I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and I believe that it’s safe to say Europe is my favorite culinary destination. Sure, Thai food is great and I’m a sucker for traditional meals in Jordan, but Europe enjoys a level of diversity that’s hard to find anywhere else and I always leave the Old World full and happy. I just returned from a great Christmas Market river cruise with Viking River Cruises and food was naturally one of the main highlights. Special treats and meals reserved only for the holiday season were on display and I felt like I gained ten pounds by the time I left. But of course it was all worth it, and more than anything else I have these favorite European foods to thank for more fantastic culinary experiences.
This is one of the most touristy meals out there, but it’s famous for a reason – it’s delicious. Sure you can find Wiener Schnitzel (which means schnitzel from Vienna) just about anywhere, but when you’re in Vienna one of the best places to enjoy this traditional delicacy is at Figlmüller’s. Located near St. Stephen’s, the chefs at Figlmüller’s have been creating some of the best versions of Austria’s national dish since 1905; so it’s safe to say they know what they’re doing. The schnitzels are made from the best cuts of pork and extend well past the edge of the plate – a massive 11 inches in diameter. Still, I found myself devouring this classic dish in no time; it was light, crispy and delicious. You can enjoy schnitzel anywhere, but be sure to try it at Figlmüller’s who really can be credited with transforming this popular dish into the culinary event it is today.
2. Hungarian kürtöskalács (chimney cakes)
I found these delicious pastries while walking around the crowded but fun Christmas Market in central Budapest. Also called chimney cakes by those of us who can’t pronounce the Hungarian, these are enjoyed all year but especially around Christmastime. Made from sweet yeast dough, the cake starts off as a strip that is spun and then wrapped around a cone–shaped baking spit and rolled in granulated sugar. It is baked on a charcoal grill while doused with melted butter, until its surface becomes golden-brown. During the baking process the sugar caramelizes and forms a shiny, crispy crust on the cake. Made to order, the cakes are served up hot and the steam rising up looks just like a chimney, hence the name. They’re also delicious and I wasn’t the only one who thought so, the cake stands always had the longest lines.
3. Passau (Germany) doughnut
I have a sweet tooth – that much can be safely said. Of all the great pastries I enjoyed during my December sojourn to Europe, this special star shaped doughnut was a personal favorite. Made especially for the Christmas season, it was a simple but light dough fried on the spot and doused with an ample amount of granulated sugar, making it twinkle in the afternoon sun. Christmas markets are great places to find regional and seasonal foods; bites you would probably never even know about otherwise. This doughnut made my top list because it wasn’t too heavy, tasted great and really encapsulated the culinary traditions of the city during Christmas. And now I want another one.
4. Regensburg (Germany) wurst and mustard
Almost every city, town and village in Germany will swear that they have the best sausages in the country and arguably the world. And while most of them are indeed delicious, my favorite ones so far can be found in the beautiful city of Regensburg. Located on the Danube, Regensburg is known for its university and the colorful buildings gracing the old town. It’s also known for an old stone bridge that dates back to the 12th century and has a legendary history all of its own. Next to the bridge is an old sausage shop that has been serving delicious Regensburg sausages for as long as the bridge itself has been around. The kitchen is still in operation today and the only item on the menu are those famous sausages, smaller than you might expect and served three to a bun along with the shop’s special sweet mustard. There’s nothing better than chowing down on these hot, delicious bites on a cold winter’s day, just like folks have been doing for an astonishing 900 years.
5. Nuremberg Lebkuchen
One of the greatest finds on my Christmas exploration of Europe this time was discovering authentic German Lebkuchen. Most often compared to what we Americans call gingerbread; I quickly discovered that’s not an entirely accurate description of this tasty dessert. Lebkuchen differs from baker to baker and can include a variety of different ingredients including honey, spices such as aniseed, coriander, cloves, ginger, cardamom and allspice, nuts including almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts, or candied fruit. The most famous place to find this treat is in Nuremberg, where Lebkuchen has been produced since at least the 1300s. There are many great shops throughout the city and it really is a matter of preference which one you will enjoy most. During Christmas, head over to the famous Christmas Market, one of the largest in the world, to sample a few different kinds and see which ones you like best. Regardless, do not leave Nuremberg without taking home a big box of these tasty cookies – you really won’t find anything else quite like them anywhere in the world.
These are just a few of the many tasty bites I enjoyed most during my Christmas exploration of Hungary, Austria and Germany with Viking River Cruises. What are some of your favorite holiday treats?