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Lebkuchen: A Traditional German Cookie from Nuremberg

Lebkuchen: A Traditional German Cookie from Nuremberg

In today’s article, we will be taking a look at a traditional German cookie from Nuremberg called Lebkuchen. The lebkuchen is a cookie with a long and rich tradition. It is Nuremberg’s number one export and is made throughout the year but is especially popular during holiday season. Before we talk about the lebkuchen cookie, however, we will take a look at German cuisine, its description and famous dishes. After that, we will start with the lebkuchen’s history, the etymology behind its name and its origin.

A Quick Overview of German Cuisine

As the lebkuchen is a traditional German cookie, it could be a good idea to take a look at the national cuisine that created it. As with most other national cuisines, the cuisine of Germany is not a uniformed one. It has evolved through centuries of political and social change, so it is only natural that each region in Germany should show certain variations. For instance, Bavaria and Swabia share some dishes and traits with the Austrian and Swiss cuisines. Before going any further, it is noteworthy to mention that Germany has the second most decorated cuisine in the world, right after France. That is no small feat at all, as the competition is very strong. The author of this article prefers the German cuisine himself, with a large assortment of juicy meat and Bratwurst, the traditional German sausages, available, and not the mention the numerous German sweets, one of them being the Lebkuchen. In 2015, The Michelin Guide, a series of hotel and restaurant guidebooks published by Michelin, awarded eleven German restaurants with three stars, the highest possible rating given out by Michelin. Furthermore, 38 restaurants received two stars, while 233 received a one-star rating.

The cuisine of Germany is divided into several categories, with the first being “hot foods.” Germans sure love their meat, as the annual German consumes around 60 kilograms of meat per year. The most used types of meat are of course: pork, poultry and beef. Certain other types of meats are used as well, but their percentage is negligible, as these are primarily used in certain special dishes.

Pretzels German cuisine

The preferred type of meat preparation in Germany is through braising. Braising is a cooking method which combines both dry and wet heats. What this means is that the meat is, usually, seared at a high temperature and then finished in a covered container (at a lower temperature), with variable amounts of liquid. Alongside braised dishes, there are also fried ones, but these originate either from France or Austria, so they will not be mentioned in this section. Some of these cooking methods have even become national specialties. Have you ever noticed how a large number of German dishes uses the prefix sauer? This means that such dishes are sour, and that they are prepared in a special way. For example, the Saurbraten, or the sour roast, is prepared by marinating whichever type of meat you would like to use in vinegar (or even wine-vinegar mixture) over several days. After a couple of days have passed, the meat is cooked and you get yourself one of Germany’s top dishes.

In modern times, if Germany is recognized by anything, then it is certainly by their love for beer, famous Bavarian traditional clothing and their sausages. Germans have an unmatched love for sausage making, with over 1400 different kinds of sausages existing today. Germans certainly know how to keep their traditions alive, especially if those traditions are connected with their cuisine.

The Lebkuchen is a testament to that as well, as we will soon find out. The sausages (Wurst in German) are most commonly made out of natural casings of pork, sheep or lamb intestines. The most popular types of sausages, however, are the Bratwurst, Wiener and Blutwurst. The Bratwurst sausages are made from ground pork and spices, the Wiener sausages are fully cooked in water and also use either pork or beef, while the Blutwurst are created from blood (usually the blood of pigs or geese).

What is interesting to note is that there are strict regulations which govern which types of meat can and cannot be used in sausage making. These laws or regulations were put in place in the thirteenth century, specifically, in 1236 in Landshut, where it was decided that only top-quality meat could be turned into sausages. This means that the sausage-making tradition in Germany has existed for almost eight hundred years! The tradition of the Lebkuchen cookies is a little younger than that. Its history starts about one to two centuries later, which is still an amazing amount of time that the tradition has been alive. And not only is it alive, it is prospering even today!

German cuisine also sports a huge number of other main and side dishes made with fish or vegetables and different kinds of spices and condiments. Concerning desserts, there exists a large variety of cakes, tarts and pastries. Most desserts are made with fresh fruit such as strawberries or cherries, such as the German cheesecake. The Schwarzwald cake is another famous German dessert that you have probably even heard off. Many of these desserts are famous in other countries besides Germany. The Schwarzwald cake was often served on the author’s birthdays, and its creamy texture combined with sour cherries was a delightful treat for any occasion. Other famous desserts include the German Torte, doughnuts, Eierkuchen or Pfannkuchen (which are comparable to pancakes), Rote Grütze (red fruit pudding), ice cream and sorbets.

Schwarzwald cake

As can be concluded, the German people have a preference towards sour tastes, which can be seen from their many sour meat dishes, as well as their heavy use of sour fruit in desserts. They also have a long-standing tradition of sausage making and often cook these foods at festivals, such as the world-famous Oktoberfest. Next up, we will talk about the Lebkuchen, Germany’s favourite cookie!

A Quick History of the Lebkuchen Cookies

The number one exporter of the Lebkuchen cookies across the world is the city of Nuremberg. The city’s long tradition of Lebkuchen production dates back to the Middle Ages, to around the thirteenth century. Today, the term “Nuremberg Lebkuchen” is protected by law, so if you come across any cookies bearing that name, you can rest assured that they are authentic and come from Nuremberg.

Although these cookies came to be known as Lebkuchen, the etymology behind the name is not one hundred percent clear. The “Leb” part of Lebkuchen could be a derivate word of “Leben” meaning life. This could be a reference to the cookies’ main ingredient, which is honey. Honey was known in the Middle Ages for its life-giving and healing properties, as it was described as a “gift from the gods” in ancient mythologies. We will touch upon this soon, 

but another meaning for “Leb” could be “favourite food” as “Leb” could also be a derivative of “Leibspeise”. Whatever the meaning behind the word, however, Lebkuchen remains one of the favourite German desserts up to this day.

Lebkuchen cookies

As was already mentioned, the German people know how to keep their traditions alive. As with sausage making, which is a tradition almost eight hundred years old, Lebkuchen making is a tradition almost six hundred years old. The history of these cookies begins some six hundred years ago, in Germany. During those times, the Lebkuchen cookies were called “honey cakes” across Europe, due to honey being its main ingredient. Honey is a timeless ingredient, in the sense that it never expires. Honey is also present in the majority of ancient mythologies, in which it is usually considered as a gift from the gods. Even in the Bible, in the Old Testament, there are passages which speak of a land of “milk and honey”, which God had designated as the land of His chosen people. No wonder then, that the people of the Ancient and Middle Ages believed honey was a God-given ingredient with healing and life-giving powers.

While it does not have the same kind of reverence as it did in those days, honey is still a loved ingredient today, as it is very healthy and used to sweeten desserts or teas. In the Middle Ages, desserts containing honey were perceived as having those healing and nurturing properties. Naturally, such sweets were very popular, and many monasteries began creating these so-called honey cakes. In the German-speaking part of Europe, the honey cakes became known as Lebkuchen. It was very popular during Lent season, when people had to refrain from fatty meats, and it went well with beer, which is, of course, a popular beverage throughout Germany.

The friars who started the tradition of making Lebkuchen altered the traditional recipe by adding different spices which helped to soothe stomach-ache; thus, they came to be known as “pepper cakes” or pepper cookies. In the Middle Ages, pepper was a collective noun used to define any type of spice or condiment which helped to aid digestion and relieve bloating. The German monks, resourceful as they were, used different spices to flavour their pepper cookies. These spices were, however, limited to those that arrived with Venetian shipments.

Lebkuhen heart

But how did Nuremberg become the number one exporter of Lebkuchen cookies? Well, the city owes its status as the largest Lebkuchen exporter to the fact that it is located on the crossroads of several ancient and important trade routes. Shipments of salt, pepper and condiments from the East were sent up north through the city, which enabled the many bakeries of the town to constantly be stocked. The second reason for Nuremberg’s success would be the nearby Reichswald Forest. In those times it was called “The German Empire’s Bee Garden” and honey grew in large quantities there. Zeidlers, or wild-bee keepers, used this forest to harvest the honey, which would then be transported to the city. Emperor Charles IV gave exclusive right to these Zeidlers, and from then on, they became the sole harvesters of the forest’s honey. In 1427, however, the Reichswald forest was bought by the city of Nuremberg. In turn, the exclusive rights the Zeidlers had passed over to Nuremberg, thus enabling it to become what it is today, the centre of Lebkuchen production.

Lebkuchen christmas

The Lebkuchen production was not without its ups and downs, however. During the Thirty Years War, the land was in turmoil and Nuremberg was practically cut off from the rest of the world due to constant sieges. It was hard to keep the city supplied during these times, so the Lebkuchen production suffered greatly because of that. After the war’s end, the entirety of the Lebkuchen industry in Nuremberg had to switch from manufacturing to industrial production, which took centuries to do properly. During World War II, the town was heavily bombarded by Allied Air Forces, and because of this the Lebkuchen production took an even bigger hit. But the tradition persevered and was kept alive by the German people. After the great reconstruction effort post World War II, Nuremberg’s Lebkuchen production had blossomed once again, and the city now produces delicious pepper cookies which are a delight at any Christmas celebration. The most famous exporter of Lebkuchen cookies is definitely the Lebkuchen-Schmidt company, which ships their products across the globe.

Lebkuchen hearts

As can be concluded, the Lebkuchen is a wonderful cookie loved by many, both in Germany and across the world. We hope you found the historical part interesting and that the article has tantalized your senses. If so, why not order some right now? Or you could make some yourself by following one the many recipes available online. Whatever you decide, we hope you enjoy your Lebkuchen cookies, especially if it is during holiday season and with friends and family.

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