Care for a snowball, sandcake or chocolate sparrow? These are among the sugary regional delicacies I encountered on a recent visit to Germany. I abandoned thoughts of the Stasi, Nazis, and reunification taxes, focusing instead on the sweeter side of Germany. With a Eurail pass in hand, I hopped on and off the excellent trains to taste local goodies, and learn about their lore.
One of the most beloved treats in Germany is lebkuchen (pronounced “Layb-kook-in”), which literally means “cake of life,” though it’s often inaccurately translated as gingerbread. Although it does bear some resemblance to gingerbread, this delicious spicy cookie/cake, often made from honey and nuts, contains little or no ginger.
Lebkuchen has seasonal (most often associated with Christmas) and regional connotations. In the city of Nuremberg—situated in the center of the medieval European Spice Trail, with a cobblestone town square dating from 1349—I found a variety of lebkuchen sold in outdoor stalls alongside vegetable stands. Although it is “off season,” German visitors from other cities stock up on these tasty treats year-round. Locals argue about who bakes the best lebkuchen in town, and have annual contests with official awards. No one agrees on the exact ingredients, since the recipes remain top secret!
The reputable Schmidt company–selling lebkuchen around the world—keeps recipes in a safe, and the combination changes daily to assure company employees don’t have access to these priceless documents.
Stopping at a mom-and-pop, gourmet Duell Bakery, I sampled spicy, moist lebkuchen that is totally handmade. As I savored the texture, I discovered that even the baker’s wife wasn’t privy to the secret family recipes from the 19th century. (Eventually the son will inherit them.) She did share an origin story about the Elisen variety of lebkuchen (considered the top line).
A king was searching for a cure for his sick daughter, Elizabeth, in 1720. He asked his cook to create a nutritious treat to help her. The cook baked a spicy lebkuchen with hazelnuts, honey, and lots of cinnamon, which is said to remove winter depression. Elizabeth recovered, so the fine quality Elisen lebkuchen was named after her.
The spice combination varies in this tasty sweet, but there is usually cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and sometimes cardamom or allspice. Nuts and often almonds are crucial ingredients, although honey or sugar and eggs and flour may be added. Companies such as Schmidt pack their cakes—with shapes ranging from oversized round cookies to squares or rectangles—in lovely tins, some of which are newly designed each year and become collectors’ items.
A chance encounter at the Munich train station led to the discovery of a totally handmade, vegan lebkuchen. The seller claimed the origin of this sweet was a Hansel and Gretel story, although the Brothers Grimm took some artistic license. “The baker was not a witch, but a good person living in the forest in Southern Germany with a great recipe she refused to share with a couple from Nuremberg.”
A less controversial sweet comes from Leipzig, a city officially founded in 1165, which has a solid musical heritage associated with Bach, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Wagner. At the Café Kandler (a stone’s throw from the Bach Museum and the St. Thomas Church where Bach worked) they create a special Bach confectionary from a hazelnut pastry filled with a coffee bean inside, paying homage to the composer and his “Coffee Cantata.”
George Biller, the current conductor of the angelic St. Thomas Boys Choir (one position Bach held), commented about Bach: “To say that he wrote the Coffee Cantata, doesn’t say he liked coffee; I think he preferred wine.” Biller reminds me Bach was often paid with food when he tested organs. And a new chocolate treat in the shape of organ pipes was also created to honor Bach, with proceeds helping the annual Bach Fest