Aachen seems to be one of those city break destinations that is not so well known outside of Germany. And that is a shame because it has as much to offer as the more celebrated destinations such as, say, Düsseldorf or Cologne. I’ve had my eye on Aachen for a while, hoping to slot in a couple of days there when the opportunity presented itself.
What did I know about Aachen ? Well, lets see. It is a city steeped in history with a world-famous cathedral or Dom. It’s a spa town famed for its hot springs and home to a modern spa complex. It is also home to Aachener Printern, a unique local bake similar to gingerbread. For a spa loving, sweet toothed, self-proclaimed history geek, this place sounds like a winner.
What I didn’t know would happen when I booked a two-day break to Aachen was this; we’d leave home hours late on the day of departure, get sidetracked en route at the Three Country Border., that upon arrival in Aachen I would go down with a rotten bout of tonsillitis complete with a raging fever, streets would be closed or diverted as the Christmas markets were being set up and that the weather would curse us with plunging temperatures and incessant rain. Best laid plans and all that.
Given the circumstances we decided to shelve our planned itinerary and focus on delving into one aspect of the city. Out of all the Aachen options, the idea of discovering more about the Printern turned out to be the crowd pleaser. This turned out to be not a bad idea at all. The story of Printern is woven into the history of Aachen and also a big part of its modern identity. Oh, it’s also delicious.
The story goes that Aachener Printern actually developed as a result of Belgian craftsmen bringing their ‘gebildbrot’ , a Belgian bake that was shaped and moulded into sometimes elaborate designs, with them to the city in the 1500s. The bakers guild of Aachen, being a proud and resourceful bunch, set out to create their own version of this Belgian import and produced their own sweet offering that could be ‘printed’ using elaborate wooden moulds. And so, Aachener Printern in its original form was born.
The bakers of the city, having perfected their product, were forced to adapt both ingredients and methods in the 1800s ,when the shenanigans of Napoleon meant the bakers supply of sugar and honey dried up. Not to be defeated, the recipe was rehashed using local alternatives including sugar beets, resulting in a coarser dough that didn’t respond as well to the intricate moulds. In the spirit of ‘adapt and overcome’ the bakers found new ways to present and package this new Printern and so the seeds of the modern-day industry were sown. This newer, coarser confection was quicker and easier to mass produce, travelled better and kept well. Today, the bakeries and factories of Aachen turn out about 4,500 tonnes of Printern dough a year. And it doesn’t stop at cookies either, the flavours used have also been harnessed to create Printern ice cream, have been included in regional savoury dishes and even in Printern infused gin. If I hadn’t been ill, the latter would have been up there on my sample list.
You wont go far in Aachen, particularly in the older part of town, without passing a shop or café devoted to the sale of Printern. These places engage the all of the senses, not to mention the imagination. Shops with wide windows, piled high with baked goods, decorated to a traditional theme in jewel colours. Nestled at the feet of the historic Cathedral along streets strung with fairy lights and Christmas garlands. Christmas music in the background and the smell of spices and baking in the air. It makes for a fairy tale, story book atmosphere.
Aachener Printern today can be the takeaway bag from the bakery to enjoy with a cup of coffee or a presentation tin to give as a gift. It comes in its original form flavoured simply with spice and honey or decorated with nuts, chocolate or icing sugar. Some varieties are incredibly hard, so much so you have to wonder if the local bakers are in cahoots with the local dentists. I’m told the local tip is to store it in a biscuit tin with half an apple to soften it. I can’t vouch for that, I haven’t tried it. I can say dunking it in the hot drink of your choosing has a similar effect, though. Judging from the looks doing this in public earns you, dunking is a peculiarly British thing.
We didn’t do Aachen justice, but we did enjoy it. We explored several Printern shops in the streets winding around the Dom but we particularly enjoyed stopping off at Nobis, which has both a shop and a café side by side. The third floor coffee shop is lovely and offers beautiful views towards the Dom. We stayed in the city with Novotel and had a great experience, link to my Trip Advisor review here.
Until Next Time,