In the Odenwald region a mere 45 minutes from downtown Frankfurt, gingerbread is still baked by hand according to a timeworn tradition and age-old recipes. A visit to the oldest Odenwald gingerbread bakers.
A few steps up the narrow wooden stairs and you’re in the main bakery room. It smells heavenly, is pleasantly warm and there’s a real hustle-and-bustle. Closely followed by many children, Willi Baumann opens the flap on the huge ancient oven and pulls out a tray of fresh gingerbread stars. And another, and another, and another. They stack up against the wall. This morning, countless visitors have arrived to witness the oldest Odenwald gingerbread bakery with their own eyes – and of course buy Christmas cookies. They throng into the tiny bakery towards the sales counter, where Willi Baumann’s mother Hilde offers advice, swaps baking knowledge, packs things up, and takes their money.
In the run-up to Christmas, countless people from FrankfurtRheinMain interested in the ancient craft tradition of gingerbread making head for Reichelsheim in the South Hessen district of the Odenwald, about an hour’s drive from Frankfurt Airport. Reichenheim Castle, situated above the town, is visible from afar, pointing the way. From the centre with Germany’s oldest half-timbered town hall dating from 1554 (today it is home to the local museum) you walk along the small Gersprenz River to the neighbourhood of Beerfurth. Where once pigs (“Eber”) forded (“Furt”) the river, there is now a wine-press house, the “Odenwälder Gäulschesmacher”, a wood-carver who makes rocking horses, a distillery for fruit brandies, and of course the Odenwald’s oldest gingerbread maker. “Baumann – Lebkuchenbäckerei – seit 1785” stands proudly on the sign over the front door.
Willi Baumann, 39, and his wife Isabelle took over from his parents eight years ago, and are now the 12th Baumann generation to run the company. “The recipes are over 200 years old. The French first brought the specialties from Strasbourg,” he explains. “And today we still go by them, so no colours, flavour enhancers or preservatives. We only use wheat flour, baking honey, sugar, water, ammonium bicarbonate as a raising agent (which evaporates), and spices – and of course an almond for decoration.” The alarm clock sounds – showing that after six minutes in the oven the gingerbread is done. After which it is coated with roasted potato flour to give it just the right sheen – and is then ready for sale. The bakery’s assortment also includes coconut macaroons, aniseed biscuits, cookies, gingerbread biscuits, shortbread, and vanilla cookies specially for Christmas.