Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Merry Christmas Markets

Touring several Christmas Markets in France and Germany earlier this month was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I hope to repeat! Although my own mother is from Berlin, I never knew about these markets until recently. Christmas markets started in Germany and many cities and towns put up temporary villages of gaily-decorated wooden booths selling Christmas decorations, gifts and delicious treats. But they are not just gift markets. From Cologne, Germany, to Strasbourg, France, I saw people of all ages enjoying themselves in the invigorating winter air glugging down Glühwein (hot, spiced mulled wine, red or white) and generally making merry with friends and family.

I was on a "Rhine Getaway" river boat tour with Viking River Cruises that traveled from Amsterdam to Switzerland so I was able to stop each day to experience a different Christmas market. There was a charming one in Rudesheim am Rhein, a  small wine-producing town that's a huge tourist draw in the  Rheingau area of Germany, where Riesling and some Pinot Noir (known as Spätburgunder) grow on insanely steep slopes overlooking the Rhine river.

I doubt the Christmas markets were ladling out the high-quality wines this region produces and exports around the world, but the warm Glühwein steeped with fruit and spices like cinnamon and cloves tasted great nonetheless.

The highlight of the markets for me since I wasn't looking for any more holiday decorations or gifts -- was the plentiful food options. All kinds and sizes of wurst were being grilled and placed on brochen (hard rolls), or atop sauerkraut,  potatoes or spätzle noodles, and just as food tastes better when you are camping or hiking so did these simple dishes taste especially satisfying in the mid-40s daytime temperatures and perhaps even better in the colder night air.

Another especially interesting visit was to the several Christmas markets in Strasbourg, a city that has passed between France and Germany five times in its political history and therefore has strong influences of both in its cuisines and culture. In the Strasbourg markets, there were cookies, pastries and crepes (as in all the other Christmas markets I visited) but also beignets and these beautiful chocolate-covered fruit kebabs.

The food was such a draw that I even passed up a couple of excellent meals on my boat, the Viking Jarl, just to graze at the Christmas markets. All-in-all, a culinary treat.