Today I am off to my grandma’s to bake some Christmas biscuits with her. In Austria, baking at Christmas has a long tradition. But not only at Christmas, people used to bake for any major occasion – birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas or weddings. Until today, pastries, desserts and cakes are a big part of our culture. (Sometimes I really wonder why Austrians are not overly obese…)
When my mother got married, my grandmother baked for two weeks with a group of three to six women. You may associate this with a wedding cake. But the tradition in our region was to make a wide range of different biscuits. This tradition dates back to the 1920s. The important thing was to offer various kinds of biscuits. Today it seems to be important to serve beautiful biscuits (which look good on Instagram). However, most of these biscuits use the same kind of dough and are just decorated in a different way. The traditional biscuits were based on various ingredients and different doughs. The key was that they were beautiful but at the same time tasty and showed that the family had access to different types of ingredients. Furthermore, sugar used to be very expensive. Quantity but also variety of the biscuits were used to display the wealth of a family.
I remember that until I was a child, going to “watch a wedding” (“Hochzeitschauen”) was a kind of special event. People gathered outside the church and waited for the couple. The family then served biscuits to everyone who came to watch. It was also normal to go to the restaurant of the wedding reception and admire the cakes. Yes, the place was open to the public before the reception started and there were multiple cakes.
The big number of cakes also goes back to the beginning of the last century. As mentioned above, sugar was expensive and, hence, the cakes were a big cost factor for the couple. Guests usually brought a cake to support the couple with their wedding reception. The number of cakes has reduced to one by now. But very often, the biscuits are still served for coffee and guests receive a gift box with biscuits to take home.
As I mentioned above, baking was a big part of any major occasion. Christmas trees in the past were decorated with gingerbread or merengue. Some people still decorate their tree with chocolate wrapped in colourful paper. Baking in December was a big deal – for the adults and the children. My mother used to bake with us every Christmas. It is not a coincidence that a famous Christmas carol is called “In der Weihnachtsbäckerei” (“In the Christmas Bakery”).
Over time, values changed. The former sign of wealth, sugar, has become the new enemy. It has become a sign of weakness. (We are not able to stick to a healthy diet.) It is the “new smoking” and some ask to shame people publicly for eating sugar. We have reached new extremes. On the one hand there is the call for a healthier diet (with sugar-free biscuits or vegan biscuits). On the other, it is difficult to escape the shelves of industrially baked cheap (and flavourless) pastry at our supermarkets. To each their own. While I agree that we need to be careful about how much sugar we consume, I do think it is perfectly ok to enjoy a nice piece of – real and handmade – cake or some biscuits once in a while – everything in moderation. If I decide to have something sweet, I go for the real thing. No vegan or sugar-free alternatives for me, please. Call me a purist.
Similar to the view on sugar, our attitude to baking has changed as well. It became “too time consuming”. The biscuits could soon be ordered from professional bakers. While baking shows and books are booming, less people are actually baking themselves. When I walk through Christmas markets, there are hundreds of shops offering Christmas biscuits (similar to the supermarket displays, most of them look machine made). People rush from market to market, to the shops to tick off presents from their lists and from one party to the next. There is just no time for baking anymore.
But is it really? Is it not similar to what I wrote about taking time to sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee? Maybe we do not have time to bake ten different types of biscuits but maybe we have time for one or two?
With almost two weeks until Christmas, I would like to use this postcard as a reminder that this is supposed to be the silent time of the year. Maybe an hour of baking is perfect to put your mind at ease or spend some time with a friend? And if it is not baking, sit down, enjoy a coffee or tea (with a biscuit 😉 ) and watch the shopping and market craziness from afar. Have a sweet and silent week ahead!