By the end of the year begins a tradition common to Germanic countries and many other parts of the world. It consists in making sets of pastries for the end-of-year celebrations. These biscuits and other shortbreads would have first appeared in medieval western Europe when a variety of spices such as cinnamon, ginger and black pepper, as well as dried fruit and nuts such as almonds, were brought to the kitchen, directly imported from India. Let’s focus on one of the regions that have treasured this holiday tradition for centuries: the Alsace and Lorraine regions and their well-known « bredle ».
The Bredle, so called in the area of Strasbourg, Winachtsbredele (literally: « little Christmas biscuits »), more precisely, are small biscuits baked especially over the Christmas period. Their recipes can be readjusted for other religious holidays such as Easter or St. Nicholas’ Day, during which the biscuits are given characters’ shapes. In the Haut-Rhin, these Christmas biscuits are called bredala or, more rarely, bredele, and in the Bas-Rhin and Moselle, braedele. The word entered the Robert and Larousse dictionaries in 2019 using the spelling bredele, which caused controversy among Alsacian linguists as it is the language of young children – bredele being written as such meaning « very small biscuit ».
All variants of bredle are made from flour, sugar, egg yolk and butter, and the recipe is based on this. Using cookie cutters, we give the bredele shapes reminiscent of Christmas: Christmas trees, boots, stars or gingerbread men, for example. These are a family tradition for which each recipe is jealously kept, and most of the time passed on orally.
Bredle cooking starts at the end of October – beginning of November at the time of the Altweibersommer (Indian summer). However, according to tradition, the biscuits are not to be eaten before Christmas Eve. In the meantime, the bredle are stored in iron boxes. Once the day has come, Christkinde (Alsacian: « the Child Jesus ») carries carefully the biscuits, the iron box is opened only after having listened to the Christmas carols and opened the presents. However, after Christmas Eve, they are eaten on every occasion: for coffee, snacks or given as gifts in small packets. The bredle can be eaten as you like, but lovers of tradition will recommend accompanying them with coffee or eating them with dessert or at teatime with a large glass of mulled wine (for adults) or milk (for children and grown-ups). The adepts usually make a dozen types of bredle, sometimes more.
Both the history of this tradition and the origin of the recipes remain difficult to identify. Presumably, the bredle appeared in the 14th century. Indeed, the oldest moulds – used at the time for their making – belong to this period. However, it is also possible that before the creation of these, the dough would have been cut with a knife in order to give a simple diamond, rectangle or square shapes to bredle. Nor do the sources confirm whether these biscuits were only prepared for Christmas or other special occasions.
However, a few indisputable proofs of the presence of bredle in the Middle Ages do exist. In 1570, the magistrate of Strasbourg banned St. Nicholas’ market. Housewives could no longer buy the ingredients needed to prepare the bredle: citrus fruits (oranges, mandarins and lemons) and spices; violent protests then erupted. The bredele are also mentioned in the Memoirs of the Baroness of Oberkirch – a contemporary of the 18th century – who tells that they could be bought « on the Christkindelsmärik in Strasbourg » (market of the Child Jesus).
During the 18th century, this tradition was democratized. The beginning of the 19th century witnessed a considerable increase in the making of bredle; this was due to the appearance of the cookie-cutter.
There are currently as many shapes and preparations of Bredle as there are Alsacian families and so there is a wide choice of biscuits to be tasted. Here is the list of the most common Bredle variations:
- The anisbredela, biscuit with egg white and green aniseed.
- Lapkueche or Leckerli, gingerbread or spice biscuits
- The Butterbredle, small butter shortbread
- Schwowebredle, almond cakes – also with hazelnuts or walnuts
- The Zimtsterne cinnamon stars
- 250 g flour
- 125 g sugar
- 125 g softened butter
- 4 egg yolks
- Mix the sugar, eggs, soft butter and flour, knead well and put the dough in the fridge for about two hours.
- Roll out the dough and cut out various shapes with a cookie cutter.
- Brown the cakes with a beaten egg yolk.
- Cook for 10 minutes at 180°C (th.6) on a buttered baking tray.
Once cooked, leave the biscuits out to cool before storing them in a metal box until Christmas comes and you can finally enjoy them. However, you can still sneak one or two discreetly to make sure they’re good.
Author/translator: Laurane Mandin
For further information:
fr. (2019). Bredele : Définition simple et facile du dictionnaire. Accessible sur : https://www.linternaute.fr/dictionnaire/fr/definition/bredele/
France 3 Grand Est. (2019). Bredele dans le dictionnaire, les linguistes alsaciens s’étouffent. Accessible sur : https://france3-regions.francetvinfo.fr/grand-est/alsace/bredele-dictionnaire-linguistes-alsaciens-s-etouffent-1284295.html
France 3 Grand Est. (2019). Langue française : le bredele fait son entrée dans le Robert, le schmutz intègre le Larousse. Accessible sur : https://france3-regions.francetvinfo.fr/grand-est/langue-francaise-bredele-fait-son-entree-robert-schmutz-integre-larousse-1475429.html
Olver, L. (2019). The Food Timeline–Christmas food history. org. Accessible sur : http://www.foodtimeline.org/christmasfood.html#cookies
France Bleu. (2019). Traditions de Noël en Alsace : les bredeles. Accessible sur : https://www.francebleu.fr/loisirs/sortir/traditions-de-noel-en-alsace-les-bredeles-1382542002
Photo credits : CC by SA – Randalfino (n°1), Tom Ipri (n°2). the other photographs (cover picture and n°3) belong to the author, they cannot be reproduced without authorization.