From sweet to savory to squeamish, here are the eats and drinks worth seeking out at European Christmas markets this holiday season.
During November and December, most of the small villages and big cities of Europe come alive with Christmas markets. Strolling through the different market vendors can give you a good glimpse of local Christmas culture, especially if you decide to indulge in a savory treat and a drink or two Along with the Christmastime staples like decorative candies, stalls sell national and regional dishes and libations, and you might even come across a few specialties that are only available during the festive season. So don’t miss out on these must-try treats while you’re being merry at the market!
Kürtoskalács, or “chimney cakes,” are a staple at any Hungarian Christmas market. This popular pastry gets its name from its hollow, cylindrical shape. A single strip of sweet, raised dough is wrapped around a wooden cylinder, rolled in sugar, and then rotated over an open-flame spit as it bakes. The result is a mouthwatering, soft and pillowy inside, encased in a perfectly crunchy and caramelized outer layer. Finish it off with toppings such as cinnamon or sesame.
Æbleskiver are a favorite holiday dessert among Danes, and are similar to what Americans might call doughnut holes. Though Æbleskiver literally translates to “apple slices”, the spherical fried dough dessert doesn’t actually contain any apples. This sweet treat is a ubiquitous find at Christmas markets all over the country and is often served sprinkled with powdered sugar and a spoonful of jam.
Several countries celebrate the holidays with gingerbread, but the Swiss have mastered it. Many cantons produce their own unique versions of this holiday treat, and Christmas markets are a great way to sample different varieties. To taste a secret 500-year-old recipe, look for Appenzeller biberli, a round gingerbread cake filled with sweet almond paste; Magenbrot is a dark and spicy biscuit made with rye flour, while Basler läckerli is a flat and crispy favorite.
Bûche de Noël
This French holiday dessert pays homage to the Yule logs traditionally burned in hearths during the holidays. Rolled-up sheets of iced sponge cake are covered with chocolate icing to give the dessert a log-like appearance. Some next-level versions of Bûche de Noël have even featured icing that resembles bark, forest-themed marzipan decorations, powdered sugar snow, or even protruding stubs coming off the “log.”
Blood Sausage with Sauerkraut
Halloween may have passed, but you’re going to want to sink your teeth into this esteemed Estonian Christmas dish. True to their name, these sausages contain fresh pig’s blood—plus a mixture of pork, barley and local spices, like marjoram. These hearty black links usually come with a sidekick of pork-simmered hapukapsas (Estonian sauerkraut) and, sometimes, a dollop of lingonberry jam.
Oscypek is a handmade sheep’s milk cheese produced only by qualified shepherds in the Polish highlands. Shepherds start the lengthy process by turning fresh milk into fresh cheese and, later, hand-carved, spindle-shaped molds give the cheese its famous ornamental shape. The cheese is then brined in saltwater before being hung up and is later wood-smoked using either spruce or pine. Once used as currency, this salty, smoked treat is worth a trip to the Christmas market in its own right.
You don’t have to wait until December to try this simple and cheap Christmas market treat. As soon as fall hits, small metal carts dot the streets of Portugal, and the irresistible smell of roasting chestnuts waft through the air. Chestnuts are typically served in a portable paper cone (usually the rolled-up page of a magazine), making them the perfect portable snack to munch on as you stroll the streets or market.
Smoked reindeer heart is a delicacy in Sweden, and it’s often a staple dish of Christmas dinner, particularly in the north. Those not quite up to the adventure of trying heart will be happy to know that smoked reindeer sausages and meat are much more common finds at the Christmas markets. We promise we won’t tell Santa.
Christmas Fruit Bread
Christmas fruitcake gets a bad rap in the United States, but don’t let that deter you from nibbling on Austria’s famed fruit bread. Kletzenbrot is much denser than American fruitcake and calls for dried fruits over candied. Other ingredients include Christmas spices and nuts. Try both the hard and soft versions, and see which one you like best.
Directly translating to “fire tong-s punch”, this flashy German holiday drink is prepared by lighting a sugarloaf on fire above a warming pot of mulled wine. The caramelized sugar then melts and drips into the pot below. Personalized portions of Feuerzangenbowle are made in contraptions that resemble fondue pots, though Christmas market crowds call for large metal basins. Don’t be surprised if the big dancing flames draw in a curious crowd.
WHERE: Czech Republic
Commercialization has eclipsed tradition for this brined, stewed, and slightly smoked ham, but that hasn’t stopped it from making the EU’s list of traditional delicacies. Finding a Prague ham crafted from an authentic recipe can be difficult (no matter what the stall vendor swears), but either way, it is still must-devour for any pork lover.
WHERE: United Kingdom
This dessert can be a confusing concept for travelers who don’t know that Brits refer to ground beef as mince. While early versions of the Christmas treat did, in fact, contain sweetened and spiced ground meat (usually mutton), today’s versions almost always sub-in autumn fruits like figs, apples, raisins, and dried cherries. Still, vegetarians beware: this fruity “mincemeat” often contains suet, a hard animal fat.
There’s nothing like a nice shot of Aquavit to help warm you up while wandering through Norway’s Christmas markets. At its core, this high-proof spirit is similar to gin and is made by distilling alcohol with such herbs as caraway or dill. Orange peel, fennel, and anise are popular flavoring additions. While all Scandinavian countries have their own version of aquavit, Norwegian aquavit stands out as it undergoes oak-barrel aging and is commonly made from potatoes instead of grain.
Churros and Chocolate
This indulgent dessert is beloved across Spain and is available outside the Christmas season. However, these piping hot strings of fried dough and accompanying warm hot chocolate dipping sauce are a festive favorite. Some spots may even offer a selection of dipping options, like white chocolate or eggnog.