Editor's note: this article originally appeared in last year's Christmas issue of Unmapped – but I think it deserves some more love, so here it is once again for you to enjoy.
It’s a mild October morning, shortly after sunrise in the small village of Kleinjena in central Germany. White fog hovers over the lawn next to a quiet highway.
A small playground sits at the end of the lawn, next to a yellow building with a roofed porch. Ten years ago, this was Kleinjena’s transformer station, until a few Kleinjenaers decided to turn it into a bakery.
In the bakery, Hans Kettner, 57, lights up two wooden ovens, embedded into a wall that separates the only two rooms of the house. In the late 1990s, Kettner and his wife Bärbel, 54, decided to revive an old tradition: baking stollen.
Stollen is a traditional German Christmas pastry made of flour, yeast and butter and extras like raisins, candied orange and lemon peel. With its white powdered sugar covering, stollen tastes like sweet cake; its consistency can range from dry to juicy.
Over the past few centuries, stollen was established as a Christmas tradition, the most important holiday for Germans. In 2013, few people still make stollen at home; it’s mostly produced in big bakeries, such as the famous stollen bakery in the city of Dresden.
The Kettners wanted to change that. Together with friends, they founded a club called Rumpelstilzchen, referencing the fairy tale character of Rumpelstilzkin, looking forward to baking while dancing around the fire. Every year since 2009, over three days in October, the club bakes stollen. Today is their last day.
Hans Kettner is a doer, who seldom talks. A black cap covers some of the thin, grey hair left on his head. Hans isn’t really part of the production process; the tasks in the bakery are clearly assigned. The few men in the club cut the wood and heat up the ovens. The women take care of the dough, the ovens do the baking.
Most of the club’s members are still working in full time jobs, some as teachers at nearby schools. They use their free time to bake stollen. From time to time, school classes visit the bakery and the women of the club teach them about baking with natural ingredients.
The atmosphere in the bakery is relaxed and intimate. Everyone knows each other. The five women in the bakery laugh and talk about their everyday lives, while getting ready to prepare the dough. A famous German Christmas carol describes the heimlichkeit of Christmas time, a time full of secrecy and wonder, but also relaxation and familiarity. Being in this mood might seem early, as it’s only October, but the bakers connect the sweet stollen scent with the holidays. To many people, the thought of Christmas in October actually doesn’t come as a surprise, though some try to ignore it. Because there is no Thanksgiving in Germany and also no widespread celebration of Halloween, retailers start selling Christmas sweets and chocolate as early as September, which takes away the magic of Christmas time for some, and shortens the wait for Christmas for others with fruit-filled, heart-shaped chocolate gingerbread.
In the small kitchen in the back, two women, Heidi and Steffi, have already prepared the sponge with milk. Both wear a white cap holding up their hair in a net. The two women now add an enormous amount of butter, flour and sugar to a big, metal-grey agitating machine. “Without this machine, all of this wouldn’t be possible,” says Heidi. The machine is at least 30 years old, from the “dark” times of former East Germany. “It must never break,” says baker Anita quietly, who just stepped in to check the dough, as if she didn’t want to jinx it.
Anita is a small, round woman with white hair. The shield of her cap is flapped up, her gaze examines the dough very carefully. It was Anita who taught all the other women in the club about baking stollen. When the others are uncertain about what’s missing in the dough or how many stollen can be made of the left dough, she’s the one to make the decision.
Baker Steffi is bending over a white sheet of paper that lists every gram of the ingredients needed. She’s a little uncertain about the full bottle of rum still sitting on the counter top. “Does this need to be added as well?” she calls out to Bärbel, because Anita already disappeared to check the ovens in the front room. “Yes,” says Bärbel, “You need to add this.” “The whole bottle?” “The whole bottle.” Steffi, a middle-aged woman with a ponytail, can’t help but smile as she opens the bottle and tips the rum into the machine. Quickly, the room is filled with a sweet alcoholic scent that makes you feel tipsy just breathing it in. However, the dough that’s in the machine will easily make around 50 stollen. The machine now chatters loudly through the dough on speed level two; after that the paste needs to rest for a couple hours.
When it comes to ingredients, a lot of Germans used to have their own recipe that was passed down from one generation to another and sometimes even secretly kept from the neighbours.
The Kettners got their basic recipe from an old woman living in Dresden, the city famous for its stollen and beautiful Christmas market. The woman, however, used many ingredients that added together were too expensive for the Rumpelstilzkin club, so they threw out ingredients they thought unnecessary or replaceable and created a new recipe of their own. Now, they are baking three sorts of stollen: almond stollen, marzipan stollen and a traditional one with raisins, the fastest seller of the last few years.
The playing around, adding and throwing out of ingredients is characteristic for stollen. Although the ingredients can be more expensive than you want them to be, people were always able to find alternatives, and not only to cut costs. Sometimes ingredients were simply not available. During World War I, there were no almonds to add to the dough, so the children of a family often spent hours knocking up the pits of plums to use them as almond dummies. Many years later there was a lack of lemon peel in former East Germany, so people started using green tomatoes as a replacement. The dough was usually prepared at home, before people brought it to the town baker who had bigger ovens.
That’s what it was like in the family of Bärbel Kettner, who has withdrawn herself to the front porch, where she’s cleaning the used baking sheets from the day before at a moveable sink with wheels. Bärbel teaches German and PE at an primary school in a nearby village. Bärbel’s parents were farmers and she remembers how her mother used to prepare the dough for twelve Stollen, weighing altogether about nearly 18 kilos. The next day, she would carry the dough in a backpack when she took the train to a baker in Naumburg.
Kleinjena today has about 300 inhabitants, and is a district of Naumburg, a small town about two and a half miles away. It was Naumburg where stollen first was mentioned in 1329, about 150 years before it came to Dresden. Some Naumburgers still wonder why so few people know about this, and are eager to explain this superstition to tourists that come to the town to see its impressive cathedral from the Middle Ages.
When Bärbel’s mother returned from the Naumburg bakery, the finished pastries were stored on the old, dark display cabinet in the bedroom of Bärbel’s grandmother until Christmas time.
Heidi grew up knowing certain rules about stollen. “My mother was very strict about it,” she says. “We had to wait until Christmas Eve to eat it. Those were good times. Today, everything is a bit more hectic. You have to take your time for this.” But the young people today aren’t into baking anymore, says Heidi.
About 30 to 50 years ago, it was usual to wait until Christmas Eve; nowadays it’s more common to eat stollen during the time of Advent, which marks the four weeks leading up to Christmas. Germans usually get an Advent wreath with four candles on it. Each Sunday they will light one, until four candles are burning on the Sunday before Christmas Eve. According to some stories, the Stollen with its white sugar topping is a symbol for the Christkind wrapped in white diapers. The Christkind (Christ child) is a sprite-like figure that used to be the Germans’ equivalent to Santa Claus, before Coca-Cola made the old man more popular than the child. The story of this symbolization refers to the Christian origin of stollen.
It used to be dry and hard bread, often ordered by monks and eaten in cloisters. In the sixteenth century, some bakers started adding fruits and other valuable ingredients; soon stollen became a pastry for rich people that became wealthy for example through the discovery of silver in central Germany’s low mountain range.
Nutrition at that time was still largely based on meat. Only when hot drinks such as tea, coffee and cocoa became sociable in the mid-seventeenth century did sweet pastries become more popular. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, stollen had become a highlight of every Christmas celebration. Even if a family was poor, they saved up money for Christmas to have a stollen as well as a roast on the table.
In the kitchen in Kleinjena, the yeast has caused the dough to rise. Bärbel Kettner asks everyone to be silent, before she leans down and presses her index finger on the dough that reacts with a sizzling noise. “The sizzling means that the dough is ready,” she says in a quiet voice and smiles. It’s a trick the women learned from Anita.
Four years ago, the Kleinjena bakers started with 180 stollen, but the demand was so high that they decided to make more. Now they are at 500, and for Bärbel that’s the limit, because she doesn’t want the quality to go down. The women are even sorting out the raisins by hand, a task that can’t be done in the large bakeries. That’s one reason why Bärbel thinks the Stollen in Kleinjena are a success. “It’s important to us that we use natural ingredients,” she says. ”With the big bakeries, you have stuff like flavour enhancers and artificial aromas and some people just don’t like that.”
From the machine, the dough is loaded into an orange tub, that’s then hauled up and brought to the front room. Anita and Christiane stand next to it and weigh small portions of dough for every stollen. While Hans Kettner is enjoying a beer on the sunny porch, the women roll the dough and place it on baking sheets, before they are moved into the ovens. Steffi’s daughter Emilia is helping out, too. With her seven years, Emilia is a junior wine princess of the wine region surrounding Kleinjena. Together with the other elected girls, she represents the Saale-Unstrut wine region, named after its two rivers, Saale and Unstrut. The region produces white wine because Germany is not sunny enough to produce red wine on a large scale (a fact that Germany’s struggling solar industry is facing right now).
At first, only bakers in the town guild were allowed to produce stollen. An 1840 law then made it possible for bakers in the villages to produce their share as well, which had the city bakers outraged at first, before they added more variety to their products and sales went up. However, the prices for sugar, butter and flour still were high. Industrialisation and modernisation in the nineteenth century helped popularize stollen: steam navigation was introduced a couple of years later on the river Elbe and products suddenly could be transported easily to and from Hamburg. Soon the railroad followed, and connections to Vienna, Budapest and Trieste enabled more ingredients to be delivered faster. The first beet sugar factories opened up, and the price for sugar fell in 1867. Within the next 50 years, the per capita consumption of sugar rose from 3.6 to 19.5 kilos a year.
After it’s baked and buttered, the Kleinjena stollen is sugared three times: first with vanilla sugar, then normal sugar, and at last powdered sugar that is sprinkled on top through a large tea strainer. The women work hand in hand; everyone has her own task. One puts the dough on a scale, another forms it, another puts it on baking sheets and another places them on a shelf next to the ovens. Taking shifts, the women can produce about 180 stollen a day. While some of the stollen is in the oven, the stollen baked on the day before is wrapped into transparent film that is cut to fit every cake. Christiane goes around the room and collects any empty plastic containers and foil that she throws into the garbage.
Garbage is an important catch phrase today. While packing up the stollen, Bärbel and Heidi notice the garbage truck passing by and the women call out to Steffi to get ready.
In Germany, garbage is neatly sorted. Biodegradables are put into brown bags, or dark-green bags depending on the region; paper and carton go into (mostly blue) paper bins, glass into glass containers (sorted by colour), plastics go into yellow bags or bins; everything else goes into black bags or black bins (except of course for ‘special’ garbage such as batteries or electronics). The women from the bakery however didn’t have any yellow bags left to put their plastic in, and instead filled blue bags. Sanitary workers in Germany are allowed and asked to leave behind garbage that isn’t sorted right, which today led to Steffi’s task.
As the garbage truck makes its way back up the street, she storms out of the house, a plate with sliced stollen in her hand. As she steps onto the street, the truck stops next to the blue bags. Steffi offers the driver a piece of stollen and explains the situation and then she makes her way to the end of the truck, where his colleague has started to load the bags.
“Do you want a piece of stollen?” Steffi asks him as he loads the last bag.
“Oh yes, I’d love to! Thank you!” he answers and smiles. He removes a glove, takes a piece and steps back on the truck that starts moving right away. The two men would have taken the bags anyway.
When the stollen are packed, they are loaded onto a pushcart and wheeled away by Hans Kettner to a secret place, as he likes to call it.
Meanwhile, the women put up a table on the porch and bring out the fine coffee service, white with blue flowers on it. Together they drink coffee, as Bärbel finally comes out with a stollen to try. It’s a late sunny afternoon, the warmest October day in ten years. Even Hans Kettner has to try the cake, though he is not really a friend of “sweet stuff.” The women are munching on their cakes, clearly enjoying it. “It’s really soft, not too dry and not too sweet, just right,” Anita says.
For the next three weeks, the stollen will remain at its secret place, before it’s sold in November. From the revenue, the club usually funds communal projects. Last year’s revenue went into a set of blue swings for the village playground on the lawn next to the house, that hasn’t arrived yet.
“I think you have to be a bit crazy to do something like this,” says Bärbel, as she thinks about what to say. “You want to make a difference… it’s still a lot of fun. To see the other people be pleased with their Stollen and the kids getting something out of it, I don’t know.”
Three weeks later. It’s one of the rare sunny days in November, the day of the stollen sale. White tents line the playground next to the bakery in Kleinjena. The club invited a few artists as well as local food producers to sell their products at a small market. A crowd of people is strolling around, one and a half hours before the stollen sale actually starts. Hans Kettner walks through the crowd, greeting people and shaking hands. On the playground, some kids are trying out the new pair of blue swings that have finally arrived.
In the bakery, Heidi is cutting up some of the stollen for customers to try, as well as some baked bread and other cake. Across from her through the window, there are already a few people waiting in line to buy stollen on the porch. At the top of the line is Reinhard Gusky. The first two things noticeable about him are his blue hat that says Norge on it, below a Norwegian flag and his wide smile.
“Three years ago I was here for nothing: the stollen already were sold out,” he says. “Last year I was the first and it worked, so I thought I would also be the first this year. You have to be quick to get your hands on something yummy like that.”
Bärbel Kettner is moving along the steadily growing queue, offering everyone pieces of cake and bread. The club charges €7.50 for every stollen.
Meanwhile, about 50 people have lined up, the queue goes until the end of the playground. It’s exactly 1.55pm when Anita rings a bell. “The stollen market is opened,” she calls with a market woman’s voice, and the people in the queue react with elation and applause.
A few minutes later, Reinhard Gusky carries three stollen in his arms, the maximum limit the club set for one person to buy. As he makes his way back from the counter, he passes the people still in line with a wide grin on his face. “I’m the first this year, yes. Look at me!” he says more to himself than to the people in line.
Steffi is one of the women selling the stollen. It’s about half an hour after the sale started. “The almond stollen is gone, but there’s still raisin and marzipan left,” she says and tends to the next customer.
Claudia Bracholdt is a multimedia journalist from Leipzig, Germany. She produces videos for German television and is one of the people that enjoy heart-shaped chocolate gingerbread in September. You can follow her on Twitter at @cbracholdt.