Lebkuchen is another food closely associated with Christmas in Austria.
Its main function is to mark the opening of the festive season, and it also occupies a place of honour on the plate of biscuits you bring out when guests come round in December.
- Almost-but-not-quite gingerbread
- Comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes
- Not just for Christmas (but unavoidable at that time)
- See also: Christmas in Vienna | Local food
What is Lebkuchen?
Nothing announces the arrival of Christmas quite like great aisles of Lebkuchen suddenly appearing in the supermarkets (usually while the Halloween candy is still being put away).
Most dictionaries translate the word as “gingerbread”, but that’s not really accurate. “Gingerbread-like”, perhaps.
It’s a rich, dry, soft biscuit pastry that traditionally uses a lot of honey and is heavily spiced.
The “Lebkuchen spice mix” in our kitchen cupboard consists of, for example, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, ginger, fennel, cloves, allspice, aniseed and cardamom.
If you want to get a quick (and cheap) idea of the taste, pop into any supermarket for the mass-produced variety. Alternatively, look out for the handmade and specialty Lebkuchen in family bakeries or on market stands.
The biscuits come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but the commonest is the raised, round form (as in the photo above). They can be plain, garnished with nuts or dried fruits, or smothered in a chocolate couverture.
As you might imagine, there are various regional varieties throughout central Europe and a long, long, long tradition of Lebkuchen baking. We order boxes from a bakery in the Styrian mountains, for example, where production dates back to 1587.
The association with the Christmas period is unclear, but is likely to do with Lebkuchen’s suitability for the traditional advent fasting period of times gone by.
Bakers use long-lasting varieties to make the large Lebkuchen hearts you often find around Vienna’s Christmas markets, decorated with icing and bearing messages like “World’s Best Granny”.
The pastry is harder, so these hearts have a better-than-average chance of surviving the lottery of baggage handling if you want to take some home with you.
The Austrian equivalent of the gingerbread house also uses this robust Lebkuchen variety. If you’re lucky, you might see one on display at a market: there’s a stand at the Christkindlmarkt, for example, that often has one.
Tip: One of the more famous Lebkuchen producers (Pirker) has a flagship store in the very centre of Vienna: