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Top 10 festive food traditions in Europe

The Guardian logo The Guardian 28/12/2016 The Guardian
Speculoos in a glass mason jar.: Speculoos. © Alamy Speculoos.

Dessert dreams, Lisbon

During the festive season the Portuguese capital overdoses on cakes, desserts, fried pastries etc, with people queuing to buy them in pastelarias (bakeries). My favourite are sonhos (dreams) – light, deep-fried doughnuts, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. They can be made with flour and eggs, or with flour and mashed boiled pumpkin. There are good ones at Pastelaria Versailles, a beautiful, art nouveau cafe dating back to 1922. Still, bolo rei (king cake) is probably the most popular treat and you’ll see it everywhere. The old cafe Confeitaria Nacional (near Rossio square) introduced this French cake to Lisbon in the 19th century, and now it’s baked all over the country. It’s dry, with soft dough, and is not too sweet, with nuts and candied fruits. Bolo-rainha is the same but without the candied fruits. Whoever finds the dry broad bean hidden inside has to buy the next bolo rei.

Biscuits in Brussels

The scent of spicy, baked biscuits marks the start of the festive season in the Low Countries. Speculoos, a crunchy biscuit made with brown sugar and cinnamon, is eaten all year round and known worldwide through the miniature version served with cups of coffee. But the biscuit was originally associated with Saint Nicholas Day, celebrated in early December. Traditionally, children would leave their shoes by the chimney with carrots for Saint Nicholas’s horse and in the morning find biscuits in their place. Although the Flanders towns of Ghent and Bruges are strong on cookies, Brussels has claimed speculoos as its own. During December, Brussels bakers make one-foot-long speculoo Christmas trees, set in traditional wooden moulds. Best known of the cookie makers is Maison Dandoy on the aptly-named Rue au Beurre.

Fish dishes and sweet bread, Prague

On the days leading up to Christmas a curious site can be seen (and smelled) on the streets of Prague. Throughout the city, fish farmers dressed in full garb sell live carp from huge water-filled tanks. With the original recipe attributed to Magdalena Dobromila Rettigova, called the mother of Czech cuisine, fried carp served with potato salad has been the traditional Christmas meal served in Czech households since at the least the 19th century. While some have the fish vendors butcher the carp on the spot, the more entertaining tradition is taking the carp home live and letting it swim around in the bathtub until it’s time to prepare the meal, served on Christmas Eve. To try this traditional dish head to Pilsen Restaurant in the Municipal House or Aureole (both offer special Christmas menus). And don’t forget to save a scale, dry it and put it in your wallet for the year as doing so is said to bring good fortune.

In sweet contrast, Vanocka is a delicious sweet bread that is traditionally served on the morning of Christmas Day. Similar to a braided brioche or Jewish Challa, this yummy yeast-based loaf, dating back to the 16th-century and taking its name from the Czech word for Christmas (Vanoce), includes raisons, almonds and lemon zest and in some recipes includes anise or nutmeg and is topped with powdered sugar. Two good spots to try Vanocka are Eska, a restaurant and bakery hybrid, and Antoninovo Pekarstvi, a neighbourhood bakery with two locations. Slice and top with butter or honey, or just enjoy this tasty Czech Christmas loaf plain.

Perfect pancakes, Berlin

Spending New Year’s Eve in Berlin will allow you to debunk one of the most enduring myths about the German capital via a culinary tradition: in June 1963, US president John F Kennedy made a fool of himself saying “Ich bin ein Berliner”, which in German means “I am a doughnut”. In fact, the proper German term for a doughnut with a jam filling is a Berliner pfannkuchen or “Berlin pancake”. In most parts of the country people refer to it as a Berliner – but in Berlin itself people call it a pfannkuchen. Even though most bakeries sell Berliner pancakes all year around, they are particularly associated with New Year’s Eve parties, and tradition demands that for every eight doughnuts filled with jam, you slip in one filled with mustard (senf) to play a trick on an unlucky guest. Enjoy, and cut JFK some slack.

Soviet-style salad, Moscow

The olivier salad, a dish rich in mayonnaise, simply can’t be avoided if you want to fully experience winter festivities Russian-style. Also known as Russian or Stolichniy salad, it’s democratic, hailing from Soviet times when fancy food was not easy to procure: it’s just potatoes, vegetables, ham, eggs and mayonnaise. Even the characters in the ultimate Russian new year film, the Irony of Fate romantic comedy, eat it. To get the most affordable version of the salad go to Teremok, a chain of Russian style fast food cafes, where olivier is served deconstructed for you to mix up yourself. Varnichnaya, a chain of dumpling cafes, offers a chicken olivier in all of its branches. Or, if you’re willing to splash out, go to Mari Vanna, where prices for ham olivier start at RUB470 (£6).

Creamy rice pudding, Copenhagen

You can’t spend Christmas in Denmark without being served the nation’s favourite Christmas pudding, risalamande – a cold rice pudding with whipped cream and chopped almonds served with a hot cherry sauce. Originally rice pudding was the traditional Christmas dessert, but as the price of rice rose sharply during the second world war, the cream and almonds were added to make it last. Danes celebrate Christmas on the evening of 24 December when the pudding is served in a large bowl, and a whole almond is added. Whoever gets the almond gets the “almond present”. This has been known to cause great disputes as some people – mainly uncles and grandpas – hide the almond in their hand or in their cheek, thus leaving members of their family not only in great suspense, but with aching bellies from eating way too much of the rich and filling dessert. If you are not celebrating Christmas in a Danish home, you can get risalamande at many restaurants in Copenhagen. A local favourite is Schønnemann’s, in the city centre where you get some of the city’s best smørrebrød. Be sure to have the pickled herring and the schnapps too.

Getting piggy with it, Bucharest

In the Romanian countryside the tradition is to slaughter a pig at Christmas, and while this practice is long gone in big cities such as Bucharest, pork dishes remain ubiquitous throughout the holiday period – along with copious amounts of țuică (fruit brandy). Sarmale (minced meat, rice and onions wrapped in cabbage leaves) is available year-round but has a prominent place on the Christmas table, while dishes such as piftie (pork and garlic in gelatine), șorici (salted pork rinds) and jumări (chunks of pork fat, fried) feature heavily. For those visiting Bucharest over Christmas and looking to try some of these meaty treats, traditional restaurants like Caru’ cu bere, a 19th-century beer hall in the heart of the city, Hanu’ lui Manuc, a centuries-old traders inn, and Curtea Berarilor have a full menu of classic Romanian dishes, with platters of the above featured prominently.

Seasonal smörgåsbords, Stockholm

Every December large groups of people vie for spots at seasonal buffets called julbord (Christmas table). This is built up from base items – pickled herring, cured salmon and meatballs – regular staples in smörgåsbords. But as Christmas is the mother of all seasonal buffets, julbord draws on 19th-century Swedish soul food traditions with specific dishes, such as Jansson’s Temptation (potato-anchovy casserole), dopp i grytan (bread dipped in pork broth), lutfisk (gelatinous white fish dish), risgrynsgröt (rice porridge), and julskinka (Christmas ham); all washed down with a non-alcoholic sweet root beer-like beverage, julmust. Restaurants are often fully booked to celebrate this official end of the working season, but for an atmospheric julbord experience, hop aboard Strömma’s steamboats for SEK 595 (£51) as you sail around Stockholm’s archipelago.

Game on, Paris

The French Christmas meal - traditionally known as Le Reveillon – is celebrated on the evening of 24 December – and involves the politically incorrect, and banned in some countries, foie gras, as well as oysters, smoked salmon, turkey or capon and a chocolate cake known as a buche with, depending on the budget, champagne or sparkling wine. Much of this is actually quite new. Traditionally, Catholic families ate their Christmas meal on returning from midnight mass, which in those days started at midnight. Back then Christmas dishes depended on the region: oysters in the west, foie gras in Alsace and the south-west, pork in rural areas.

The Christmas buche or log cake is a tradition apart. It used to be that a log was put on the fire to keep it going through the evening until the family returned from mass. In recent times, with fewer chimneys, the log has been replaced by a chocolate cake desert, these days more often than not industrially produced and filled with ice-cream. A three-course Christmas menu with starters, including foie gras and/or snails and a glass of champagne costs €69 at Julien, part of the fabulously decorated art-nouveau chain that includes Bofinger, La Coupole, Flo and the Terminus Nord (by the Gare du Nord). It’s in the previously unfashionable, but increasingly trendy 10th arrondissement.

Sugar and shortbread overload, Madrid

Shellfish, bream, lamb, and turkey may be festive staples in Spain but nothing says Christmas quite so cloyingly as the plethora of sugary treats that weigh down tables and stomachs at the end of December. Spanish nougat (turrón) can be hard or soft but its appeals seldom wanes. Similarly popular are polvorones (shortbread, the name of which hints at the dusty debris into which they crumble) and mantecados (like polvorones but enriched with lard). Among Madrid’s oldest and best known confectioners are Casa Mira, La Antigua Pastelería del Pozo and El Riojano, all of which have been serving the sweet-toothed of the city since the 19th century. Take an appetite and expectations of a serious sugar rush.

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