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Culture

Six Centuries of Sweet Success

Steeped in tradition and dusted with icing sugar, the Stollen is the king of German Christmas cakes. Dresden's particularly well-known for its version, which became a hotly traded good during Communist times.

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Only the best get their approval

Shaped like an oblong, flat loaf of bread, studded with almonds and raisins and flavoured with orange and lemon, the Stollen was first created in the ovens of the eastern city of Dresden almost 600 years ago.

So important is the cake to the city that bakers must meet a stringent quality test in order to be able to call their products genuine "Dresden Stollen."

Hans-Jürgen Matzker heads the Association for the Protection of Dresden Stollen, which represents 150 producers, and sets the quality test. He said that to judge the role Stollen plays in Dresden life, you only have to look at the figures for his small, pink-walled bakery in the city's suburbs.

Christstollen

A Dresden baker with Stollen cakes

"The production of Stollen represents 20 percent of our annual turnover," Matzker told AFP, taking a short break from a hectic work day.

From mid-October to January, Matzker and his 27 employees work virtually flat out to satisfy the demand for his Stollen which scores 18.3 points out of a possible 20 in the Association's quality test score.

Predecessor an austere affair

The first Stollen in the Middle Ages was a more austere affair -- a dry cake made of flour, yeast and water which nourished people through the fasting period leading up to Christmas. It was known as "Christbrod" ("Bread of Christ") and because of its shape, it represented the swaddled body of the infant Jesus.

In the 15th century, the Electoral Princes of the then independent state of Saxony found the cake too dry and in 1491 they were granted permission by Pope Innocent VIII to add butter to the recipe.

Centuries later, Matzker and his fellow bakers had to use all their ingenuity when confronted with the food shortages of Communist rule in East Germany.

Bäckermeister Ronald Morenz in seiner Bäckerei in Dresden holt einen Stollen aus dem Backofen

Baker Ronald Morenz from Dresden is pulling a Stollen out of the oven

"When we couldn't get any candied lemon peel, we used small green tomatoes and soaked them in a sugary solution, then glazed them," he recalled. "They had a sweet taste, but they didn't taste of tomatoes."

Communist currency

The Stollen also became a form of currency in Communist times.

Unlike the nationalized industries, bakers were not allowed to export their goods but their customers would buy them by the dozen and send them to friends or relatives on the other side of the Iron Curtain in exchange for precious deutsche marks.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and Germany was reunified a year later, sales of Stollen dropped because the people of Saxony no longer needed to exchange the cakes for western currency.

"We had to find new ways to sell our wares," said Matzker, whose father and grandfather were bakers too.

Going global

So he now gives guided tours of the bakery to tourists and has specialized in mail order, sending his cakes around the world.

Bäckermeisterin Marlies Morenz macht in ihrer Bäckerei in Dresden einen Stollen

Baker Marlies Morenz gets a Stollen ready for shipping

His customers include Germans living as far away as the United States, Canada and Australia.

"For someone from Saxony, even if he left 50 years ago, a Christmas without Stollen is a sad Christmas," Matzker said.

And what makes them homesick is the prospect of biting into a slice of freshly baked Stollen at teatime in the build-up to Christmas in this semi-mountainous area where fir trees stretch up the hillsides. "We celebrate Christmas in a big way," Matzker said before returning to his ovens. "It's a holiday of contemplation, quiet and happiness."

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