Don't Pass Up the Gingerbread in Passau, Germany
FOURTH GENERATION CARRIES ON TRADITION OF BAKING GINGERBREAD
Photos and text by Martha Christopherson
PASSAU, Germany - Before gingerbread became the iconic cookie of the holiday season, it was considered the most basic of sweets for centuries in Europe and nowhere have I found the gingerbread sweeter than at Confiserie & Café Simon in Passau, Germany, where the same family has been baking cookies for four generations.
Passau, located near the border to Austria and situated at the confluence of three rivers, the Danube, Inn and Ilz, is a colorful city with Italian-baroque architecture so ornate that some of its buildings actually reminded me of gingerbread houses. It was down a winding, cobblestone street that I found the sunny, yellow façade of this sweet shop.
Inside, the white, multi-arched ceiling and honey-colored walls left me with the feeling of walking into a beehive, which is apropos, considering the contribution bees have made to this family business. In early times, it was typical for confectioners to make use of any by-product from the honey used to sweeten their baked goods, so many made and sold candles too. This explained the motif on the iron sign I noticed hanging above the entry—a beehive flanked by two candles swinging below a teetering cup and saucer.
During the Christmas season, it’s not unusual to find Walter Simon, the patriarch, and his two sons, Walter Jr. and Frank, giving demonstrations on how to make gingerbread in the old style once practiced by their grandfathers. Frank and his father showed me how to make Honiglebkuchen, gingerbread cookies made with similar ingredients used centuries ago. Frank rolled out the dough and cut cookies in the shapes of rocking horses, stars, angels and hearts and slid the baking sheet into the oven. Once cooled, the cookies were decorated with almonds, dried fruit, and icing. Because the cookies are made with all-natural ingredients, they can be enjoyed warm or used as gifts or ornaments to hang on a Christmas tree. “Our simple recipe of rye flour, honey and spices ensures the gingerbread will last,” explained Walter.
Other types of gingerbread cookies baked at Simon include Gweuerzlebkuchen, sweetened with sugar and molasses and Elisen Lebkuchen, sweetened with sugar and marzipan. On my visit, I tried the traditional Honiglebkuchen with a cup of coffee in the café. As I enjoyed my mid-morning treat, I watched the buzz o activity at the curvaceous, glass counter where dozens of truffles, candied fruit, and strudels tempted patrons ordering items to go.
I took my time savoring the sweet gingerbread and never once did anyone try to rush me from my table. The Germans have a wonderful word for this—gemütlichkeit—which basically means you’re welcome to linger for as long as you like and no one will shoo you from your table.
One of the most whimsical cookies at Simon is the Passauer Toppel—a gingerbread cookie made of Honigleckuchen with a marzipan face of the “Passau’s Fool”. According to the legend, in 1662 the St. Stephen statue fell from the namesake cathedral in Passau and only the head remained in one piece. Although the head looks fine, the local joke is that the statue has not really been in his right mind since.
The Cathedral of St. Stephen houses one the world’s largest organs with almost 18,000 pipes and it can be heard every Wednesday and Saturday at noon during Advent. Also, during Advent, Passau celebrates the season with a Christmas Market held in the Domplatz, the cathedral square, from November 28 to December 23.
Making gingerbread has kept the Simon family busy for generations and as Simon Sr. likes to boast, “The fifth generation has already begun to arrive.” For me, it had been the perfect place to settle in on a cold, winter day and practice the art of gemütlichkeit with a cup of coffee and my favorite cookie of the season.