These days, stores in the area which have been carrying German Christmas treats are pretty much sold out, I guess. One of the most traditional baked goods – and I have to admit definitely not my favorite one – is Christstollen (pronounce: ‘chreest-shtoll-lan). But that’s because I’m not one for sweet yeast doughs at all. So why write an article about it? Because it is such a tradition and because the story behind it is quite exquisite.
Christstollen is a typical fasting dish originally containing only yeast, flour, oil, and water. It is heavy; it is shaped like a log; which is why they may have called it “Stollen” in Germany in the first place. The word derives etymologically from a word for post or stanchion. And its taste must have been horribly bland when it was invented. Still, it became a staple during advent time in the 1400s.
The ingredients used for it sound common enough. But indeed, oil was rather hard to come by in some regions, and in the German dukedom of Saxony oil was more expensive and scarcer than butter. And butter is certainly not a Lenten item. Which made the Duke of Saxony appeal to the Pope to let Saxon bakers use butter for the Stollen instead of oil. The first of these requests was denied in 1450. Five popes and four decades later, a wiser pope saw a moneymaker in the appeal and granted the use of butter in 1490, but demanded an annual tax from the bakers, which was supposed to help build a church. I almost suspect this tax helped further the cause of Protestantism instead. It became obsolete when Saxony turned Lutheran. And butter stayed one of the basic ingredients of the Stollen.
Today, we find all kinds of Christstollen enriched with candied fruit, rum, marzipan, spices, raisins, and/or almonds. The heavy log is brushed with butter and covered with confectioners’ sugar. The most famous Stollen, also renowned as Striezel (pronounce: ‘shtreet-sal), comes from the German city of Dresden where even the Christmas market has been named for it. It is exported to countries all around the globe, and if you check your local supermarkets and German delis, you might still be lucky to find some.
A lot of German households pride themselves on baking these loaves themselves. Usually, they are baked and stored away weeks before they are meant to be consumed. This never worked in my family; fresh from the oven, it was loved so well, it was usually devoured within a week. My mother usually ended up baking Christstollen until Twelth Night because it was so coveted. Not by me, as noted before, but I always had a courtesy slice to get into the right advent mood. After that I gladly nibbled on Lebkuchen (pronounce: ‘lahp-coo-hen, a kind of gingerbread) or other typical delicacies of a less Lenten character.
You are right in presuming I haven’t continued the tradition of baking Christstollen in my own household ever. Still, when I see the first Christstollen pop up on the shelves in local stores, I feel that old nostalgia swipe over me. And I am almost tempted to buy myself just one of the tinier loaves … Almost.