SAMPLE GERMANY’S CHRISTMAS FARE
Chocolate, music and markets are glorified with carnivals, but at the heart of the merrymaking is a community’s wish to celebrate itself, writes Kari Gislason
IT WAS Golden October, when a last wave of Italian warmth made it across the Alps into southern Germany.
Outside, the final sunlight of the day found the tops of trees, and the town seemed cast entirely in autumn patterns. I followed the busy pedestrian traffic across the Neckar River into the old part of Tübingen.
My visit coincided with Jazz & Klassik Tage, when the bars and cafes in town are given over to an annual music festival.
That evening, I went to Café Voltaire, a barn tucked behind one of the streets of medieval angles and leaning upper floors.
Inside was a black stage, a dozen rows of wooden chairs and a makeshift bar attended by an Italian girl who said she lived in Paris.
“What are you doing in Germany?” I asked her.
“I like to help out at jazz festivals,” she replied. A smile asked, “wasn’t that obvious?”.
To myself, I replied yes, it was obvious but only if I was in a Fellini movie and Mastroianni was about to say this girl had just left him penniless in Turin.
Instead, she sold me a wine priced for serving in a tumbler and introduced me to Claudia Jochen, lead singer of Vaaralliset huulet about to start a Finnish tango gig.
This, she explained, was the music her mother had brought with her when she came to Germany.
“When our last singer moved to Oxford she asked me to take over because I had a Finnish mum. I told her I didn’t know the songs well enough. But when I started singing, I remembered them. They’d stayed with me all this time.”
The band put together a wonderful set of stories and tunes that may well have been more at home in Helsinki.
The songs of her childhood introduced a strange mix of Scandinavian and Argentinian sensibilities.
But, after all, festivals so often give a community the chance to mix things up and that night it worked.
I returned to Tübingen in December the following year, on the eve of the town’s Chocolate Festival.
Locals will tell you that the festival isn’t a traditional event, there’s something a bit too new about it.
But this hasn’t made it any less popular, and a quarter of a million visitors join in the sampling of chocolates sourced as close as the nearby Ritter factory and as far away as South America.
Of course, pleasure is at the heart of it all, but it’s pleasure wrapped in great artfulness and warmth. By December, the evenings of Golden October are rather distant.
It’s minus five and the leaves have been swept away. It’s time to accept the comfort of chocolate and the cosiness of stalls in a packed market square and to marvel at intricate designs on display: chocolate formed into shoes, coffee pots, carpentry tools. Even into paint.
I watched as three girls, who looked like students from the university, stood in awe of an array of wrapped chocolates.
They seemed returned to that wonderful childhood feeling of not knowing which treat to choose, and I left
doubting they’d be able to. My German hosts Rosita and Andreas were determined that I should also experience something more traditional. We began with the Christmas markets at the neighbouring town of Reutlingen.
These, they said, were a modest market but also ever so typical. A place for people to meet after work, to warm themselves with very sweet Glühwein, or mulled wine, and the unpronounceable Schupfnudeln. This translates as “pushed noodles” but I was told that my pronunciation somehow changed the meaning to “nose noodles”.
They were mixed with smoked bacon and sauerkraut, and you could certainly smell them. I didn’t take a warning issued by a large gentleman who stood next to me in the queue. He stroked a handlebar moustache and said, “I’d stick to the sausages, if I were you.”
I was lucky, though. Andreas swapped my Schupfnudeln for his sausages and from then on I did as I’d been advised and stuck to sausages.
A couple of nights later we drove to Stuttgart, a prosperous town and home to one of the country’s largest Christmas markets. The effect there was very different from that of Reutlingen, with after-work homeliness replacing the definite sense of a grand event. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss either – drinking oversweet wine in the shelter of a gothic church in Reutlingen. Dazed by the countless stalls and yellow lights in Stuttgart, crowds and excitement.
My last outing took me back to what, I suppose, remains at the heart of all festivals, a community’s wish to celebrate itself. In December it takes some of the cold out of the air by filling long nights in the company of new and old friends, with wine and food: cold meats and cheese, blood sausages and yet more sauerkraut.
Ours was served at the final Tübingen Besen for the year. These are informal bars run by local wine growers.
A restricted licence is awarded for a certain number of weeks and the Besen take their name from brooms left outside the door to show that the bar has been opened.
Inside, we were crammed under a low ceiling and into wooden benches and served by the people who’d harvested the wine not very long before.
A young man apologised for its freshness, but they’d run out of last year’s vintage.
He gave us a very bright Pinot, one that left a light fizz on the tongue, or a touch of summer in the winter months.
PARTY TIME: Dorte Schetter paints with chocolate at the annual Tubingen Chocolate Festival (far left) and (clockwise from main) blue evenings and golden lights in Stuttgart; students enjoy the sun in Tübingen; crowds gather at the chocolate festival;...