SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Eat, drink and be German

Every town is filled with an aromatic presence.  

AT Christmas time, the market squares and streets of Germany are transformed into a celebration of the spirit of an earlier age. It's almost as if, the cold crisp December air demands it. The old city centres, with their cobbled streets built around the old Church or Cathedral square, now re-incarnated as opera houses and town halls become medieval style bazaars as people gather together in small family groups to share an evening together. In every square and plaza, a tall fir free is ablaze with coloured lights, but the small stalls selling all manner of foodstuffs and Christmas decorations are what attract the crowds. It's like watching a small town, within a town come to life every evening as parents with tiny infants as pink cheeked and blue eyed as the Baby Christ in the cribs on sale and very old couples, their faces as red as the caramelised toffee apples, gather together to knock down the hot spiced Gluhwein, or warm punch, who's aromatic presence defines the heart of the festival.

"We come here to share in the warmth and the light," explains Almut Shonhals winding her way through the maze of food stalls that form the outer periphery of the famous Christmas Fair at Frankfurt. We are looking for the "frankfurters", the long German sausage that has become part of the language, but it's as rare to come by here as a "hot dog". What we find instead are enormous medieval style sausage counters stuffed to bursting with the famous "Wurst" or German sausage of which there are said to be more than 1,700 different kinds. They hang from every corner of the "Wurst" stalls in rolls and fat balloon-like bundles and small finger like necklaces in startling shades of pink and red and brown and black, the famous "Bratwursts" that come from the Black Forest and are as mysteriously potent as their name suggests. There are sausages to be boiled, hung, or air-dried, and cured by a slow process of smoking that can be stored for a long time, as indeed they were in the Roman times, when the Italians who brought the art of stuffing minced meat and garlic and spices into thin casings did when they occupied part of country in earlier days.

While today there are the freshly cooked sausages that sputter and spurge with a delicious savagery, as the cook slashes open a long piece of bread and puts in a dollop of the equally famous "sauerkraug" or fermented cabbage with the sizzling sausage and invites you to squeeze a squirt of mustard, from a mechanical stainless steel nozzle. "I used to make these Mutzenmandelns when I was a scout," explains Almut as we progress to the next stage of our meal, the desert. "It's something like a pancake and a doughnut, but different, with a flavouring of almond essence." Later, when I am at the Dresden Christmas fair, I watch a father and daughter team who are behind the counter, as they work together serving what they call fried doughnut balls. The batter is dropped in the long narrow trough of hot oil automatically. As each little ball puffs up, the father operates a lever that activates a series of small slotted doors in the long trough that turns the balls over lightly, so that they fry evenly. In another few seconds each of the golden brown fried balls are moved along the length of the trough to the end of it, where they are flipped onto a tray of absorbent paper. The daughter, in the meantime, has made a paper cone in which she places the hot puffed balls of the fried Mutzenmandeln, on which she shakes a scattering of powdered sugar before giving me a cornet too of puff balls as I make my way through the bazaar.

The food stalls are a riot of colours and shapes. There are apples dipped in red caramel sugar syrup and bananas and strawberries coated with chocolate, there are candied plums, oranges and lemons, knots of pretzels with a sweet touch, instead of the usual salty kind and enough biscuits, cakes and shortbread to make you feel that you have landed in a fairy tale. The Gingerbread shop looks like the cottage owned by the witch who tried to eat up Hansel and Gretel in the famous German fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm.

The foods indeed are a quaint mixture of human forms and desires. "Can you see these Plum Men?" asks Almut, "this is another famous tradition where people make small figures using all kinds of dried fruits and it's given to someone you love." The plum men have bodies made out of dried figs and walnuts all strung out on strong string or wires. Even more extraordinary are the heart shaped biscuits that are decorated with messages saying "My dear little sausage" or "My darling marzipan". It's easy to make an imaginative leap between food and love, particularly when one goes back to those earlier times when the long winters meant being together in a small cottage with very little food during the cold season.

Almut, who has long dark honey coloured hair and the frank open face of one of the carved wooden dolls confesses that her boyfriend calls her "a little owl" when we are in front of a stall that specialises in selling carved wooden owls, with small recesses in their chest, filled with beeswax and melon seeds to feed the birds. With Harry Potter, the movie being shown in German in all the theatres around the country, it looks as if owls are in fashion. In fact, however making all manner of small wooden dolls and animals, particularly in very elaborate nativity scenes are a tradition of the Christmas fair. There are even stalls crammed with small crafts and food items from India, brass plates, carved walnut wood bowls, candle stands, bead chains, spices, Darjeeling tea and incense in packets.

The gingerbread stall

The gingerbread stall  

At Dresden, the really fierce character comes in the shape of a "Nutcracker Man" with a wicked set of teeth and a long handle at the back. He is made out of turned wood and is dressed like a soldier. "Can you see these teeth?" asks the stall keeper, "You put the nut between the teeth and work the lever at the back and Crack! Goes the nut!" Compared to the Christmas fair at Frankfurt, the one in the old town square at Dresden is dominated by all manner of country crafts. Aside from the tall wooden dolls that stand at the entrance, there are marvellous "pyramids" of revolving candles that reveal the fascination that the German craftsman had for making all manner of mechanical toys and clocks and aches. The pyramids are made up of concentric circles of candles that have been fixed to holders at the edge of flat trays that can be made to revolve around a central column. The trays taper up towards a flat fan-like arrangement at the top. As the candles are lit, the hot air rises and turns the fan, which in its turn activates each of the layers on which there are small carved wooden figures of miners and soldiers that circle around, like a miniature merry go round. These imitate the larger merry go rounds that are another regular feature of the Christmas fair, some of them from an earlier age, decorated with gold and silver images of royalty and magnificent carved and gilded horses that bounce up and down as they go round to the tunes of the famous waltzes from the Viennese woods.

"I am just waiting to get my Advent Calendar from my Mother," says Hells Graber, who is to be my guide at Dresden. Though she seems very tough and independent at first she almost becomes a child again when she is is the company of her parents. We have been to an evening of choir music at a famous old cathedral in the heart of Dresden.

As we sat in the interior of the cathedral that had been completely destroyed during the famous night of the bombs that totalled the most famous of the German cities with a ferocity that is today being compared to the flattening of the Twin Towers, we could sense the immense yearning for the need to believe that shone in the faces of all those who had gathered there. The restoration had been done with restraint, so that we could still see the rough edges where the new surfaces had been blended in with the smooth finish of the older stonework. After the service as Hella invited me back to her parents home to share in a family dinner it was touching to be included in a family ritual of holding hands together and reciting a small litany starting with "Pip, Pip, Pip, we love you!"

The Advent season marks the four weeks before the "Coming" or the most important event in the Christian calendar, the birth of the baby Jesus. In the old Germanic tradition just as the Christmas tree was celebrated as a symbol of the Tree of Paradise, the four Sundays before Christmas are marked with wreaths of evergreens and flowers with four candles, each one of which is lit on the four Sundays. Even at the famous Brandenburg Gate at Berlin, there are giant images of candles that are placed on the fa�ade and ceremoniously "lit" on each of the Sundays.

The Advent Calendar, similarly reminds each child and person by means of small windows that have to be opened on each day leading up to Christmas. Behind each of the windows, there is often a small piece of chocolate, or marzipan. Not just that, German children are required to polish their shoes and put them out for inspection on St. Nicholas's day which falls on December 6. "Only if you are good and you have polished your shoes really well, will St. Nicholas come and reward you," says Hella, with a smile. Outside my door, at the hotel where I am staying, I find that St. Nicholas has even managed to take a break from his busy schedule and leave me a stocking filled with chocolates and marzipan.

As I look out of my window at the golden spires of the cathedrals and churches of the City of Dresden, bombed, but risen again, they stand out against a blue sky of tissue paper thinness as two planes trace white trails across the wide expanse. The church bells start ringing. It's wonderful just to be alive.