Amazing Sweets, Food Musings
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What to Eat at European Christmas Markets

Prague's European Christmas Markets

View of Old Town Prague’s Christmas Market as seen from Old Town Hall Tower

My mother used to claim that I inherited my wanderlust from her late father, a civil and mining engineer who worked and traveled throughout Latin America. If he was to blame for my “itchy feet,” that unceasing desire to roam the globe, then she bore responsibility for my passion for European Christmas markets. As a kid, I spent countless Saturdays following her through crowded church Christmas bazaars. Which faith sponsored the event never mattered. As long as it featured homemade pizzelles, kolaches, stollen or fruitcake, we’d be there.

A curious kid, I wondered how my hometown’s holiday bazaars stacked up against those in people’s homelands. If I visited Germany’s Striezelmarkt, would ladies jostle and push for the last few loaves of nut-studded stollen? If I went to Poland, would people nibble on onion- and potato-filled pierogis as they shopped? What did people eat at European Christmas markets? For that matter, did they even have these seasonal fairs?

loaves of fruit bread

It’s everyone’s favorite, “fruit loaf!”

Turns out that Europe is chocked full of cheery, outdoor, holiday markets. Along with decorations, crafts and jewelry, they invariably have at least one stall dedicated to traditional Advent pastries and breads. Dresden, Germany goes so far as to hold a parade and slicing ceremony in honor of its signature bread, stollen. While most cities don’t go to this extent, all feature fruit-, nut- and spice-laced baked goods.

Mulled wine at Vienna's Stephensplatz Christmas market

Drinking mulled wine from a ceramic boot at Vienna, Austria’s Stephensplatz Christmas market

While I only remember hot chocolate, coffee and apple cider at those church bazaars, European Christmas markets feature a far more festive drink, mulled wine. Depending on what country you visit, look for glühwein (Germanic language countries), vin chaud (French-speaking lands), glogg (Nordic regions) or jolly groups of shoppers sipping from steaming ceramic mugs. It’s a great way to warm up on a blustery day or night!

Bags of chestnuts at a European Christmas market

Chestnuts waiting to be roasted in Cologne, Germany

Before a December trip to France I had always thought of chestnuts and “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” as the stuff of romantic tales. Boy, was I ever wrong. Nothing says “winter in Europe” like the sweet, smoky smell of roasted chestnuts. No matter where you go in Europe, you can wander into a town square and find chestnuts cooking in a pan over an open flame.

Belgian waffles in Antwerp, Belgium

Waiting for fresh, hot Belgian waffles, Liege-style, in Antwerp, Belgium

High on my list of market treats is a fresh, hot Belgian waffle. Firmer, sweeter and more substantial than an American-style waffle, it comes in two varieties, Brussels and Liege. I’m partial to the denser Liege but you will usually find both on offer. To fully enjoy the flavor, skip the ice cream and sauces and order it with just a sprinkling of sugar on top.

Austrian cinnamon stars

Austrian cinnamon stars , or zimtsterne, in Vienna

A jewel box of a city, Vienna, Austria sparkles at Christmastime. The twinkling lights, the elegant architecture, the cinnamon stars. Yes, cinnamon stars. A holiday specialty, these small, iced cookies consist of ground almonds, cinnamon, egg whites and the German cherry liqueur kirsch. Delicious to eat straight from the bag, they can also be boxed and given as gifts during the holiday season.

German potato pancakes

Frying up potato pancakes in Berlin, Germany

For those rare times when I’ve had my fill of cookies, waffles, chestnuts, candy and drinks, I might order German potato pancakes or Czech potato spirals. Granted, they’re fried in hot oil but it’s the holidays and I’ve already consumed half my weight in sweets. I might as well indulge a little more. As for that other Western Pennsylvania favorite pierogis, while I didn’t come across them in the Czech Republic, I may encounter them in Poland later this month. I’ll keep you posted.

Potato spirals

Potato spirals in Prague, Czech Republic

8 Comments

  1. Elizabeth says

    Chestnuts over an open fire reminds me of walking around NYC, in the fall and winter, as a child and teenager. There were always vendors selling hot chestnuts. My father would buy a bag of them and throughly enjoy them once we arrived at relatives homes.

    • Kathy Hunt says

      Such nice memories! Thanks for sharing them. You can still find roasted chestnuts in NY but I don’t recall seeing them at the holiday markets. I’ll have to check in a few weeks and report back.

  2. I noticed that most of the markets you mention are in northern or central Europe. Do some of the more southern countries (Italy, Spain) also have this tradition? If so, do they have any characteristic foods/drinks you find particularly notable?

    • Kathy Hunt says

      Spain, Italy and Portugal all have Christmas markets but, with the exception of Spain, they are smaller and shorter in duration. As for market specialties, what I recall from Barcelona, Spain are platters filled with the honey nougat turron and whimsical animals and holiday figures made from marzipan. The latter were especially impressive and almost too cute to eat. Almost.

  3. Vincent says

    I have a question about how the European markets feel compared to the American markets. We’re the European women jostling for those last pieces of stollen? Is it as busy and hectic as our markets, more relaxed?

    I tend to stay away from Christmas markets as they are so crazed. I’m wondering if the European would be different.

    • Kathy Hunt says

      The European markets seem to have a more relaxed feel. Having said that, I have had the luxury of visiting them at non-peak times, when the locals are at work and school. Plus, I often have a nice mug of mulled wine before setting off in search of that special holiday handicraft. That probably helps me and everyone else at these markets! In general, though, people do seem more courteous and patient than at the Christmas markets at home. They are also incredibly tolerant of my limited grasp/outright butchering of their native languages.

  4. Sharon says

    Have you considered running tours? I would love to drink mulled wine from that little boot!

    Thanks for the pictures of soft peaks on your other article. That is so helpful. I am going to make the cinnamon star cookies.

    What do you do with the cookie dough that is left out when making the stars? I always struggle with this when making cookies. Can it be easily recombined?

    • Kathy Hunt says

      To answer your questions in reverse order, I form the leftover dough into a ball, pat it down, cover it with confectioner’s sugar and a piece of parchment paper and roll it out again. If the dough seems too sticky to work with, I refrigerate it for 15 minutes before cutting out more stars. With the exception of tiny scraps I use all the dough. As for tours, that’s a sweet thought! For now I’m sticking with writing and teaching but I’m always happy to share tips for making travel (and cooking and baking) easy and fun.

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