Christmas in Alsace and Germany

This Christmas, Bob and I celebrated our first real Christmas in 38 years.

Christmas Tree in Strasbourg, France

Christmas Tree in Strasbourg, France

Since we downsized our store this summer to a smaller space, we shed much responsibility and stress. Now our life is concentrated exclusively on our tea, and we have  something that we are not used to – some free time, and easier life-management. While we are far from retired, we have renewed energy and feel young and almost carefree again. So in a decision based on sheer fun and self-indulgence, we decided to do something that we have always longed to do – visit Christmas Market in the Alsace region of France and parts of Germany. So we made a plan, booked flights, hotels and  trains for late November and let the anticipation build. We were not disappointed.

Colmar, France

Colmar, France

Christmas Markets begin their festivities in the days right before Advent and continue up until Christmas Day. The markets continue a tradition of selling and trading and gathering people together for joyful celebration that began 400-500 years ago in medieval cities and towns across Europe. Today, this festive spirit continues in most cities and many small towns, in the main medieval market square or in the streets surrounding a cathedral or prominent church in the heart of old town. According to our friend Peter, who lives in Stuttgart, Germany, each village with more than 4,000 inhabitants has its own Christmas Market – or Weihnachtsmarkt – as they are known in Germany. Regional differences in the crafts and the foods sold bring different a flavor to each market, so it is best to visit several markets, both city and village, to experience the local specialties.

A vendor stall in front of Strasbourg Cathedral

A vendor stall in front of Strasbourg Cathedral

Christmas Market, Nurnberg, Germany

Christmas Market, Nurnberg, Germany

But no matter if the market is large or small, the air is scented with the sweet perfume of spices, honey, carmel, gingerbread, and hot spiced wine, and the savory aroma of sausages grilling over a wood fire. For us, after years of selling European holiday goodies in our store – Pan d’Epice and Fruit Breads from France; Marzipan, Lebkuchen, and Stollen from Germany – this trip allowed us to taste these goodies in their historical places, and to appreciate many variations of these celebrated treats.

Candies and confections in a shop window

Candies and confections in a shop window

Two varieties of Lebkuchen

Two varieties of Lebkuchen

While Christmas Market reflects the tastes of today, it embraces the traditional past and speaks to people of all ages from many countries. We heard many languages being spoken as we wandered in these lovely towns and cities, and we were astonished at the crowds – Christmas Market is very much alive and well. Merry-makers filled the streets day and night, but the best atmosphere was in the evening when the sun went down and the lights came on. Everything from vendor stalls to timbered houses are illuminated and wrapped in a warm cozy glow. Can you see the tidal-wave of people in this photograph?

Getting close to the Nurnberg Christmas Market!

Saturday afternoon – just arriving at the Nurnberg Christmas Market!

It was delightful to see people of all ages laughing, hoisting a glass together and singing along with the street choirs and having a joyful time. Shopping temptations were many and I saw a majority of  visitors carrying large tote bags filled with goodies and purchases. Grandparents found plenty of treats, edible and not, for their grandchildren. It was easy to fall in love with adorable wooden toys, carefully sewn stuffed animals, old-world inspired tree ornaments, elegant glass decorations, hand-crafted wool ornaments, stables and manger figures, and other lovely items.

Temptations

Glass Temptations

Lebkuchen Santa cookies

Lebkuchen Santa cookies

We shopped at vendor stalls and selected small, hand-crafted tree trimmings and decorations made of pewter, wood-shavings and lace; indulged in many kinds of local sausages; drank local wine and beer, and of course, also enjoyed many glasses of the holiday spiced wine known as Vin Chaud in France and Glühwein Germany.

A very popular Christmas Market stall

A very popular Christmas Market stall

We wandered in and out of charming old book stores, lusted over and purchased a few reproduction gingerbread cookie molds, visited nearly every church and cathedral to be found, and took in as much feeling and atmosphere of the old city streets as we could.
In both France and Germany, many food vendors work in their stalls – roasting chestnuts, caramelizing almonds, baking Lebkuchen gingerbread cookies, fruitbreads, etc. We were enthralled watching them work and the aromas of their foods was enticing. These displays of cakes and confections was very appealing, and shoppers were quick to snap up the best looking offerings.

Rich, honeyed fruit breads

Rich, honeyed fruit breads

In Germany, we watched a glass artist put the finishing touches on a richly colored piece of stained glass that depicted a drummer clad in medieval tunic and stockings keeping time on his drum. Around the corner we joined a crowd of onlookers who were mesmerized watching a baker who was giving the final decorative touches to a sheet pan of spicy Lebkuchen cookies.

Decorating a tray of ready-to-bake Lebkuchen

Decorating a tray of ready-to-bake Lebkuchen

Old poster in a shop window

Old Lebkuchen-vendor poster in a shop window

In Alsace, city streets leading to the old square are festooned with lights and decorations, and shopkeepers add to the magical atmosphere by decorating buildings and storefronts with elaborate decorations and themes.

Strasbourg,France

Pedestrian street Strasbourg, France

specialty food shop in Strasbourg, France

Above the awning of a specialty food shop in Strasbourg, France

Elegant Christmas-inspired  storefront decorations

Elegant Christmas-inspired storefront decorations

In Nurnberg, we awoke on our last full day to an overnight snowfall. It continued to snow throughout the day, adding to the fairy-tale feeling of this place. We feel truly blessed to have been able to experience a little taste of European Christmas and look forward to more years of such adventures.

My new friend!

My new friend!

Happy 4th of July 2012

Greetings from Wilber’s Barbecue in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Wilber’s specializes in whole-hog barbecue ( whole pig, sauced with vinegar and red pepper Eastern North Carolina-style) cooked over wood in an open-pit, the old-time way.

You can smell the sweet smokey flavor from the smokehouse the minute you pull in the driveway.

Low flying F15 aircraft courtesy of nearby Seymour Johnson AFB.

Wilber’s Barbecue

4172 Highway 70 East

Goldsboro, NC

Admiral’s Rum and Brandy Punch

We were thrilled to discover that Imbibe Magazine (www.imbibemagazine.com) has featured our Admiral’s Rum and Brandy Punch recipe from our book Hot Drinks on their website. Thanks, Imbibe!

Our sure-fire, delicious punch is perfect to serve an apres-ski crowd or when gathering around the fire on a snowy winter day. The warm, sunny color is pleasing and inviting- we named this drink Admiral’s Rum and Brandy Punch after a West Indies-inspired combination of grapefruit, pineapple and rum.

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Photo by Marshall Gordon
                                                                                                Admiral’s Rum and Brandy PunchTangy flavors of apricot, pineapple and grapefruit mingle with the subtle spices of rum and brandy in this warming winter punch.1 cup apricot puree
2 cups pineapple juice
1/2 cup white grapefruit juice
1/2 cup light rum
1/4 cup brandy
Tools: saucepan
Glass: heatproof punch cups or glasses
Garnish: lime wedgesCombine the apricot puree and juices in a saucepan                             over medium heat and bring to a low simmer. Lower                                the heat and simmer gently for two minutes more,                                then add the rum and brandy.                                                                 Place a lime wedge in four heatproof glasses and                                divide the warm punch evenly. Serves four.

Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss, Hot Drinks                                      (Ten Speed Press, 2007)

It’s Cherry Blossom Time in Japan

To celebrate Mother Nature’s spectacular once-a-year cherry blossom ( sakura ) season we welcome the return of our Japanese Sencha Sakura tea. This sweetly perfumed tea is a delicious and satisfying blend of high-quality Japanese Sencha from Shizuoka Prefecture combined with tiny pink dried sakura blossoms.

In step with the fleeting nature of cherry blossoms, our Sencha Sakura tea cheers the transition from one year’s season to the next. Blended only once each year from carefully reserved tea leaves and dried sakura blossoms collected during the previous year’s harvest, the subtle fragrance of these tiny pink cherry blossoms yields a fragrant and alluring cup that is a perfect harbinger of the new season: fresh, vibrant and charmingly sweet.

Springtime in your teacup, sakura-style! Click here to view our Sencha Sakura. http://www.teatrekker.com/shop/sencha-sakura/

Cherry blossoms ( sakura ) are beloved in Japan, and hanami ( flower viewing ) pays homage to the Japanese tradition of appreciating the delicate beauty of flowers. During sakura season families and friends – and people of all ages – venture outdoors to celebrate the return of spring and more specifically, behold the magnificent but fleeting show of cherry blossoms that occurs across many regions in Japan. Hanami has held an annual place of importance for Japanese people since the 8th century in Japan.

Over the course of one month -from late March to May- cherry trees blossom into magnificent displays of pastel color ranging from dark pink to pale, delicate pink, to white-white, and ivory-toned white. Parks and walkways along river banks are especially lovely this time of year. Groups of cherry blossom ‘peepers’ travel in groups from one site to another, knotching as many viewings under their belts as possible.

We sincerely pray that this seasonal time of beauty and natural wonder will help to raise the national spirit in Japan and begin the healing from the devastating events brought on by the recent earthquake and tsunami. The situation in Japan is almost too much to contemplate, but we like to think that just as the delicate sakura blossoms return each spring, so too will the Japanese people will re-emerge from this challenge, strong, determined and with spirit intact.

Sakura season begins in March in southern Japan. The best viewing regions and locations are charted and reported by the media as the spring season progresses into northern Japan.

Below is a chart of approximate bloom time which is from the website http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2011.html. Regions in southern and central Japan that have begun to report sightings of cherry blossoms are listed with a pink blossom and marked with the seasonal starting date.

Location Opening Estimated Best Viewing  
Tokyo Opened March 28 April 5 to 13
Kyoto Opened March 28 April 6 to 14
Kagoshima Opened March 23 April 1 to 11
Kumamoto Opened March 21 March 30 to April 10
Fukuoka Opened March 22 April 2 to 11
Hiroshima Opened April 1 April 6 to 13
Nara Opened March 31 April 7 to 14
Osaka Opened March 31 April 6 to 14
Nagoya Opened March 27 April 6 to 13
Yokohama Opened March 30 April 7 to 14
Kanazawa Opened April 7 April 11 to 19
Matsumoto April 11 April 16 to 23
Sendai April 13 April 17 to 24
Kakunodate April 27 May 2 to 9
Hirosaki April 25 April 29 to May 6
Hakodate April 29 May 3 to 10
Sapporo May 3 May 6 to 13

The Family that Cooks Together Stays Together

I just received the Holiday 2010 donation-reminder catalogue from the organization Heifer International ( www.heifer.org ) and I found an interesting little sidebar article that I thought was a terrific idea. ( I support the work that Heifer does and we are among their yearly contributors.)

I am sharing the idea and copying the article here for AEP readers because it reminded me of the importance of  family traditions during the holidays, because, well, holidays are about ‘ family.’

The title of the piece is THE FAMILY THAT COOK TOGETHER STAYS TOGETHER ( for those with the catalogue it is on page 7).  Not only is this idea in sync with the core tenets of Heifer International’s mission but it is also valuable fodder for those of us living hectic lives with family scattered in many places.

Here is what the piece said:

” If you plan ahead this year, it’s possible to put together inexpensive holiday gifts that preserve culinary traditions and encourage healthful home cooking. Try compiling a collection of family recipes and have a family cookbook printed and bound for each household on your list. Include old favorites from past generations and solicit contributions from new in-laws. Your local office supply store can probably help you assemble the originals for reproduction – copy the original hand-written recipes if you have them! This project is also great for church groups, mom’s groups and other social clubs. ”

Food magazines and cookbooks have been focusing on the notions of ‘preserving traditions’ and ‘getting Grandma to put her favorite recipes down on paper’ for some time now. Traditions can be about large concepts such as Christmas in xxx Country or it can be as finely focused as the silly but wonderful traditions within our own families. So here is fodder to create that family recipe book …if not for this Christmas then surely for the next !

Those of us who work in the food business know the importance of food to the human spirit beyond the primary need of providing sustenance and nutrition. Food heals, food binds, food comforts, food educates, food defines our roots and cultures, food empowers and food makes good times even better

This is the season to wish for plentiful food on the table. Not just for our families and friends but a wish that all people around the globe will have the means to provide a better bounty at their family table.  Please visit www.heifer.org to learn of the ways that this organization works to empower people in different parts of the world with what most of us take for granted: the means to supply our own food.

Heifer envisions…
A world of communities living together in peace and equitably sharing the resources of a healthy planet.

Heifer’s mission is…
To work with communities to end hunger and poverty and to care for the Earth.

Heifer’s strategy is…
To “Pass on the Gift.” As people share their animals’ offspring with others – along with their knowledge, resources, and skills – an expanding network of hope, dignity, and self-reliance is created that reaches around the globe.

Heifer’s History
This simple idea of giving families a source of food rather than short-term relief caught on and has continued for over 65 years. Today, millions of families in 128 countries have been given the gifts of self-reliance and hope.

Kings Cake and Mardi Gras 2010

Mardi Gras is all about colorful parties, larger-than-life characters, big, raucous belly laughs, plastic Mardi Gras ‘bling’ and seriously delicious foods. One treat associated with the pre-Mardi Gras Carnival season is Kings Cake. Carnival begins on Twelfth night ( Epiphany) and ends at midnight on Mardi Gras ( Fat Tuesday). During that time, estimates are that New Orleaneans eat their fill of over 750,000 Kings Cakes.

New Orleans Kings Cake follows a tradition begun in France when bakers first created a special cake to celebrate Epiphany, the night when the Wise Men came through the desert bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. In these cakes a ceramic feve-favor or ‘bean’ (which represented fertility/the baby Jesus, etc., ) is hidden inside the cake, and whoever receives the ‘bean’ in their piece of cake is crowned King or Queen for a day. The newly crowned King or Queen must also supply the cake for the  following year’s festivities.

This sweet treat first appeared in New Orleans in January, 1870, at the first Twelfth Night ball presided over by the Lord of Misrule. That evening a large Kings Cake was presented to the guests. The cake was cut and slices were distributed with much merriment. Pieces of cake were lobbed up to those in the balcony from the tips of spears. Unfortunately, the piece with the hidden ‘bean’ went missing, so later the practice of packaging individual pieces of cake in little boxes came into practice.

Today in New Orleans, for fear of damaging a tooth on a ceramic ‘bean’ a different approach is taken. The ‘bean’ of choice is now a miniature, plastic baby, and one per cake is used. The plastic baby is not hidden in the cake but sits atop the cake, in plain view, for all to see. In fact, the plastic babies are considered collectible and desirable.

Cake-wise, New Orleans Kings Cake is different from the French version sold in pastry shops in Paris. The French version features light, puff-pastry ring which is filled with a dense almond cream ( frangipane). It is eaten at room temperature or heated slightly.

In New Orleans, the cake is a round or oval coffee cake, that is braided, iced, and festooned with green, gold and purple colored sugars, signifying faith, power and justice.

Our colorful Kings Cake was purchased at Bob’s Bakery in Chicopee. Tomorrow, February 16th, is the last day to buy a Kings Cake until next year. We’ll be sliciing and serving tastes of this cake as long as it lasts tomorrow. Stop by for a taste – which we will not serve from the end of a spear, we promise !

Chinese New Year 2010: Year of the Metal Tiger

 

I just returned late on Sunday, February 14th from New York City where I had the opportunity to pay a quick visit to Chinatown for lunch and shopping. While many of you may have been planning something romantic for Valentines Day Sunday with your sweetie, in Chinatown, people of all ages were gathering in the streets by late morning to begin celebrating  the start of the Chinese New Year.

Several of the streets in the heart of Chinatown were blocked to vehicular traffic in anticipation of a noontime parade. These newly created ‘pedestrian zones’ allowed friends and families to safely gather and watch as scores of confetti firecrackers were set off in celebration.  The air became thick with bits of colorful paper in just a short time as the confetti floated in the light breeze. It did not take long for the streets and sidewalks to become completely blanketed with confetti and streamers.

By sheer luck, I had the good fortune to come across a group of people dressed in Lion costumes who were dancing to the beat of metal drums in front of local businesse and I was able to enjoy a good view of the action. This small scene gave me a taste of how exciting the big Lion and Dragon Dance parades will be that are scheduled to wend their way through the streets of Chinatown on Sunday, February 21st.


February 14th ushered in the start of the Chinese Year of the Tiger, or more specifically, the Year of the Metal Tiger. I was in Chinatown to search for Year of the Tiger goodies to use in a store display window, and I was not disappointed. Key among my purchases was the paper-mache tiger marionette shown above, and the symbolic ‘metal tiger’ pictured below.

The Chinese horoscope is based on the Lunar Chinese calendar which has a sixty year cycle. Throughout this cycle, the five main elements that make up all matter – Metal, Water, Wood, Fire and Earth – are combined with the twelve animal signs of Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Lamb, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. 

During the complete cycle, each animal sign (sometimes also referred to as the twelve Earth branches) repeats five times, and each repetition is influenced by a different main element: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. The Tiger is third in the cycle, and is linked with metal this year.

The following is a listing of Tiger years from 1902 up until the present year:

Water Tiger: 1902 and 1962

Wood Tiger: 1914 and 1974

Fire Tiger: 1926 and 1986

Earth Tiger: 1938 and 1998

Metal Tiger: 1950 and 2010

Tiger Characteristics:

The Tiger is a natural born leader and symbolizes power, passion and daring; they are by their nature courageous, active, and self-assured.  Rebellious, dynamic, and unpredictable, they can pounce in an instant. People born in the Year of the Tiger are generally well liked because of their charming personalities.  They are optimistic, passionate and independent; quick tempered but considerate.

Tigers are fond of competitions and simply cannot pass up a challenge.  They may appear cool yet can be unpredictable. It is unwise to underestimate their reactions, which can be unpredictable and of the moment.  They have a strong sense of their own dignity, and are intelligent, alert, and farsighted.  Tigers are apt strategists but they also can have a suspicious nature and often act hastily.

Mood swings are common as Tigers love excitement and become restless if they are bored or not in control. Tigers can jump to conclusions hastily and express frustrations with temper tantrums.  But people born in the Year of the Tiger are also straightforward, loyal and dutiful. They can be playful and full of enthusiasm, sentimental and optimistic, and often prefer solitary moments to chaotic ones. Tigers love to travel to exotic places and fill their homes with exotic treasures from far-flung places that they have visited.  They like to spend money, and also to share it.  They can be quite impulsive spenders.

Tigers are fast learners, need a constant challenge and are easily bored. They often work alone but love to be surrounded at home and in social situations with family and friends and have a good time. Critisism or negative comments from friends or colleagues can cause tigers to be depressed for a time before bouncing back to their energetic selves.

Some famous Tigers:

Marco Polo
Mary Queen of Scots
Ludwig von Beethoven
Agatha Christie
Leonardo DiCaprio
Dylan Thomas
Marilyn Monroe

And, I blush to say that I too am a Tiger; in fact, a Metal Tiger. Chinese people often ask each other under what sign they were born, which is a polite way to gauge someone’s approximate age without bluntly asking how old someone is. When the sign alone is given, there may be some latitude for guessing. But when the sign is given with the element attached, the answer is obvious.

Did I mention that another trait of Tigers is to be open and frank ? I guess I just proved that !

Puuurrrrr.