyes.  On a cold night, where it might be drizzling, or snowing; to smell the fragrant scents of freshly grilled sausages is almost too much to pass up!  And, I have to tell you, that the rolls that they serve with these sausages are some of the best rolls I’ve ever eaten.  So crusty on the outside and yet so soft on the inside.  They are killer!  And the sausages were absolutely delicious too!  And I’m not even a fan of sausage, but a hot, warm, grilled sausage, filled with all sorts of amazing spices inside a fresh bread roll was the perfect combination.  Of course, you could also get sauerkraut and mustard and all sorts of other traditional Bavarian fare.

In Budapest, it wasn’t just fresh grilled sausages, there were meat and cheese stands where you could buy all sorts of speciality dried meats and various cheeses.  They also had huge booths filled with all sorts of freshly made and grilled before your eyes sausages, meats, vegetables.  It was a food lover’s heaven!  Traditional Hungarian goulash, potatoes, and meats piled high on plates waiting for hungry patrons.

In Vienna, a city known for its amazing pastries, including apple strudel, there were various stalls selling nothing but sweets to satisfy a sweet tooth.  All sorts of breads, cookies, pastries, donuts filled with everything from fruit filling to marzipan to bavarian cream.  You saw display cases full of these pastries and goodies and you just couldn’t walk by them.  They would just make your mouth water.  My husband and I had to pick up some goodies that we would eat later.  My husband chose a huge linzer cookie filled with a berry jam.  Linzer cookies are made based upon the famous Linzer tortes of Linz, Austria.  They are soft, crumbly pastry, almost the consistency of soft shortbread, often filled with some sort of fruit jam or jelly.  In this case, the huge Linzer cookie was filled with a berry jam and then half the cookie was dipped in chocolate!

My selection from the pastry display in Vienna was the vanilla krapfen.  Krapfen, or more popularly known as a Berliner is a German and Central European doughnut.  Known in some parts of Canada and the United States as Bismark, the krapfen is made of sweet yeast dough, fried in oil or fat, subsequent filled with a large syringe after frying with either marmalade or jam, and then usually iced or dusted with powdered sugar.  In this case, I had the option of choosing a krapfen with either a vanilla custard filling or with marzipan.  I chose the vanilla custard.  My krapfen was dusted with powdered sugar in the shape of a star.

All over Christmas markets in Europe you’ll see signs for “Heisse Maroni”.  Translated from German that’s hot chestnuts.  A Christmas market speciality, you can find small little stands all over the place with these huge tin tubs that are filled with roasted chestnuts.  Like the roasted nuts that other stands sell, you can buy a paper cone full of fresh roasted chestnuts.  After the chestnut pods have fallen off the chestnut tree, they are gathered together.  The pods are then split open to reveal the 2 or 3 chestnuts hiding inside.  The chestnuts are then scored to prevent them from exploding while being roasted.  Once roasted, a chestnut ends up with a texture similar to that of a baked potato but with a sweet, nutty flavor.  It’s the perfect, bite-sized treat to have while tempting your pocketbooks walking around the Christmas markets.

As if all these delightful goodies weren’t enough, there’s still more to be found.  In a lot of markets, I saw stands that sold this pizza-like concoction.  It was probably more like a crusty bread topped with all sorts of goodies rather than being a pizza, but it sure looked like slices of pizza.  Basically, there’s this bread-like crust topped with all sorts of items like cheese, scallions, bacon and more.  The uncooked concoction is set in the display case for customers to choose from.  Once chosen, it goes into a small wood-fired oven and is cooked through and the cheese is melted.  It comes out of the oven piping hot onto a plate or napkin and served.  In a chilly night, the wonderful scents wafting from these stalls are magical.

Remember, this is just a small selection of the wonderful goods you can find at the Christmas markets.  We haven’t even started discussing kartoffelpuffer (German potato pancakes), all sorts of sweets and candies, fry bread, fresh made potato chips, fully loaded baked potatoes, homemade chocolates and truffles, and the list goes on and on and on.  The Christmas markets are an attraction not only for the goods they sell, but for the foods you can find there as well!  If you ever get the opportunity to travel to Europe during Christmastime, don’t let it pass you by.  It’s an attraction well worth your time.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 26, 2011 6:44 am

    Your post brings back wonderful memories of our past Christmases spent in Germany, Austria and France. So much fun to be there during the holidays.

  2. January 14, 2012 1:59 am

    In Finland we are not selling food on Christmas markets. Thus, Your post was very interesting to me to read.

    We are selling different things:

    Christmas Markets in Finland

    Happy Saturday!

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