Like a true girl born in Alsace, Eastern France, I care a lot about the bredala tradition. For the non-Alsatians readers, bredalas or bredeles are Alsatians Christmas cookies that everybody cooks and trade in December.
Some are made with butter, other with cinnamon, or raspberry jam, star-shaped, moon-shaped, heart-shaped, cat-shaped… You can find many types and shapes in the Christmas Markets held in every city and village of my beautiful region.
As for the tradition, everyone is baking some during Christmas time and you carry them in decorated tin boxes to your family and friends as a gift. Sometimes you even trade them: I’m giving you some Zimmsterne (star-shaped cinnamon cookies) and you give me some Spritzbredeles (twisted cookies made with almond powder)!
Even when I was living in my tiny studio apartment in Strasbourg with a mini oven, I was still following this vernacular tradition even though I had to spend my days off baking, batch after batch, so I could have my little cookies to eat with my tea during those long Alsatians winter evenings. I’m so attached to this tradition that I couldn’t help but bring it with me in both New-Zealand and Taiwan! As a matter of fact, I’m always travelling with cinnamon just in case I’d like to bake something tasty for my hosts or travel companions.
About four years ago, I remember myself buying cookie cutters in a Charity Shop just before taking the boat towards Stewart Island, the third island of New-Zealand, where I spent the whole month of December cutting smoked salmon. My Kiwi Christmas was still full of bredalas, even though I was living in a tiny village with less than 300 inhabitants – the only village of the whole island, actually- surrounded by endemic forests and birds.
About two years ago, in Taiwan, I was living and working in a hostel with a fully equipped kitchen: how lucky I was that Una and her sister Nicole were also into cooking and baking! To my delight, they had different shapes of cookie cutters, and even one Hello Kitty shaped! As I couldn’t find all the ingredients for the more sophisticated bredalas, I went for the simplest one made with butter. I even tried to add something very Asian to it: Matcha powder. My Taiwanese bredalas were as green as they were tasty! Since the Taiwanese people don’t eat too much sugar, I had to adapt and replaced most of the sugar with cinnamon or Matcha powder and adding some pink coloured icing on top. Indeed, the Taiwanese also like their food to be as kawaii (cute in Japanese) as possible!
As for our World Inn Christmas, I had invited two dear friends of mine, Jayne from England and Nikita from Canada, who were both teachers in Taiwan, respectively in Taipei and Kaohsiung. There was also the lovely couple owning the hostel, Una and Aga, my co-worker Vincent from Québec, and Mona, my hosts’ Swiss friend. We all spent our day cooking and baking and ended up with a 6 courses meal!
Christmas is actually not really celebrated in Taiwan. There’s only 5% of Christians, the majority of the population being Buddhist or Taoist. Christmas is just another commercial holiday, a pretext to put Christmas decorations and trees in the shop windows and sell a lot of useless things. It turns out that Taipei has now its own Christmas Market with a lot of events and light decorations. As for my Taiwanese friends in Hualien, that was their first time celebrating Christmas in a Western way, which means… by eating and drinking like there’s no tomorrow. I discovered later that Taiwanese have something that can compete with our Christmas: the Chinese New Year looks a lot like a Christmas dinner. And it’s lasting two weeks.
Since I illustrated many dinner menus for the World Inn dinners held the previous Summer, Una encouraged me to draw the bredala recipe so I could give one to each of our guests. Our Christmas was so unique and unlikely, familiar and strange at the same time. Many languages were spoken that night, Mandarin, English, French, German, Spanish. There were glühwein and stinky cheese, but also vegetarian curry and a tofu quiche. Greediness and warm bursts of laughter definitely don’t have borders.
But let’s go back to my bredalas! In January, Una heard about a market in Hualien which was about allowing the Taiwanese to discover about the expats’ community living in Hualien. It was the idea of a Taiwanese woman who was married to an America and she wanted the inhabitants of Hualien to know better about the foreigners living there and take a closer look at their cultures. Una was so excited! We had to be part of it with my chocolate mousse, my bredalas and my postcards!
I then spent a good amount of time baking bredalas, I had some chocolate mousse issues and had to rebake some in the middle of the night the day before the market. But I was surrounded by friends and mostly helped by Una. She printed my postcard on some nice paper, and we had prepared signs with the price list, a pouch with cash and a bit of decoration to dress up our stall.
We spent the afternoon talking to the other expats and the inhabitants of the city who were very curious! There was some lemonade, Ivory Coast food, jewellery, etc. And I sold all my chocolate mousses, all my bredalas, and about a dozen of my postcards! We were so proud of our success that we did it again the following May, just a month before my departure.
I had to confess I would have never, ever, thought that my little Christmas cookies or my chocolate mousse would be appreciated outside of my group of friends… As for my postcards, I would never have the guts to show them to someone I didn’t know. Selling them was completely unbelievable and inconceivable. But I wasn’t in France, my traditional Christmas cookies were completely unknown around Taiwan, and thanks to Una’s cheers, support and encouragements, I managed to make it true. And then again, why not? Maybe one day I’ll write about all those things you’re daring when you step out of your comfort zone.
Virginia Woolf wrote about having a room of one’s own, as a specific space allowed for creation. At that time I didn’t even have a home, I sold most of my belongings, and belong nowhere… However, Una offered me something I barely had until then: time for creation.
Some mornings, as I was about to start my cleaning duties around the hostel, she made me sit at the Taiwan shaped table and used to tell me “There’s not much to do today. So you’re gonna draw!” It was her. This hostel and this warmth. They were my own room.