Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Krauterbonbons from Lubeck Christmas Market
I went to Germany last week on a Candy Junket sponsored by German Sweets, part of the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection. Our group consisted of 10 American journalists & writers and covered 1,500 kilometers and in only five days we saw seven confectionery factories (map).
Though the weather was rather dismal (but expected) with temperatures in the forties and rain the whole week, we still braved the brisk and damp weather to take advantage of the famous Christmas Markets in as many towns as we could. The first one we stopped at was Lubeck, Germany, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Christmas Markets (Weihnachtsmarkt) feature mostly food and hot alcoholic beverages but also a small smattering of seasonal tasties like confections and some giftware like Christmas ornaments, hats, leathergoods and other small items.
One of the most common confectionery stalls that I saw at all three markets was the one that sold fresh candies nuts and gingerbread cookies. The cookies are for gifting and many were decorated garishly with frosting and had little affectionate sayings on them (photo). Most were heart shaped and came in a variety of sizes. Of course they’re horrible for bringing back in a suitcase, so I just looked at them.
The nuts were really appealing, just toffeed nuts of all kinds (photo). Almonds were the most common but each booth had a good assortment of walnuts, cashews and some peanuts. Some had more exotic flavors, the most common was a Christmas spice, but others had licorice or Nutella. The prices were pretty good, a little 100 gram (3.5 ounces) was 2.50 Euro and I believe they would mix if you asked.
The market in Berlin at Alexanderplatz near our hotel also had a small assortment of booths, again, most selling drinks and hot food and a more international fare of gift items (Russian nesting dolls, Indonisian carved bowls) as well as one confectionery stall with a rather large range of traditional candies from Germany and a few that looked more Nordic or Dutch.
The booths that sold Krauterbonbons, and I saw at least three of them in Lubeck, all smelled quite strongly of anise. It was as if they were using aromatherapy to attract customers. Two of the booths looked like they produced the candy right there. They had a copper kettle, a large counter of marble and a small pressing machine that can either cut the little candy pillows from a pulled rope of the hot sugar mixture or mold press them into individual pieces. However, we walked through the Lubeck market twice, once on the night we arrived around 8 PM, then again the next day when we visited the Niederegger cafe at lunchtime. Neither time did I see them making any candy, nor any of the other booths. Perhaps it was all theater, and perhaps it was just something they did in the morning to make their inventory for the day.
As it was my first visit to a Christmas Market, I picked up a small bag of their Krauterbonbons Mischung (Herbal Sweets Assortment), which fit easily in my pocket and I thought would travel well.
Inside the homely little plastic bag were 28 pieces in about ten different varieties. The shapes varied, some were just little pillows, others were rather rustic but pressed lumps and then there were the gems with their ornate patterns. They’re lightly sanded to keep them from sticking.
I can’t say what the flavors were supposed to be, as there was no key and many of the flavors I purchased were not sold separately (so I couldn’t match them up with the photos I took of the varieties in the jars at the booth).
Some were completely foreign to me. The little red puff was at first rather like raspberry, but there was a note of cola and maybe even Dr. Pepper (whatever that flavor is).
The light green flattened rod was pure peppermint. It was quite strong and fresh.
The black one that looks like a stylized corn cob is dark and sort of like molasses but lacking much else in the herb or spice area.
The brown rock looking thing was like a chocolate flavor, it tasted like black bread (Schwarzbrot with an hint of malt. If I had to find an American analogue, it’d be a chocolate Tootsie Pop. I actually liked this one quite a bit, it’s weird getting the flavor of dense, fresh bread in a hard candy.
The amber piece with a bee on it was honey, naturally. It was lovely. It tasted like honey and I wanted a whole jar of these, if not to eat, then just to look at.
There was also a single clear pillow with some black specks in it. It was a light anise and the exact flavor of the smell they were using to attract folks to the booth.
The light green flower with the cross in the center (back right) was rosemary. It was really refreshing, a little like pine and menthol but without any hint of bitterness.
The ribbed one with the cross in the center was like a cough drop, a mix of flavors similar to Ricola. It was minty but not completely peppermint, there was a menthol component and maybe a little touch of honey. The shape was fun to look at, as I kept an example of each on my desk lined up while tasting.
The black one with the hammers on it was like the one that I thought was like black bread, but with a strong note of licorice to it. It wasn’t overly sweet and I found it very soothing, especially with some bland, black tea.
If I had more time and was able to scope better, I probably would have gone back and picked up the flavors that were missing from my assortment. Lubeck definitely had the best assortment of these little lozenges and of course I would have loved to have seen them making them. (Mental note, next time, add “When do you make the candies” to my list of phrases I might need.)
If you’re going to be in Germany in the winter, the Christmas Markets are definitely something you should see, if only for a few hours. I think they’re probably more appealing to folks who eat sausage and drink alcohol but the one we saw in Schmalkalden actually had some fantastic looking cheese and cured meats. The architecture of many of these cities is lit up so I really felt like I was part of the place.
I was hoping to see more of a variety of sweets, but I fully understand the 90% of the Christmas Market is about tradition and the time warp of walking around a square in the dark with pretty lights and a cacophony of sounds and smells. There were no chocolates anywhere, though some of the stalls sold long ropes of flavored licorices and I actually got a giant Smurf gummi at one of them. The smaller the town we went to, the more they felt like they were true community events, not just something made up for the tourists. Their Christmas celebration through Advent, though front and center at every town, felt less commercial and more about community, even if it was temporary.
(Disclosure Note: The trip to Germany was sponsored, so I did not pay for my airfare, ground transportation, accommodations or food while I was there. At the factory tours we were given generous samples to consume on site as well as some to bring home. Any reviews of those products will be noted as to that fact. But I also brought a couple hundred Euros with me and spent them liberally and almost exclusively on candy both from the companies we were introduced to as well as many other Germany/European products that I found in my prowlings of grocery stores, department stores and the factory outlets.)
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