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It’s been a winter tradition in Germany since the middle ages, but the German Christmas market or Weihnachtsmarkt has finally conquered the world. From Berlin to Birmingham, Frankfurt to Philadelphia, people are flocking to these festive fairs to sample the friendly, cheerful and cosy Christmas atmosphere - or ‘gemütlichkeit’ as the Germans call it. As well as twinkling fairy lights, whirling carousels, catchy Christmas songs and slightly creepy plastic Santa Claus effigies, there are stalls galore selling all kinds of Christmas tat. But for many the main attraction is the food. When it’s cold and wintry, there’s nothing like a plate of hearty German food and a hot spiced drink to warm you up. Here’s what to put on your German Christmas market wish list.
Best of the wurst
A German Christmas market without sausages would be like Santa Claus without the beard. Frightening. So you’re guaranteed brätwurst, the traditional white German pork sausage, up to half a metre in length. Krakauer is the lightly spiced red version of bratwurst, while the Feuerwurst or ‘fire sausage’ cranks up the spice factor for those frozen Christmas nights. For variety, you might prefer a käsewurst cheese sausage; the legendary currywurst (sliced brätwurst doused in curry-ketchup sauce), or Frankfurter Würstchen heated in brine. Either way, they should be served in a bun with mustard or ketchup, and optional fried zweibeln (onions).
Yuletide tip: Look out for the schwenkgrill - a tripod under which a circular grill is suspended by chains over hot birch-wood charcoal. This swinging grill allows the sausages to cook evenly for a more intense smoky flavor.
Bored of the same old sausage format? Frikadellen is a skinless sausage made with onions, bread and dried herbs, flattened into a burger-cum-meatball and served on a bun. More substantial is haxe braten or roast pork knuckle, often served with a choice of rot khol (red cabbage), Swabian spätzle (pasta) or kartoffelknödel (potato dumplings), bratkartoffeln (fried potatoes) and of course sauerkraut, which no German market worth its cabbage should be without. But save room for the main event: spanferkel, or whole suckling pig, slowly spit-roasted over a smouldering wood fire.
Now we’re talking. The Germans know how to drink, especially at Christmas. So expect beer - and lots of it - in the form of golden pilsner, hoppy weissbier (wheat beer) and malty dunkel or dark beer. Keep icicles at bay with glühwein or hot mulled wine spiced with cloves, star anise, cinnamon and citrus fruit. It’s usually made with red wine, but look out for versions using heidelbeerwein (blueberry wine), himbeerwein (raspberry wine) and kirschwein (cherry wine made with dark, sour morello cherries). Guaranteed to completely thaw you out is schneemann punsch, a mulled wine punch with rum, amaretto and cream; or perhaps a non-alcoholic heiße schokolade or hot chocolate, which is often served with marshmallows. Equally as sweet, but simple, is met or mead. Often referred to as honig wein or honey wine, it can be either white or red, cold or hot. But if your feet are still frozen a good shot will sort you out. Jägermeister and Kümmerling are herbal liqueur bitters that make an excellent digestif after all that pork and sauerkraut. Prost!
Yuletide tip: Beer is best served in a stein, and mulled wine in a mug, which keeps its contents warm in cold weather. You may be asked for a small deposit for the right receptacle, but you can return it for a refund, or keep it as a seasonal souvenir.
No German Christmas market would be complete without a snowdrift of sugar. Clear a path toward the pannfkuchen (crepes), which come with a variety of toppings including cinnamon, Nutella and eggnog, Kinder chocolate, marzipan and Grand Marnier. When you come to a sign saying ‘Nussknacker’ you’ll find colourful nut crackers fashioned into little toy soldiers. You might also find candied almonds with mint, toffee, eggnog, amaretto and Nutella. A very handy street sweet is the paradies apfel (toffee apple), or schoko apfel (chocolate apple), which comes conveniently impaled on a stick. That gives you a free hand to grab a nice plump Berliner. The famous eastern German doughnuts are filled with jam or custard, and have all sort of toppings, from marshmallow and eggnog, to strawberries and Black Forest gâteau. But perhaps the most Christmassy of all German sweetmeats are plätzchen cookies, shaped and decorated with a festive theme, from Christmas trees to little Santas. The most famous are heart-shaped lebkuchen-plätzchen, a gingerbread confection coated in chocolate and daubed with a seasonal greeting. Hang one up in your lebkuchenhaus or gingerbread house, and have a frohe Weinachten (merry Christmas)!