At this time of year, most European cities are filled with twinkling lights, roast chestnut stands and the heady scent of cinnamon and mulled wine in the air. It’s a compelling argument for a white Christmas.
Zurich really gets in on the Christmas cheer with seven markets strewn through the city. The flagship is the Christkindlimarkt in the main station or Hauptbahnhof, one of Europe’s largest indoor Christmas markets.
The cavernous space is filled with over 150 stalls, many with a distinct Germanic feel given Zurich sits in the German speaking part of Switzerland.
The highlight for most visitors is the 15 metre tall Christmas tree decorated with 7,000 sparkling Swarovski crystals. And to be fair, it is rather impressive.
Of course the highlight for me was the amazing range of food on offer, some of which is only available during the festive season.
Let’s start with the cheese. The Swiss churn out plenty of the stuff and it towered in tempting displays; giant wheels encased in vine leaves or crushed raisins, white rinds stuffed with truffle butter and topped with shaved truffle, even whisky käse. And of course there was plenty of raclette, pimped up with shaved truffle if you fancied.
One of my favourite festive treats is always the German Christmas cake, stollen. It’s a dense, buttery cake studded with dried fruit and candied citrus peel, occasionally marzipan, and topped with icing sugar.
The recipe originated in Dresden in the 15th Century and remains the most famous version. Dresdner stollen can legally be made by only 150 Dresden-based bakers and is distinguished by a special seal depicting King Augustus II.
Before long my local friends, Michael and Karin, steered us towards the Apfelhuis stand for some delicious apple fritters swimming in custard. Having now been to a dozen or so German Christmas markets, I can safely say that you will never find a whiff of fresh produce in one. Fried, battered, pickled and preserved is what it’s all about.
Swiss Germans mark St. Nicholas Day on 6 December by eating traditional sweet bread baked into the shape of a man with raisins for eyes and a chocolate ‘stick’. This fella is called Grittibaenz and represents an early form of Santa.
I was pleasantly surprised to encounter a Swedish stand offering lussekatt. These saffron tinged buns are traditionally eaten on St. Lucia Day on 13 December to celebrate the festival of light. I have happy memories of baking them with my Swedish friend Johan and they taste just like brioche with a soft yellow hue from the saffron.
I think the most picturesque stand at any Christmas market is always the one embellished with gingerbread hearts or lebkuchen. Hanging from ribbons and displaying cute phrases, the idea is to give them to loved ones to express your feelings.
The busiest stand of course, is almost always the glühwein stand. It’s usually my first port of call so I can then wander through the markets sipping a cup of intoxicating wine spiked with the flavours of cinnamon, vanilla, cloves and citrus.
I was pleasantly surprised to see red and white wine versions on offer but red inevitably wins my heart every time. In my eyes, the only downside of a hot Southern Hemmisphere Christmas is the impracticality of serving this aromatic concoction. Maybe I’ll look into a chilled version this year…
Do you have a favourite Christmas market find? Please do share!