Medieval Christmas Cookies Still In Fashion

So what does a Christmas cookie from centuries ago look like? This time of year, a bakery in Pennsylvania Dutch country is busy making cookies the same way they were made in medieval Germany, and their edible pieces of art history have attracted customers from all over the globe.

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Families have passed down Christmas cookie recipes for generations, but few traditions date back further than this one from Medieval Europe.

Marie Cusick reports for NPR from Strasburg, Pennsylvania.

MARIE CUSICK, BYLINE: At Heather Botchlet's bakery in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country, it's not uncommon for an Amish horse and buggy to pass by.

(SOUNDBITE OF A HORSE AND BUGGY)

CUSICK: But even though many of her neighbors are still living as if it's the 19th century, the tradition Botchlet is keeping alive is much older. She's one of a handful of commercial bakers in the country making Springerle cookies, which date back to medieval Germany.

The small white cookies are more than holiday treats; they are literally edible pieces of art history.

HEATHER BOTCHLET: In Germany, they'd be called Springerle, and they were made in the Southern German region, and not just at Christmastime, they were made all year round.

CUSICK: The oldest-known Springerle mold, which now sits in the Swiss National Museum in Zurich, dates back to the 14th century.

Botchlet makes the cookies by pressing dough into the molds. After an overnight wait and time in the oven, they reveal intricate relief images of everything from flowers, to animals, and scenes from the Bible and everyday life centuries ago.

BOTCHLET: They would pass down their family stories. The men would teach the sons the stories of the family and their past, as he would show them how to carve. And then the molds would go into the kitchen where the women would repeat the stories to the girls, as they taught them how to bake. So, it really was a family tradition.

CUSICK: Botchlet is a fourth generation Springerle baker and she's transformed her love of the cookies into a business. She runs a small bakery and cafe called The Springerle House in Strasburg, Pennsylvania. It's where she spends much of her time during the busy month of December, when hundreds of orders pour in from across the country and around the globe.

BOTCHLET: We've shipped them to Paris. We've shipped them to Germany. We've shipped them to a little village in England.

(SOUNDBITE OF A RINGING PHONE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good afternoon, Springerle House.

CUSICK: Some customers will even drive for miles to pick up their orders in person. Clare Highim is from Downingtown Pennsylvania, nearly 30 miles away.

CLARE HIGHIM: They're a lot better looking than cookies I make, let's put it that way - and so different. This is a lost art.

CUSICK: Traditionally, the cookies are flavored with anise, which gives a slight black licorice taste, and their smell can bring back powerful memories for some customers, like Jane McKee, who grew up with them.

JANE MCKEE: The fragrance hit me coming in the door, and it's just like walking back in time.

CUSICK: Botchlet believes the true appeal of the cookies is that they remind people of a time when the world moved at a much slower pace.

BOTCHLET: And I think it puts people to mind of old traditions, old times with family, quality time spent, and gifts that were homemade and had heart.

CUSICK: For NPR News, I'm Marie Cusick in Strasburg, Pennsylvania.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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