B is for bratwurst (and Brexit)

What one Christmas market tells us about Europe

Picture by Ellyn van Valkengoed

Picture by Ellyn van Valkengoed



The main thing that catches your eye on Manchester’s Albert Square in Manchester is usually the Gothic-style Town Hall, built in 1877. Owing to its spires and stately clock tower, the square would look like something straight out of Jane Eyre or any Dickens novel – if it weren’t for the lights and the unmistakable smell of bratwurst, or the market stalls shaped like Alpine huts, or, indeed, for the six-tonne Santa Claus perched high above the crowds, complete with a pair of googly eyes reminiscent of a Japanese anime character. It’s late November, and the annual European Christmas market is in town: an event spanning six weeks, ten different locations, dozens of stalls, and, taken as a part of the total seasonal income, worth an estimated £90 million to the city’s economy.

The city of Manchester has come up with an innovative metric for the market’s success: the number of Christmas mugs sold. For £2.50, you’re required to buy a refillable mug for your glühwein, featuring Santa and Rudolph wearing hipster glasses. By this measure, the 2017 edition is a record breaker: mug sales in the first 2 weeks were up a staggering 33% from last year (80,000 sold compared to 60,000).

Picture by Ellyn van Valkengoed

Picture by Ellyn van Valkengoed

That might seem surprising, because 2017 has a been a tough year by anyone’s standards - and maybe nowhere tougher than here. Britain began to feel the effects of the Brexit referendum, as the pound took a nosedive and Westminster struggled with chaos at home and tough negotiations in Brussels. Under the circumstances, it can feel a little strange to watch Brits cheerfully spend millions on camembert. Then there’s the concrete blocks surrounding the terrain and the police officers carrying semi-automatic guns, strolling past toy reindeer and the Bavarian strudel stall. A visual reminder of the terrorist attack in May at the Manchester Arena, which killed 22 people.

But maybe the size of the crowds isn’t so surprising after all. Because if there’s one thing that can mend broken hearts, bring us together, and fill us with a joy for living, it’s got to be food. The glue holding British cuisine together has always had a distinctly international flavor – from tikka masala to kebab and even fish and chips. Perhaps European favorites have become similarly rooted, and the sight of all these beers, cheeses, sweets, sausages and pastries in one place could inspire a sense of unity in the face of adversity that bureaucrats in Brussels wouldn’t dare dream of. Pizza, and peace on earth.

If there’s one thing that can mend broken hearts, bring us together, and fill us with a joy for living, it’s got to be food

Real sausages with real meat


If I really believed that, my warm fuzzy feelings lasted about as long as it took me to google ‘Christmas market locations’ on my phone. The very first search result took me straight into an internet flame war in the comment section of the Manchester Evening News. The issues at stake were familiar: identity and, of course, money. Some Mancunians do not take kindly to paying five quid for bratwurst. ‘Zuma’ wrote:

“Most Markets where they add the word 'German' seems to be the code word for ripping people off. Start a campaign to bring back the traditional British Christmas Market, serve real beers, real cider, real sausages with real meat, rather than the questionable mix of ' meaty bits' that go into a German sausage. Ugghh......[..] don't give us Fake unauthentic overpriced greasy German style market PLEASE!”

‘Loiner’ was more to the point:

“Buy British.”

On the street, however, I overheard many people worrying about the Christmas market’s future after the UK leaves the EU. There’s reason for concern: the food industry appears more vulnerable to the effects of Brexit than expected. This became clear during the Tesco-Unilever marmite war, when the price of a British staple rose dramatically because of the weak pound. Then there’s the labour problem. Over a quarter of restaurant and coffeeshop staff in Britain are EU nationals. Their future could be uncertain, but they are difficult to replace: Britons don’t tend to apply for jobs as waiters or dishwashers (or sandwich-production line workers, for that matter).

Picture by Ellyn van Valkengoed

Picture by Ellyn van Valkengoed

Rolling like a Dutch Cookie Man

If the market never returns to Manchester from winter 2019 onwards, it could be a serious setback for the people working the stalls. Markets tend to be nomadic by nature. So even if the rights out of EU citizens in Britain are guaranteed after Brexit – which looked likely at the time of writing – there’s no telling what will happen to their business, travelling in and out of the country.

I met Leo, a middle-aged man with silvery hair and a bright smile, at a stall for Christmas decorations. “Ha!” he cried, when I told him I was from the Netherlands. “That’s where I’m supposed to be from, too.” He showed me one of his plastic bags, featuring a Dutch flag. It turned out Leo was actually an Italian living in Manchester, working the stall for the season on behalf of the Dutch owners.

Leo’s stall wasn’t the only one owned by the Dutch. For such a small country, we were hugely overrepresented: there were mini pancakes (“poffertjes”), fries, waffles with a sticky syrup filling (“stroopwafels”) and of course the famous Dutch cheeses like Gouda and Edam. And everywhere, the pattern was the same: Dutch-owned stall, foreign staff (with the exception of one Dutch woman at the cheese stall).

Picture by Ellyn van Valkengoed

Picture by Ellyn van Valkengoed

“Please don’t speak Dutch to me,” one of the guys working the stroopwafel stand joked. He was Romanian, and his colleague an Italian. Nevertheless, the pair had been travelling around as the ‘Dutch Cookie Man’ for months: they had just arrived from Denmark, and would be heading to Italy next. The Christmas season just meant life was busier than usual.

It struck me as an ironic kind of metaphor for the greater European market: businesses owned by Northern Europeans, staffed by Southern and Eastern Europeans working long hours for modest returns, wearing another country’s flag on their clothes without complaint to convince shoppers from a third country of the authenticity of their wares - shoppers who in this case don’t even really want to be in the EU anymore.

But not all is doom and gloom. Sure, the fate of a European Christmas market in the north of England seems like a small issue, when compared to the daunting task of separating the British portion from the rest to the European market soup. On the other hand: it’s clear from the bustling activity and the economic value of the market that there is more at stake here than the availability of bratwurst. An event of this size draws in thousands of visitors to the city, who put millions of pounds in the pockets of local shop owners and hotel and restaurant staff throughout town. Buy British might simply be a lot more complicated than it looks. I suspect that a similar market where there’s only grilled cheese - the local specialty  - and packages of cheddar with the Union Jack somehow wouldn’t have the same appeal. As they say, variety is the spice of life - and apparently it spices up our spending habits too. Perhaps that’s just the kind of incentive needed for a milder approach to Brexit.

And what about the Europeans? At the Dutch cheese stand, I asked a guy named David (dark hair, straw hat decorated with a red-white-blue ribbon) how business was going and he scoffed. It turned out the British were never keen on Dutch cheese, anyway:

“The British only buy the small cheeses, which cost three, four pounds, like this.” He showed me a piece of pesto cheese which could easily fit into the palm of my hand. “In Norway, they buy the cheese by the kilo. Big cheese.” David held his arms out and strained to lift an imaginary wheel of cheese off a shelf. Then he nodded dismissively at the wares in front of him.

“This? This is nothing.”



learned to cook by watching Jamie Oliver. She is now planning to move from the Netherlands to the UK - in spite of Brexit and the average state of pub food