‘Tis the season! Christmas markets have opened throughout Germany, each one filled with cabins piled high with spicy gingerbread, fruit-filled loaves, crunchy nut cookies, rock-hard springerli for dunking, glistening candied fruits, glazed nuts, sugar-dusted doughnuts, buttery shortbreads, and steaming kettles of glühwein– the hot mulled wine that warms my hands as I walk from treat to treat.
I’m in my favorite corner of Germany, in the southwest where the smart modern city of Stuttgart leads into fairy-tale villages of the Black Forest. Stuttgart is a highly overlooked city, which makes it especially appealing, with fewer crowds to jostle for a seat in its starred restaurants (it has more Michelin stars than any other place in Germany). And its Christmas market is one of the largest. Several hundred wooden cabins decorated with fragrant greens and rooftop holiday scenes line its streets and squares. The largest square is designed for children, with a miniature village and booths where they can bake their own cookies and dip candles.
But I head into the thick of the market, under an archway of twinkling lights and along a promenade formed by cabins displaying Christmas decorations and handcrafted gifts. They are tempting, but I resist, keeping my hands free for the food.
Ah, the food. White springerle with delicate scalloped edges and intricate embossed designs are displayed beside their hand-carved wooden molds. They are so beautiful that I feel guilty dipping one of the rock-like confections into my tea at a nearby café, but what a lovely new blend of flavors, adding a delicate anise scent to the tea’s aromas.
Rows of gingerbread boys are dressed in bright frosting clothes, and more gingerbread cookies are cut in reindeer heads and the traditional big hearts frosted with greetings of love and seasonal cheer. Honey-rich lebkuchen full of spices and ground nuts are everywhere, cut into stars, frosted, dipped in dark chocolate, loose, packaged in fancy boxes, each made from a slightly different cherished recipe, but every one dispersing its spicy fragrances into the air.
These mingle with the unmistakable fragrance of roasting chestnuts from a cute roasting wagon shaped like a steam engine. A paper cone full of these is a good hand-warmer. Nearby is a basket of “marzipan potatoes” – uneven little lumps of almond paste rolled in powdered cocoa.
Almost as ubiquitous as lebkuchen are stacks of warm Berliners, jelly- and custard-filled doughnuts rolled in glistening sugar or sometimes drizzled in frosting. Alongside them are buns filled with candied fruit, and loaves of fruit-filled sweet bread. This is the traditional stollen from Dresden, and bakers have traveled here to sell it.
It’s not all gingerbread and cookies. Along with the sweets are plenty of savories – plump juicy wursts on toasted rolls slathered with tangy mustard or pungent curry sauce, pots of savory thick soups, bright pink salmon on cedar planks above a bed of glowing coals, hot pretzels and booths dispensing thin pancakes spread with honey or fruity jams.
The fragrance of good things sizzling on a hot grill summons us, and we find Krautspaetzle, the thick Swabian dumplings called spaetzli stirred on a grill with chopped bacon and sauerkraut. We crowd into a tent sheltering a pop-up cafe and its impromptu kitchen, sharing a table and benches with locals. There’s an instant conviviality of warm food that transcends language and prompts strangers to strike up a conversation. Of course the subject is food.
[All photos copyright Stillman Rogers Photography]