Zurich Christmas Markets

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Christmas market in Zurich old town

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.

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Christkindlimarkt in Zurich Hauptbahnhof

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.

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You’re looking at 7,000 Swarovski crystals

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.

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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.

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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.

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The original Dresdner stollen

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.

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Apple fritters with custard

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.

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Grittibaenz are eaten on St. Nicholas Day

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.

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Lussekatt are eaten on St. Lucia Day

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.

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Pretty lebkuchen for your loved ones

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.

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I can usually be found near the glühwein stand

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.

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Red glühwein for me please

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!

Christmas eating at Harrods and Harvey Nichols

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Oh how I’d love to eat my way through this hamper

London does Christmas better. Better and bigger than anywhere else in my humble opinion.

Right now it feels like the entire city is illuminated. Streets are decked out with elaborate lights, stores are dressed like pantomime stars, every corner reveals an outdoor ice skating rink selling mulled wine, and the tell-tale smell of cinnamon and cloves wafts through the air.

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Xmas pud yoghurt

Then there’s the food. And this is where London really shines. Even the supermarkets bring out imaginative Christmas ranges, from Heston’s hidden clementine Christmas pudding at Waitrose to xmas pud yoghurt (delicious by the way). The Christmas ad from Sainsbury’s this year stopped the nation.

But the real action is in the department stores that I usually steer clear of because I’m more Primark than Prada. And if London does it best then no one comes close to two of the big names in retail: Harrods and Harvey Nichols.

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You’d think every day was Christmas at Harrods

Harrods is a retail temple that’s lit up from top to toe all year round so you can just imagine how energetically it embraces the festive season. Every inch of the four giant food halls is festified.

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One entire food hall at Harrods is dedicated to chocolate

Little red cards noting special dishes are dotted through each section – a clever technique that subtly screams ‘limited edition’, ‘you need me for Christmas’ and ‘buy me immediately’.

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Your Christmas table centrepiece perhaps?

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Decadent kugelhopf dusted in gold leaf

The bakery section (always my favourite) is full of stunningly decorated cakes, pastries, donuts and breads. You can pick up a Christmas train cake for a cool £150, slices of marbled vanilla chocolate kugelhopf dusted in gold leaf or a gingerbread man ham and cheese puff.

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The prices are, as expected, exorbitant. But when you consider the artistry and precision involved in every single item, they are somewhat justified. And in case I had any doubts about the extremely high standards set here, an exchange I witnessed set my mind (and wallet) at ease.

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What fruit kugelhopf?

A suited manager asked one of the servers what on earth had happened to one of the fruit kugelhopfs on display. Admittedly the pieces looked like they’d been hacked by a five year old. The server hastily explained that it was a very difficult cake to cut and she’d really struggled with it. 

‘So what is it doing on the shop floor?’ asked the manager with an arched eyebrow.  

All evidence of that cake was gone in 30 seconds (I desperately hope not straight into the bin).

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It took every ounce of willpower not to buy one. A whole one.

The dish I found most drool worthy was definitely this sweet potato pie, perhaps a legacy to Thanksgiving as much as Christmas. Almond pastry encloses a heady spiced sweet potato mix which is topped with pumpkin seed tuille and mascarpone. What a stunner.

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Savoury patisserie at its best

And then there is the savoury patisserie. According to The Independent newspaper, “Savoury patisserie is a thing now”. Basically take your favourite pastry and replace the usual sweet flavours with savoury and presto, you have savoury patisserie.

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Will that be foie gras or goats cheese in your éclair?

For Harrods this means traditional choux pastry éclairs stuffed with goats cheese. Or delicate macaroons filled with foie gras.

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That’s my next birthday cake sorted

They sound exquisite but my attention was focused on the smoked salmon gateaux. Layers of smoked salmon, delicate crepes and light smoked salmon mousse are topped with avruga, salmon caviar and cream cheese ‘icing’. My next birthday cake perhaps?

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Harvey Nichols gets festive

Down the road at Harvey Nichols, the food hall on level 5 is slightly more chic (sweetie darling) but equally adorned. Giant silver crackers hang from the ceiling, spilling out beautifully packaged panettones, gingerbread men and mince pies.

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No dodgy paper crowns in these crackers

If those crackers are a little big for your dining table, there are smaller ones designed in black, gold and white that are filled with choice gifts and premium headware. Presumably the jokes are more high brow too.

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You can never have too much glitter on your cheese

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There is an impressive cheese selection and numerous ‘bombs’, including a smoked cheese bomb and whisky cheese bomb, both sheltered in thick wax and sprinkled liberally with glitter. Nothing says festive glam like glitter.

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Cake or turkey?

My favourite find was the large Christmas fruit cake in the shape of a turkey. Even the vegetable accoutrements are made of fruit cake. That’s one way to get the kids to eat their vegies!

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Eggnog for the uninitiated

As much as I would have loved to buy this cake (a steal at £49.95), I settled for some eggnog instead. You rarely see eggnog in Australia, probably because of the 30 degree plus temperatures around Christmas time so I’m curious to give it a whirl.

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Your festive condiment needs are sorted at Harvey Nichols

Christmas is a marketers dream. Create it and they will buy. This is why you need a specific pickle for Christmas Day and then a separate chutney for Boxing Day. Using the same over both days would be uncouth.

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If you only buy one thing, make it this

The alcohol department is also a favourite of mine, stacked high with bottles of Dom and Krug priced higher than a plane ticket to Sydney. My tip for the festive season is the mince pie syrup. Mix it with rum and pressed apple juice to create the perfect mince pie martini.

Between the two stores I could have easily dropped my life savings. But I’d better save a few quid for a trip to Selfridges and Fortnum & Mason…