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!

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Calvados, Camembert and September 11

As the events of September 11th began to unfold on a blue, clear morning in New York, it was mid-afternoon for us on a warm, golden-sunny afternoon in the countryside of France. Despite the fact that the first airplane had already hit the first tower, we were, for the moment, blissfully unaware of the news.

Specifically, and ironically, we were in Normandy, where I was working on a story about the food specialties and regional cuisine of this historic region. It was to be, we would realize later, our ‘war’ vacation. The week prior to September 11th, we had spent days visiting the historic sites and battlegrounds that were made famous during the Normandy invasion of WWII. I must admit that I learned much about that war that I don’t believe I had ever learned in school, and I gained a deep appreciation for what it is like to have such a war waged on ones home turf and for the sacrifices made by the Allied troops in another land.

Despite the number of decades that have passed since those bloody battles were fought along the coast of Normandy, the stories of those grim days feels very alive in the towns and villages where the heaviest fighting took place, and in the museums and cemeteries that are dedicated to keeping the memories of the heroism of the Allied forces alive.

the serene and dignified American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer contains the remains of 9,387 WWII servicemen and women

the serene and dignified American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer contains the remains of 9,387 WWII servicemen and women

On that afternoon, we were lazily heading to taste some Calvados ( spirited apple brandy ) at an chateau / cave in the Pays d’Auge. We had yet to find any English stations on the radio of our rental car, but that was OK with us – we love singing along to French pop songs even when we don’t quite get the lyrics.

Fortunately, as we had not called ahead, the Monsieur and Madame were home, perhaps just getting ready for an afternoon snooze when we arrived. Nevertheless, we were warmly greeted and escorted into the cave where we were given a couple of glasses of Calvados to sip. Shortly after our arrival, the Madame slipped back into the house. It seemed like not ten minutes later, she was back in the cave, asking us if we had heard the news about what happened in New York. We said no, nothing had caught our ear on the radio.

She proceeded to tell us that Radio France was reporting that two airplanes had collided mid-air over the city. Her news gave us chills, and we prayed that this not be true. Facing that akward pause that developes when two languages cannot quite find the words to connect over something important, Monsieur announced that it was time to show us his alembic still. So we all toasted the safe keeping of all who might be involved in this terrible accident and all ambled off to another building to see his pride and joy.

All in all, we stayed about one hour and left feeling very contented, very relaxed, and far removed from the history lessons of the previous week. As we exited the driveway and turned into the driving lane, we turned the radio back on. Instead of the music that had been playing when we arrived, the airwaves were filled with nearly hysterical news reporters relaying information at break neck speed and at nearly ear splitting decibels.

We could not make out what was happening, but quickly learned that every station on the radio dial sounded the same. Loud, frenetic and very agitated. We tried to pick apart the words and slowly began to make out words like ‘World Trade Tower’, ‘Pentagon’, ‘airports’, ‘bombs’, ‘terrorists’ and a few others. Right then we knew our idyllic vacation would forever be changed. Even thought Normandy is only a one hour drive from Paris, it would be two days before we found an English newspaper or saw a television to learn the complete story of what had happened in New York.

While many Americans do not think that the French are a cuddly people, I must say that for the remainder of our week plus in France after 9/11, we encountered many church services, memorial masses, candle-lit vigils and minutes of silence dedicated to America and the American families whose lives were impacted by this tragedy. The following Sunday we attended mass at Chartres Cathedral, where hundreds of worshippers lined up to light candles of hope and prayer, and the benediction was a eulogy to America and this dreadful act.

Overwhelmingly, the French people shared our grief and wept openly with America.

the American flag is respectfully flown at half-mast in Caen on September 12th

the American flag is respectfully flown at half-mast in Caen on September 12th

This is the piece that I wrote for the publication The World & I describing our trip and the seasonal fall foods of Normandy. I refrained from any mention of 9/11 because it was not appropriate to the piece, but I mention it here in this post because, for me, I can no longer think of Normandy without thinking of my ‘war’ vacation and the world-changing events of both June 6, 1944 and September, 11th 2001.

Normandy at It’s Best:  

when the air is crips with the fragrance of fresh apples,

it’s time to ramble through the French countryside in search of local specialties

by Mary Lou Heiss

For most travelers, Normandy conjures up images of World War II battles, seaside resorts, Joan of Arc and William the Conquerer, Monet’s Impressionist paintings, the Hundred Years war, the Bayeaux tapestry, soaring cathedrals and mysterious abbeys. I too think of this sweep of history, but Normandy beckons the food lover in me to come for the rustic culinary pleasures of this plentiful region. Soft and pungent cheeses are made from France’s richest milk, and Normandy’s bountiful coast supplies a shimmering array of impeccably fresh fish. In the rural heartland, Calvados, the fiery apple brandy, and refreshing chilled hard cider await the thirsty traveler. Cozy country inns and restaurants specialize in traditional dishes of succulent grilled meats and game.

a charming restaurant / butcher shop sign offering local specialty meats

a charming restaurant / butcher shop sign offering local specialty meats

Autumn is a glorious time to discover Normandy’s seasonal bounty at local farmers markets, or in restaurants where chefs cook in sync with the season. Norman enthusiasm for their agricultural blessings is infectious, and throughout the region I found the fare to be honest and hearty, and just rich enough to maintain tradition.

Early Norman inhabitants relied on basic hunting, farming and fishing skills. Successive waves of settlers and invaders each added something new to the expanding repertoire of Norman cooking. Simple grains and crude, roasted meats were introduced by early forest- dwelling Celtic settlers. During the reign of Julius Caesar, Roman soldiers Continue reading