For quite some time, I had wanted to visit the Ostkantone, or the Eastern Cantons, home of the Deutschsprachige Gemeinschaft Belgiens or the German-speaking community of Belgium. First, I had heard that a trip to this tiny region of 80,000 inhabitants, located adjacent to the German border, was quite dépaysant, a useful French expression which conveys far more than its English translation, a change of scenery. Second, I have been taking German lessons for the past few months, and I thought that a quick trip to the German-speaking portion of the country would give me a chance to flex my linguistic muscles. And most importantly, I chose to visit the Ostkantone because they were holding their annual Weihnachtsmarkt, or Christmas market; Christmas markets originated in German-speaking areas and I was excited to discover my first, what I expected to be, echt or authentic market. Furthermore, Eupen and surrounding areas, including the German city of Aachen located just over the border, are known for a Christmas-time specialty called Printen, or, in the one bakery that I visited, Beschwipste Printen, a variety of Printen that have been macerated in alcohol.
Before I tell you about Printen, I’d like to tell you a bit more about Eupen and the Ostkantone. Originally a part of Germany, the 9 communes that form the German community of Belgium were annexed by Belgium in the Treaty of Versailles, following the First World War. Belgium had a rather tenuous hold on the region, and soon after annexation, Belgium actually discussed selling the region back to Germany for financial profit, in an effort to improve the finances of the rather cash-strapped country, though the deal never took place. This all became a moot point anyway, when Germany took back the region in 1940. Following the Second World War, the region returned to Belgium and has been Belgian ever since, and the Deutschsprachige Gemeinschaft Belgiens is now one of the world’s best-protected linguistic minorities, enjoying a fair amount of autonomy, with their own parliament, government, and so forth. It is often said that the German community is the happiest of the three linguistic communities in Belgium, as they do not take part in the hostilities between the French-speakers and the Flemish.
While I look forward to returning to the region for the famous Rosenmontag festivities just preceding Lent, I must say that I didn’t visit Eupen on its best day. It was hideously cold outside, covered with fog, and the trip began poorly when I slid and slipped on the ice-covered train platform. Unfortunately, the streets were so slippery that I walked around like an old, infirm man who had lost his cane, testing out the ground for black ice before I put each foot down. Though I confess I didn’t see very much of Eupen, the town seemed quite charming, with any number of Tante-Emma-Läden, or small shops selling local goods, to be found on its winding cobble-stoned streets.
What’s more, I found the Weihnachtsmarkt to be quite disappointing. While I was expecting a large market thronged with tourists and stuffed with stalls/ decorations in the manner of the famous German markets, I actually happened upon a small market filled with locals: one stall was occupied by the local massage parlor selling essential oils and offering gift-certificates for various therapeutic treatments, another sold doilies and bedding for old ladies, and so on. I had the impression that I was the only ‘outsider’ there, as everyone, market seller and market goer included, seemed to know each other! Fortunately, the market had two wonderful places that ‘redeemed’ its interest in my eyes: a delectable-smelling bratwurst stall selling piping hot sausages (mmmmm) and another stall selling hot white wine, cooked over a roaring fire and laced with Cointreau. In the bitter cold, a large glass of the hot white wine accompanied by a huge sausage, slathered with Curry-ketchup, was heaven itself.
Temporarily sated from my visit to the market, I set out to look for Printen, and soon found the most famous bakery in the Ostkantone, Kockartz, known for Printen. Indeed, there were oodles of them, in all kinds of flavors: the Beschwipste Printen macerated in alcohol, orange-flavoured, almond-flavoured, chocolate-covered with hazelnut, general spice Printen, and so on. A bit overwhelmed with the great variety of Printen, I purchased the plain Kraüter Printen (with just a mixture of spices) and also the chocolate-covered variety. So what are Printen exactly? Printen are a type of soft spice cookie in the Lebkuchen family, a type of German cookie generally associated with Christmas. Though, as I’ve stated, many varieties exist, the Printen are usually flavoured with a variety of spices, including cloves, aniseed, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, und so weiter.
The Printen look slightly similar to speculoos in both texture and shape, and I must admit that I was highly disappointed to bite into what I thought would be crunchy and delicate but what turned out to be rather mushy and uninspiring, with a rather bitter aftertaste from the mixture of cloves and aniseed. Taste is, after all, an intimately personal affair, and while I have no doubt that these Printen were well made, I didn’t enjoy eating them at all. For me, it was an unhappy middle ground between gingerbread or pain d’épices – which can be lovely, especially when grilled with melted butter – and speculoos – which I adore. I lost no time in finding friends on whom to palm off my Printen, marketing them as an exciting Christmas treat. Fortunately enough, my friends, accustomed to me stuffing them with desserts on a regular basis, seemed to enjoy my offerings. What’s more, I found a cookie that I don’t actually enjoy: one fewer fattening temptation for me!
Jedem Tierchen sein Pläsierchen, to each his own!