Glühwein and the Christmas Market Tradition
The first time I came across a European Christmas market, I was out for an evening stroll in Budapest. I followed the sound of Christmas carols into a square where a few wooden huts were huddled together, decorated with greenery, and tiny white lights. The smell of cinnamon and grilled meat mingled together in the chill air and pulled me further into the centre of this lovely scene, and I began to explore. Each open-air hut had something unique on offer; artisan candles; hand-carved nativity scenes; thick Hungarian sausages grilling over wood fires; vats of steaming, aromatic glühwein*. I was delighted! Warmly dressed folks strolled from hut to hut, browsing the goods, or standing and chatting with others, sipping and snacking. I joined the browsing and sipping, and came away with a few trinkets and a warm glow.
I’m not sure how I missed the Christmas Market phenomenon for the first 40 years of my life, but I assure you I am making up for lost time. Yes, I hear you, Christmas markets can be kitschy, expensive and predictable, but my growing list of favourites are cozy, and inviting. Each has a uniqueness and authenticity that keeps me coming back. I’ll admit it, the best place to find me each December is standing shoulder to shoulder around tall candle-lit wooden tables with other market-goers, drinking glühwein from colourful ceramic mugs and munching on chargrilled bratwurst.
My Dutch home might be Europe’s best location for maximizing visits to the markets. From here I am in the enviable and dangerous position to be strolling Aachen’s German Weihnachtsmarkt, or Maastricht’s Dutch Kerstmarkt in twenty minutes, and the Village du Noël, Liège, Belgium in about half an hour. The markets in Brussels, Antwerp, Dusseldorf, Cologne, and Bonn are just an hour away.
Shabby-chic Liège has the French attitude for sharing the joy of food, and the Village du Noël that meanders throughout the city each December, is no exception. As I weave between the bungalows, I taste a little of everything; One marketeer calls out in his thick French accent, Dried boar sausage, 3 for the price of 2! Spécial pour Noël! Spit roasted pork roast is on offer around the next corner, and then, someone shouts, Chestnuts! Roasting on an open fire! Really. I settle on a plate heaped with golden fried potatoes and sizzling smoked bacon coated with a thick layer of melting brie cheese, served from a one-meter wide cast-iron pan. My biggest limitation in Liège is the size of my appetite.
The Germans have Christmas markets down to an art, and so they should, in this country, the tradition dates back to the middle ages. Aachen’s Weihnachtsmarkt is a perfect example of German Christmas Market efficiency. The tiny jewel of a centre, dominated by the oldest cathedral in Northern Europe, squeezes festive atmosphere into every corner. Rows of wooden huts decked with fresh greenery and twinkling lights line the ancient market squares, each with its own theme; brightly painted wooden toys; hand-crafted woollen mittens; perfectly stacked gingerbread; miniature Aachener Cathedrals with tiny glowing windows; tidy rows of snow-globes, perfect little worlds on this misty night. I am mesmerized as I meander through the narrow streets. Michael Bublé is dreaming of a white Christmas above the din of the joyful masses, and for a few hours, I’m blissfully lost here in my own utopian snow-globe.
My favourite market is the closest to home; the oldest city of the Netherlands, Maastricht. When all dressed up for Christmas, Maastricht is irresistible to me. Thousand-year-old churches and candle-warmed chapels surround busy patio cafés set up in cozy squares. With her decorated cobbled lanes and terrace heaters keeping the winter nights warm, the entire city is a living Kerstmarkt. An evening stroll through Masstricht is like visiting an old friend.
When I am out of range for my favourite markets, I stir up a batch of my tried and tested glühwein, sit back in the glow of a candle-lit room and stream classical Christmas music quietly in the background. I close my eyes and breath in the scents of cinnamon and citrus, and I can almost transport myself back to those cities of old.
*Glühwein, translated by me as “glow-wine” is just that! During my first December in the Netherlands. I was exploring The Hague on a chilly afternoon when I stepped into a tiny café to warm up with a cup of tea. Clipped to the front of my menu was a small piece of paper stating Glühwein. I asked the server what it meant. Oh! She said, you don’t know! It is hot, spicy wine, she explained. It’s very good, especially here. She winked, and whispered into my ear conspiratorially, star anise. Never mind tea. A mug of steaming red wine was placed before me. It smelled like gingerbread, and oranges, with a hint of anise. It was slightly sweet, and I was hooked. I took on the arduous task of perfecting my own recipe, using, of course, the secret ingredient. Here, for you, is my recipe. Merry Christmas!
Hover over the pictures (or choose landscape on mobile) for more pictures of my favourite Christmas market memories.