Exploring food at Cologne’s Christmas markets
Potato pancakes, roasted sugared almonds, grilled sausages or fried mushrooms – I guess we all have our Christmas market favourites. But why not try something different this year? I went out to explore some of my favourite foods at Cologne’s six large Christmas markets.
Harbour Christmas market: Slow-grilled salmon
By the Chocolate Museum on the banks of the Rhine is the Harbour Christmas market, with a nautical theme that runs right through the square from the pirate ship bar to the prawn-stuffed rolls. My favourite is and always has been been Alfred Lemoine’s Flammlachs, or slow-grilled salmon: entire sides of salmon cooked over a beechwood fire, Finnish-style. It looks old-fashioned and pretty and it tastes incredible. Because it’s slow-cooked, the fish is juicy, with a slightly smoky aroma. There’s three different portion sizes: Matrosenbrötchen (“sailor’s roll”), Seefahrerschale (“seafarer’s bowl”) and Kapitänsteller (“captain’s platter”). All come with a bread roll, a side salad and a choice of two sauces (honey-mustard or herb). I recommend ordering without the sauce or asking for it on the side – the salmon is most delicious au naturel.
Cathedral Christmas Market: South Tyrolian ham hut
Cologne’s probably best known Christmas market is right next to Cologne Cathedral, which provides an impressive backdrop to the many decorated stalls.
The Südtiroler Speckhütte, or South Tyrolian ham hut, is right next to the Romano-Germanic Museum. The display groans under sausages, hams, hunks of bread topped with dripping and variations of strudel. Guests are greeted in broad Tyrolian dialect and an even broader smile. The menu is extensive and offers a full list of regional specialities, from dumplings to steamed pastries. There’s even a small seating area – the only drawback here is the awful Schlager music, so beware all ye who enter here. The cabbage and bacon strudel is served with melted butter, grated cheese and fresh chives. Crisp on the outside, juicy on the inside, it’s a wonderfully savoury meal. Equally to be recommended is the vegetarian option with spinach and feta cheese.
Nicholas Village: Chestnuts and churros
The Christmas market on Rudolfplatz is full of contradictions. The almost 60 half-timbered stalls contrast starkly with the blinking neon signs outside the surrounding fast-food joints. Thanks to its central location, the Village is popular with groups of office workers in search of an after-work mug or two of mulled wine.
The market itself is fairly small and its food stalls offer traditional fare. A notable and nostalgic exception is the chestnut stand, run by the Liebe almond roastery, which prepares and roasts organic chestnuts from Portugal right here on site. Their nutty aroma is an instant reminder that it’s Christmas time. Three portion sizes are available. If you’re looking for something slighly less savoury you can try churros (Spanish fried batter sticks) and poffertjes (Dutch mini-pancakes). The choux pastry for the churros is fried fresh to order, then coated in a sugar-and-cinnamon mix or dipped in liquid milk chocolate.
Market of Angels: Flammkuchen
As soon as the countless white stars hung in the trees around Neumarkt light up, Cologne residents know that the holiday season is well and truly underway. With its Scandinavian-style appearance, the Angels’ Market is clearly going for a more modern look than its traditional counterparts. Whitewashed wooden stalls, the stars in the trees, fairy lights, deer antlers and mini Christmas trees transform the bustling heart of Neumarkt into a winter wonderland.
The culinary options are generous, ranging from Belgian waffles and fried potato pancakes (Reibekuchen) to Hungarian langos flatbreads. My favourite is freshly baked Flammkuchen, or tarte flambée. The pretty stall is right across from the antique kid’s carousel. There is a classic version with onions, cheese and bacon. The vegetarian alternatives come with onion, cheese and leek or onion, feta cheese and spinach. The specialty variation with leek and salmon is also interesting. The base is wafer-thin and crispy, just like a Flammkuchen needs to be.
Christmas market at Stadtgarten: Raclette
My very favourite Christmas market is the one at Stadtgarten. The trees are strung with fairy lights and the little wooden stalls sell designer items and hand-crafted gifts made in the region. The Stadtgarten market is most popular among Cologne’s younger generation, who flock here of an evening to meet their friends.
Every year I come here to visit my personal favourite food stall: the Raclette hut. Tangy melted cheese, ideally a bit crispy around the edges, spread on sourdough bread with pickled vegetables – it’s delicious, and an instant reminder of my childhood days. One of the two Raclette stands in the “Kuschelecke”, or cozy corner: just a few steps behind the entrance and off to the right in one of the three food areas. The cheesy scent is a dead giveaway: half a wheel of cheese is clamped into a holder, the surface is flamed, and the melted cheese is scraped onto either sourdough bread or a portion of tiny potatoes. You can pimp this excellent little dish with pickled vegetables and/or a thick slice of Black Forest ham. The second Raclette stall is on the left-hand side of the market towards the back.
Heinzels Winter Fairytale: Handbrotzeit
Heinzels Winter Fairytale, the largest Christmas market in the city, is right in the heart of Cologne’s Old Town. The pretty stalls with carved wooden frames sell antiques and traditional hand-crafted gifts, and every year there’s an ice rink around the corner on Heumarkt.
Foodwise, too, there is much to discover. Exquisite grilled meats, traditional English fudge, enormous wheels of cheese, home-made white nougat – one is spoiled for choice. Favourite in 2018 is Handbrotzeit. You find the stall directly opposite the ice rink and right across the tavern “Zum Bären”. The filled hand breads, optionally with cheese and ham or cheese and mushrooms, are prepared on site and served fresh from the oven: you must try them.