warm fireplaces, old stories, and other essentials of a German Christmas

I celebrated Christmas this year for the first time in Southern Germany with Tilmann’s family.

A long 10 days of sleeping in until noon (I didn’t even know I had that skill), walking the happy dog in the misty hills, frequent coffee and cake breaks shortly followed by dinner, wine, stories, and games in the evening.

10 adults in total. Full-on German immersion. Thank goodness I was in wine country.

It was just my luck that Tilmann’s family is particularly traditional at Christmas. I was swept into the festivities, and here are a few of the highlights from that part of the world:

– Tree lights are often still delicate little candles in special holders.
My instincts tell me that wood is a common fuel for fire, but my ‘danger danger!’ face was told to trust in tradition…. and that only ‘a few’ accidents happen every year. Hold onto your cats and small children.

We went to Christmas Mass on the 24th. Immediately on coming home, we had to wait (im)patiently outside the living room for the tree candles to be lit for the first time (the tree is also only set up on the 24th). Upon the ringing of a bell we were allowed to enter and be absorbed into the warmth of the candle light. Carols were sung, presents were exchanged and then Christmas dinner was happily eaten.

– No traditional Christmas meal.
Believe it or not, North America has a long-standing tradition that doesn’t exist and (possibly) didn’t originate in Europe. 1 point North Am! We got 2 raclette ovens going and had an amazing session of grilling, melting, seasoning, and stuffing (ourselves that is). We heart cheese. Typical additions to the melted cheese: potatoes, mushrooms, onions, corn, pickles, beets. And of course meat, if you are into that sort of thing (see below on the effects of Christmas drinks).

– A few Christmas Carols that I know are also sung in German. Oh Holy Night, and Oh Christmas Tree, of course (Tannenbaum!)
Unbeknownst to us beforehand, this provided some nice bonding moments as I sang in English and tried to compete with the 3 singing sisters in German. No chance.

– Christmas markets never get old, unless they are of the medieval kind!
We went to a nearby town to check out the traditional market, as well as the completely authentic middle age market. I was already high on the beautiful style of the buildings surrounding the market. And then we stepped into the medieval market full of fire torches, wood stove baking, traditional leather and metal workers, and even a wood-heated hot tub wherein you could watch the crowds as they passed through. We got to try out archery, egg tossing, and plenty of mead as well, to keep the spirits high.

The mead might make you do crazy things though…. the 1-metre long sausages become very tempting for a vegetarian. Tilmann’s sister couldn’t resist.

The time in Germany passed easily, as we enjoyed a deeper sense of gratitude for having each other together that year.

And the dog appreciated a dance partner for his waltz to, of course, the Nutcracker Suite!

Straddling the Atlantic: baking a Canadian pie in Europe

The humourous stereotypes are not lost on me, in fact I relish in them. Since I’ve moved to ‘Europe’ I’ve started hanging my laundry outside to dry, zipping around the city on my bike, baking my own bread, and, some report, have picked up an accent… in English. Interesting.

I suppose these are all normal reactions to living in a new environment, we adapt, we hike up our leiderhosen and dive right into the cheese fondue.

Though not for everything. I’m still stuck on the ridiculous Canadian ‘metric’ system. Not quite American, not quite like Euroland, I still appreciate my pounds, cups, and feet. So needless to say, baking here is always a bit of magic.

There are no expectations since anything that results in a manageable (rather close to mangeable, n’est pas?) consistency becomes a bread, cookie or cake. So far many positive reviews from very dedicated taste-testers.

Last week I crossed a new hurdle. Yes indeed, I am baking pies in Switzerland (well 2 so far, but that counts for plural). Not only that, I am shocking their tongues with the pie that never made it back across the Atlantic: Pumpkin Pie!

But before I show off the buttery crumby details, let’s talk about my ‘enabling environment’. I personally own no baking equipment, except for maybe a mixing spoon (thanks Mom), so whatever I use is graciously available from the apartment that I am living in. The last place was heaven (I was living with a crazy foodie…), mixers, whizzers, smashers and scales, even a creme brulee torch. I’m a little less equipped at the new place having to be a little creative to follow the North American recipes online. Some examples of my ‘genius’:

– Measuring out ‘cups’: I use our drinking glasses, looks like about 250 g for water et al. Oh wait, engineering school taught me that not everything weighing 250 g will fill the same volume. Hmm, let’s pretend it does.

– Teaspoons, tablespoons, pinches and sticks: Well this used to be good guessing game as no one seems to own measuring spoons nor does butter come in sticks. But Ellen caught this problem early on and gifted me a dashingly red set of measuring spoons which are now in high rotation (you rock, E!). Sticks have to be improvised, and I get by with some good carving out of the butter block, but I sure like saying that I wish I had a few sticks to add to this recipe, hehe.

– Gas stove in C: Yikes, was I also supposed to know all the Fahrenheit (which is a German word, now who has it backwards?) temperatures in Celsius? Well even after conversion, I can’t exactly do much for precision on my gas stove.

325F = 162.8C

– Missing ingredients: Some things you just can’t find, unless you go to one of those foreign grocery stores, importing wild things from abroad like mint extract and sushi rice. So when I get a craving for pumpkin pie, especially around this time of year, I just gotta make it happen. No canned pumpkin, no allspice? Bring it on!

For a fun bonus, I had my mind set on using the chestnut flour I brought back from Corsica to make the pie crust. Ahem, my first pie crust. That made it just a little more special, but once you smell that heavenly nutty delicate chestnut flour, you’d be right there with me. Promise.

So let me present my proud creation: chestnut crusted pumpkin pie

Fresh pumpkin ready to roast
Post-roast to filling
Chestnut crust prep and fill

And the finished product…

Light and fluffy, spicy and sweet

It was dreamy. Like pumpkin fluff with a tickle of chestnut. It was quickly finished.

And for the second, slightly more creative: chestnut crusted apple pear pie

Frozen butter shredded and vanilla pod for crust
Boskoop apples and Conference pears for a soft jammy filling, plus lemon and ginger
Out of the oven, deep dish goodness

And some fun with the top crust. Roasted almonds and lots of love

This one was for a boy I’m particularly proud of, recently finished a Master’s degree and rather brilliant if I do say so myself.
Pie was heartily devoured in the midst of the beautiful autumn. Happy November!

Autumn sights in Zurich

After a few last attempts to hold onto summer (see: Saturday afternoons by the lake), the bright oranges, reds and yellows around Zurich started to tell the story of cooler nights, foggy mornings, and the crisp breeze causing people to get cozy and bring out the winter comforter. It is definitely autumn!

Late summer sun at the lake

With the fog lifting up by the afternoon, the bright blue sky has been an exquisite complement to the symbols of the season: late harvest plants, lingering flowers, plump pumpkins, and the changing of the leaves. I’ve been walking around the ‘m0untain’ near my apartment and marveling at the final stages of summer blending seamlessly into one of my favourite times of year. As a self-declared jacket addict, this is a great time of year since I’m assured of the need for a great long spy trench coat and a cozy wool scarf before venturing out.

pursuing sun

gardening yoga

And as the growing season wraps up, the plot farmers are hard at work preparing their garden for the winter crops and bringing in the last of the summer’s. This, of course, means pumpkins are ready! To fully embrace this I biked out of Zurich to a nearby you-pick farm called Jucker Farmart. Here they not only display the winning pumpkins in the annual ‘biggest’ competition, there are also pumpkin-made displays with a new theme every year. It just so happened that I decided to visit the farm when the theme was particularly original: Switzerland. Yep, we are talking about displays complete with a gigantic cow, Heidi, the Matterhorn, an alp horn and more made from various shapes, colours and sizes of pumpkin. You couldn’t help but smile at the fun displays, the history and symbols they chose, and the faces of the kids who were totally entranced by the pure quantity of pumpkins and all their alien forms.

700 kg winner and contenders

The three-canton vote to unite Switzerland... in pumpkin form
Pumpkin carver

And along with pumpkins, also comes apples. And in Switzerland they make a fresh pressed apple juice, mixed with pear as well, called Most (pronounced Moescht)

pouring fresh Most into bottles

And one final impression from another ‘mountain’ above Zurich (they are really more like hills but have the name of -berg, meaning mountain. Hmm… they don’t quite look like the mountains I know) looking out towards the Alps and the surrounding towns. The sun was setting and casting a glow that lit the oranges of the hill and the purple of the horizon.

Wrapping up

Back from the village markets in the dry and dusty north of Burkina, and packing my bag to head back to Switzerland! A quick turn around from the simple life to increasing degrees of luxury. In Ouaga, I’m currently impressed by the abundance of things like cheese, street lights and traffic, and the lack of chickens, pigs, and shoeless children.

A few quick snaps of the markets and the Ouaga life with the family in ‘Paradise’.

Wheeling and dealing...
sun setting after a long hot day
lunch in the field provided by one of the villages
Made a few new friends- Alma, Abidjail and Maimouna
not rice! back in Ouaga
Ensemble direct from the tailors... wrong colour, wrong cut, perfect photo opportunity
some of the family in Paradise

Christmas in Schluein

Following my Christmas experiences in Zurich, I headed up to the mountains for the real stuff: family!

With all 4 kids, a mountain guide, a tired ETH student, and one excited dog, my Aunt was Wonder Woman and created a truly memorable Christmas for all of us!

Christmas dinner in Switzerland is not as grand a production as in Canada. This is mainly because the tree is only decorated on the 24th (also the night of the dinner) which is a feat in itself. So after surveying most of my Swiss friends, the conclusion was that they tended to have a simpler meal on the 24th before or after opening the gifts.

Up in the mountains, we had a very cool alternative Swiss dinner- personal pizzas using the raclette grill!

Just to clarify, raclette is a traditional Swiss meal where you warm up cheese in little pans (about the size of your palm) on a communal grill in the middle of the table. The cheese is then added to bread, potatoes, or meat etc. For the pizzas, we used the little pans with fresh pizza dough, and a pile of toppings. Everyone could make them as they pleased and waiting for them to ‘cook’ built up the suspense between pieces. Yum. 

In terms of gifts, Lisa maintains some Canadian traditions even after 20 or so Christmases here and so we opened the gifts on the morning of the 25th- definitely bringing back some of my favourite memories of Claire and I waking up early, opening our stockings and hanging around in pajamas until the afternoon. In the mix of presents was a Wii for the whole family! I would never have guessed how much fun/exercise you can get from some of those games! My favourite: Just Dance where you have to dance in time to some fun 80’s hits, competing against a partner. When looking at the pictures below, please note that these are not professional dancers and there were some sore bodies the following day.

A few photos to give you an idea of the fun with all 7 of us and the dog!

Mia and Freddi in pizza mode
Ty and Nora
Lisa and Caylin playing Wii
Lisa and Freddi in a serious dance-off

 The town of Schluein also organized advent windows where you can do a loop through the town to see 24 windows dressed up for Christmas. Lisa and Freddi had number 19, and of course a deer had to make it in there too. Adevnt windows are a pretty common tradition and are very fun to see as you walk around.

Advent window

 Even though I was away from my friends and close family, it was a really special Christmas!

Saturday Morning Market

This is purely for posting a few pictures… and to procrastinate a little from my international environmental politics studying…

One of the advantages of living in Europe is the access to local food and particularily at the markets. As I have mentioned, the variety of local fruits and vegetables boggles my zone 3 Albertan brains. (For comparison, the Hardiness Zone for most of Europe starts at 6 and goes up to 10!) Lately I have been enjoying the new clementines from Spain, so sweet and juicy, they are definitely a sign that Christmas is coming. I visited a market in downtown Zurich one saturday morning and snapped a few pictures of the local products. It was rainy and grey but the stands juxtaposed it all very nicely. The most interesting aspect were the people of course. Tasting, bargaining, enquiring about new recipes and taking this little market very seriously. Below are a few candid shots.  

Fresh flowers from the south

Fresh Herbs

This was a portable Olive Oil store. Just open up the sides of the car (3-wheeled even!) to reveal a display of 20 odd types of oil. The guy seemed a little surprised that I wanted to take pictures of his entrepreneur-mobile.

Olive oil on wheels

 And of course some cheese…     

Some samples of locally made cheese



And a few from wandering around the old town after the market.   

The rainy morning on the Limmat river    


Special sunday bread- Zopf

But these were a few weeks ago, and it has finally snowed! Just in time for the start of December, the rain turned into big fluffy flakes and blanketed everything with a few centimetres of the white stuff. It was gorgeous and made for the prefect start to the holiday season… though international environmental politics does not garner any holiday spirit in my view.

Posts on Christmas traditions, special holiday markets, family and friends are soon to come…

Thinking of everyone and remembebring all the lovely celebrations from the past few years… Early Christmas in Canmore and Stewart McLean in Banff, the multitude of corporate Christmas parties, the amazing spirirt at the yoga Christmas party, special dinners and desserts!, warm cups of chai tea, dancing around living rooms to the Nutcracker Suite, close friends, family and pets… 🙂