Food isn’t only the most important part of the travel experience, it’s the most fun. There’s nothing I enjoy more than visiting a new city or town, trying out the regional favorites and learning more about the local culture through the stomach. Food forms our strongest travel memories; the smells and tastes linger with us far longer than our own spotty recollections of museums or attractions. That’s especially true when visiting European Christmas Markets where food is at the heart of the experience. Most people are there to be with friends and family, drink some glühwein and stuff themselves silly with all of the delicious snacks and meals offered. I’ve eaten my fair share of European Christmas market food over the years, but without a doubt these are amongst my favorite snacks and meals from my own Christmas market experiences.
Poffertjes – Netherlands
I had heard of these classic Dutch treats long before my experience with them in the large Christmas market in Dordrecht, but I don’t think I’d ever tried them before. Like most great comfort foods, poffertjes are incredibly simple – they’re just small, light pancakes but not dense, instead they’re almost spongy in texture. Served with butter and powdered sugar, it’s the perfect food for a chilly Christmas market. Chatting with some Dutch friends, I was surprised to learn that poffertjes are usually just for kids; served at birthday parties or other important celebrations. That is until Christmas, when adults who want to relive some great childhood memories buy a batch to enjoy before continuing on to their shopping. I enjoyed poffertjes twice; in a market and at a small restaurant. The restaurant version served with syrup was actually my favorite, but no matter how you eat them, they’re a not to be missed Christmas market tradition.
Reibekuchen – Germany
This is a great example of a new food experience I discovered thanks entirely to Christmas markets. I didn’t see this at all when I sailed the Danube, but they became an important aspect of my culinary experience as I explored the villages and cities along the Rhine with Viking River Cruises. They’re also very simple, these potato pancakes are deep fried potato fritters served with a variety of toppings, from applesauce to cheese. They’re usually served in bunches of three and are more than enough for a complete meal. They are also intensely popular, at least based on the markets I visited and for many folks seem to be one of the food staples of the Christmas market experience.
Hungarian kürtöskalács (chimney cakes) – Budapest
I found these delicious pastries while walking around the crowded but fun Christmas market in central Budapest. Also called chimney cakes by those of us who can’t pronounce the Hungarian, these are enjoyed all year but especially around Christmastime. Made from sweet yeast dough, the cake starts off as a strip that is spun and then wrapped around a cone–shaped baking spit and rolled in granulated sugar. It is baked on a charcoal grill while doused with melted butter, until its surface becomes golden-brown. During the baking process the sugar caramelizes and forms a shiny, crispy crust on the cake. Made to order, the cakes are served up hot and the steam rising up looks just like a chimney, hence the name. They’re also delicious and I wasn’t the only one who thought so, the cake stands always had the longest lines.
Vienna schnitzel – Austria
Ok, so I didn’t discover this at a Christmas market and in fact, it’s been one of my favorite foods for many years. However, I did find one of the best places to enjoy this classic dish while on a Christmas market river cruise, so I’m adding it to this list. This is one of the most touristy meals out there, but it’s famous for a reason – it’s delicious. Sure you can find Wiener Schnitzel (which means schnitzel from Vienna) just about anywhere, but when you’re in Vienna one of the best places to enjoy this traditional delicacy is at Figlmüller’s. Located near St. Stephen’s, the chefs at Figlmüller’s have been creating some of the best versions of Austria’s national dish since 1905; so it’s safe to say they know what they’re doing. The schnitzels are made from the best cuts of pork and extend well past the edge of the plate – a massive 11 inches in diameter. Still, I found myself devouring this classic dish in no time; it was light, crispy and delicious. You can enjoy schnitzel anywhere, but be sure to try it at Figlmüller’s who really can be credited with transforming this popular dish into the culinary event it is today.
Regensburg sausage and mustard – Germany
Almost every city, town and village in Germany will swear that they have the best sausages in the country and arguably the world. And while most of them are indeed delicious, my favorite ones so far can be found in the beautiful city of Regensburg. Located on the Danube, Regensburg is known for its university and the colorful buildings gracing the old town. It’s also known for an old stone bridge that dates back to the 12th century that has a legendary history all of its own. Next to the bridge is an old sausage shop that has been serving delicious Regensburg sausages for as long as the bridge itself has been around. The kitchen is still in operation today and the only item on the menu are those famous sausages, smaller than you might expect and served three to a bun along with the shop’s special sweet mustard. There’s nothing better than chowing down on these hot, delicious bites on a cold winter’s day, just like folks have been doing for an astonishing 900 years.
Beignets – France
Most of us are familiar with the word beignet – you know, those small little powdered donuts sold at Café du Monde in New Orleans. Well, in Strasbourg they have a variation, but they’re nothing like the Louisiana version. That being said, there’s nothing that will necessarily surprise anyone with these tasty treats, they’re simply large donuts served either with powdered sugar or filled with jelly or chocolate.
Nuremberg Lebkuchen – Germany
One of the greatest finds on my Christmas exploration of Europe was discovering authentic German Lebkuchen. Most often compared to what we Americans call gingerbread; I quickly discovered that’s not an entirely accurate description of this tasty dessert. Lebkuchen differs from baker to baker and can include a variety of different ingredients including honey, spices such as aniseed, coriander, cloves, ginger, cardamom and allspice, nuts including almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts, or candied fruit. The most famous place to find this treat is in Nuremberg, where Lebkuchen has been produced since at least the 1300s. There are many great shops throughout the city and it really is a matter of preference which one you will enjoy most. During Christmas, head over to the famous Christmas Market, one of the largest in the world, to sample a few different kinds and see which ones you like best. Regardless, do not leave Nuremberg without taking home a big box of these tasty cookies – you really won’t find anything else quite like them anywhere in the world.
Bitterballen – Netherlands
It’s hard not to love anything deep-fried and most cultures have some small, deep fried bit of goodness that they love to eat. Bitterballen are the Dutch version, usually served alongside a nice and locally produced beer. The filling is what they call a ragu of beef or veal, shaped into a ball and breaded. It was originally a way to use leftover scraps of food and can be found in most of the traditional so-called brown cafes around Amsterdam.
Quick bites in Italy
Food culture in Italy varies widely from the north to the south and in Milan, I discovered some unexpected snacks at the small but fun Christmas market next to the Duomo. Pastries were available in almost every shape and size, as were entire stands of nuts and dried fruits. Arancino, fried balls of risotto and cheese were a personal favorite but one of the more unusual snacks that caught my eye were the stacks of Brigidini. Originally a Tuscan specialty, these sweet fried wafers flavored with anise are light and surprisingly delicious.
Baguette sandwiches and pretzels (bretzel) – France
From my admittedly brief experience with Alsatian cuisine, one thing seems certain to me – they love bread in any form. One of the symbols of Strasbourg is the bretzel or pretzel; no doubt carried over from their long history of being part of Germany. They come in every size and shape, both sweet and savory. The most extreme version I enjoyed was an over-sized one topped with melted Munster cheese and bacon. Another go-to were half baguette sandwiches, topped with meats and cheeses and then toasted. Not for the celiac in the group, these are however some delicious local finds.