Moving around means the little things we associated with Christmas growing up are not always around us anymore.
Gone are the mounds of sugar dusted mince pies, dense plump puddings wrapped in cellophane, and marzipan and icing slathered slabs of dark, rich fruitcake. The once full diary of Christmas parties and get-togethers – lunches catching up with long-distance friends and relatives, the swapping of presents is now empty. The robin doesn’t feature, neither does the red post box.
Munich felt very festive in December and the Christmas markets definitely got me in the festive spirit; the streets and local neighbourhood squares lined with small wooden huts full of wares, the fir trees covered with twinkling lights, and mugs of gluhwein (their version of mulled wine – very strong stuff!) drunk stood around fires, the smell of roasted chestnuts and hot sugar-cinnamon coated almonds (‘Gebrannte Mandeln’) lingering in the air.
Being something of a cook (well, I like to think so), I could not go on without mentioning the food.
There seems to be a basic spice mix for this time of year, one that when used fills the house with it’s pungent aroma and wraps you up in a cozy blanket.
Mixed spice - the smell of an English Christmas to me - used abundantly in cakes, mincemeat and puddings - is based around cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, ginger. The pumpkin spice mix found out here seems to be similar. In Munich there was packets of Lebkuchen spice mix, based around cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, ginger, but with the additions of anise seed, coriander, cardamom, fennel seed. As the name says, it was meant for baking the gingerbread biscuits, but I used it in other baking for a hit of Christmas-spice sparkle.
Marzipan has featured heavily in every country – from the layer on the English Christmas cake, to the centre of stolen, made to look like little potatoes and many other guises in Germany, to glazed figures in Spain. It was quite hard to find it here to decorate the cake with, overshadowed by other baking ingredients such as chocolate drops and graham cracker piecrusts, and hidden on the shelf. Hopefully it will not be like chocolate; and will taste the same as it does in Europe.
In Munich we had Lebkuchen (which I have spoken of before, but are so delicious are well worthy of a second mention). They appeared around October-time, and then suddenly vanished straight after Christmas, with no warning whatsoever. There are so many varieties, personal preference is the only thing to go by, but T and I found these monsters only available in one supermarket chain – huge discs of moist, spiced deliciousness. These ones were so jammed with nuts it kept them really moist, more so than other brands. The ones exported outside of Germany don’t seem to taste the same at all – they must keep the best for themselves, and I can’t blame them!
Aside from that, there was also Stollen, with its marzipan centre, which was another highlight from this time of year with us, as were the crisp spiced cookies, ‘Spekulatius’.
The other popular sweet item there was Turron (a type of nougat). The huge number of varieties available lined the supermarket aisles.
The 5th-6th January (Epiphany) was the traditional day for the ‘Roscon de Navidad’ or ‘Roscon de Reyes’ (Wise Men/King Cake – I had to use the internet to help with the name, and typically, there seem to be two options, not sure which is the true one - sorry) a doughy round cake - similar to brioche if my memory serves me correctly - with a hole in the middle, flavoured with orange and lemon, topped with candied fruit and filled with cream or chocolate. A little figure was hidden inside and whoever found it would be king of the party and have good luck.
So, although the comfort blanket of home delights are not necessarily with us anymore, we have found other dishes and traditions whose tastes we can reminisce, and memories we will take with us forever, wherever we are.