Nuremberg, the Lebkuchen (Gingerbread) Capital

written on 07/12/2020
by Evi Rauscher

Deä Vollmond ibä Nämberch is aa blouss a Lebkougn (The full moon over Nuremberg is also just a Lebkuchen) - Franconian dialect poet and writer, Fitzgerald Kusz

Nuremberg Lebkuchen - they are world-famous, unbelievably mouth-watering and inseparably tied to Christmas!

But why is Nuremberg especially so well known for this sweet Christmas delicacy?

To understand the history of Lebkuchen in Germany, one has to have a closer look at its most important ingredients: honey and spices.

According to the ancient Egyptians, honey was a gift from the gods and healing and life-giving effects were ascribed to it. As all meals and pastries which were prepared with honey were considered to have these characteristics, honey cake was already very popular thousands of years ago.

It was during the 13th century that the honey cake of the pre-Christian era was turned into Lebkuchen in Germany.

In the monasteries, people used to bake honey cakes with spices such as cloves, cinnamon, anis, coriander and nutmeg because this pastry was considered healthy, healing, stimulated digestion and appetite and could therefore be enjoyed especially during lent.

In the Middle Ages spices were often simply referred to as "pepper" explaining why Lebkuchen are often also called “Pfefferkuchen” (pepper cake).

The spice cake was not only very nutritious and tasty, but also had a particularly long shelf life. This did not mean, however, that Lebkuchen was an everyday food.

In addition to pepper and saffron, spices like ginger, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom were particularly sought after.

The cultivation areas in the Orient, in Asia and in Africa were far away. Therefore, exotic spices were considered rather rare.

It was different in Nuremberg. The city was located at the crossroads of the most important European trade routes and had a central distribution role in Central and Eastern Europe.

The trade in oriental treasures brought great wealth to the city.

The easy accessibility of exotic spices and the wealth of honey in the surrounding forests, together with the Nuremberg bakers' joy of experimentation, formed the basis for the success story of Nuremberg Lebkuchen.

As early as the 14th century, guilds took over the production of Lebkuchen; the first written mention of a Nuremberg Lebküchner (gingerbread maker) can be found in a document from 1395.

But it was not until about 250 years later, in 1643, that a separate "sworn" Nuremberg Lebküchner guild was founded by its then 14 members.

The recipe, especially the spice mixture, was so secret that no Lebküchner was allowed to leave the city.

The consumption of Lebkuchen was advised by the city council for every festive occasion such as Christmas, baptisms or weddings, it was even allowed during Lent.

Furthermore, Lebkuchen was eaten by believers, especially in the pre-Christmas period, to cleanse themselves from the inside.

Contrary to today, the weeks before Christmas were used for reflection, repentance and conversion and fasting played an essential role in this. 

After all, Lebkuchen was also considered a remedy because the fine spices in the pastry were said to have a healing effect.

The legend about the origin of Elisenlebkuchen shows the special importance of spices in the medieval world: A Lebküchner from Nuremberg is said to have cured his seriously ill daughter by baking Lebkuchen which contained no flour but only the highest quality spices.

When the daughter ate these, she became completely healthy again. Since the girl's name was Elisabeth, the new creation was called Elisenlebkuchen. 

Even today, Lebkuchen only gets this name if it has less than 10 % flour and meets the highest quality standards.

It was soon discovered that not only baked delicacies can be conjured up from the exotic spices, but also liquid delicacies.

Together with Lebkuchen, mulled wine also has a long tradition in Nuremberg. The tradition of the trading city of Nuremberg is still being continued in numerous markets today. The most famous one is the Nuremberg Christmas Market.