By this time, all the food – from whipped cream to Goose thighs — has been digested, and the Christmas Market vendors of Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary have packed up their goods for another year. The Advent Christmas Markets usually begin the first day of Advent, which is four weeks before Christmas, and end their runs on December 26th.
The Christmas Market has been a tradition in most all parts of Europe, and is known as Christkindlmarkt, Marché de Noël, Christkindlesmarkt, Christkindlmarket, and Weihnachtsmarkt. The history of these street markets goes back to the Late Middle Ages in the German-speaking parts of Europe and in many parts of the former Holy Roman Empire that included many eastern regions of France and Switzerland. The Vienna “December Market” was a forerunner of the Christmas Market and dates back to 1294.
On our Viking Christmas Markets Cruise, completed just a few days ago, we went on the Viking Embla Longship, and took a Winter cruise down the Danube, docking at major ports where there were Christmas Markets nearby. From Passau to Linz to Salzburg to Vienna to Bratislava to Budapest, we experienced glorious Christmas Markets, each a little different in texture and taste, due to cultural histories of the areas. Though these histories were substantial to the flow of these European cultural identities, what we remember are the sensuous, distinct scents and tastes of the Market food, as well as of patisseries close to the Markets. Here are some of our taste memory favorites.
Passau: The Christmas Market was close to the famed St. Stephen’s church, at Cathedral Square. About 70 small stalls sold Christmas foods, but Passau is known for being the original town where Lebkuchen (gingerbread) was first created and made. The scent of spiced gingerbread was ever-present at the Passau market long with the meter and a half long bratwurst and those who ate it certainly had no worries about cholesterol. This is the town where we first tasted Glühwein, a warm drink made from mulled wine, usually red, with spices, cloves and vanilla pods.
Later in the day, we went to a small patisserie near the church where people were drinking their Glühwein, or coffee and eating pastries of every shape and size. In this part of Germany, Magenbrot (another form of gingerbread) and Christstollen (an egg bread with candied fruit and almonds) were being enjoyed at this eatery, and it the market stalls.
Salzburg: The Salzburg Christmas Market is located at the foot of the Hohensalzburg fortress, and all around the Cathedral of Salzburg. In addition to the marzipan and Stollen cakes, is a Bratapfel – a form of baked apple – and roasted chestnuts. It is a dessert that has a smoky, cinnamon apple taste. And in discussing nuts, gebrannten Mandeln, a candied roasted almond, is also unique and endemic to this Salzburg Christmas Market. Of course, the Lebkuchen (gingerbread) is ubiquitous, but a specialty of Salzburg is the Mozartkugel (or, Mozart balls) – mainly because Mozart was born in Salzburg, and we are reminded of his presence everywhere, especially at the Christmas Market, right up the street from the yellow Mozart Geburthaus (Mozart’s birthplace.) The original Ball is made of green pistachio marzipan covered in a layer of nougat, then has a dark chocolate coating.
Vienna: According to our Viking River Cruise guide, there are over 20 Christmas markets in Vienna, but we experienced only one: the largest one in front of the Rathaus (City Hall) in downtown Vienna. There are many others: those especially meaningful due to their location were the ones in front of the exceptional St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and the Belvedere Palace and Museum. In all, however, the food sold were very like the others: roasted chestnuts, Lebkuchen, Glühwein, and all types of strudel: cherry, apple and blueberry, as well as sizzling Bratwurst. But because we were in Vienna, went to a patisserie close to the Rathaus Christmas Market that’s famous worldwide, called Demel. Founded in 1786, it is a dark wood, tri-leveled dessert palace. At Demel, we saw and sampled Sachertortes (the Hotel Sacher, where the original Sachertorte was originally created was right down the street,) Esterhazy Tortes, hazelnut tortes, and hazelenut and apricot filled tortes. In the display cases, we saw hundreds of pies and cakes and candies. One of their most popular exports worldwide is Candied Violets. Esoteric, but compelling nonetheless. Our favorite was the Walnut and Coffee torte – a taste combination, that was as unusual as it was beautiful as was their hot chocolate with mounds of whipped cream – and finally their DemelViennese coffee: coffee, then Apricot liqueur, then whipped cream. Upon leaving, I swore I would never eat again.
Bratislava: This is the capital of Slovakia, which is a landlocked country clearly in the direct geographical center of Europe. It is bordered by the Czech Republic, Austria, Poland, The Ukraine and Hungary. The Danube passes through it, and is near the Carpathian Mountains, making this area a cross cultural and cross culinary paradise. We had just come from Vienna, home of every known kind of sweet torte, candy, and whipped cream, to Bratislava, home of much wilder, heartier food. At the Christmas market, held on the main square in Bratislava, we sampled food we had never seen or heard of before, made from ham, pork, and goose. Examples of traditional dishes included cigánska pečienka (roasted pork or chicken in a bun with grilled onion and mustard); lokše –potato crepes– stuffed with goose fat, poppy seeds, or cabbage; and hriatô, a plum brandy, as well as mead, a strong fruit brandy made from plums, or blackcurrants, or cherries. One gentleman on our cruise brought back some ham he had purchased at the Market, so his cruise colleagues could taste what fresh, smoked, non-preserved ham tasted like. It was fabulous!
Budapest: Hungary is south of Slovakia, and very much like its neighbor, borders on many other countries. Thus the food we found at the Budapest Christmas Market was again such a combination of high cholesterol, wild food that I could imagine could have been eaten by Turkish and Magyar conquerors. The elegant, sweet Viennese Café society food just did not emerge here. What did emerge, however, was the common kürtös kalács, the chimney cake that is baked on a tapered cylindrical spit over an open fire. The ones we saw had a cinnamon glaze and then a plain sugar glaze. Then there were massive amounts of strudel, with large filling of poppy seed. Then, there was stuffed cabbage rolls, blood sausage, all types of bratwurst, goose thigh, pork knuckles, duck breast, and roasted chestnuts. We washed that all down with Krampampuli, a Hungarian punch, made from dates, figs, dried, plums, and candied orange peel. And, while were in on Vorosmarty Square where the Christmas Market was being held, we stopped at Gerbeaud, one of the greatest and most traditional coffee houses in Europe, also over 150 years old. This place has, again, many menu choices of great desserts, chocolates, pies and tortes. We had a chocolate sponge dessert that was sensational: and, after finishing, I swore I would never eat again. But then, again, I relented. The food was also excellent on our Viking Christmas Markets cruise, so all of us on the Viking Longship felt we had overeaten.
However, at the end of this trip, I talked to one of my fellow cruisers at the Budapest airport as we were leaving for the United States. He was of Slovakian extraction, and had thrilled at the Budapest and Bratislava Christmas Markets food, as those were the tastes and scents he grew up with. He said his mother had died ten years before, and he wanted to honor her memory by taking this trip. I asked him how he felt about the trip, all the history and culinary culture we experienced. He said he loved every second, felt his mother was guiding him in the cabbage roll and goose leg direction. “All in all, “he said, “I have a warm heart leaving.” I said I knew what he meant.