There are certain Christmas pastimes that are Vancouver musts: the VanDusen Festival of Lights and the Stanley Park Christmas Train, for example. Avalon Dairy Egg Nog. And stollen from the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver.
Ever since 1991, pastry chef Gerhard Weitzel, now 77 years old, has been making the classic German Christmas cake at the Howe Street hotel for guests and the public alike. This is not the kind of baked good you find at drugstores that could sit on the shelf for months, rock hard, uninspiring, and filled with artificially sweetened and dyed candied fruit.
Weitzel's stollen is pure, buttery rapture.
If I had my way, I would eat an entire loaf myself, practising my very best mindfulness to study and smell each slice, to let every soft and sugary piece melt on my tongue, in silence, without any distraction from the outside world--unless there was a splash of sparkling wine or a slurp of cappuccino as background noise. This, this is what it takes to achieve that yogic state of "being fully aware of the present moment"!
Originally from Bieben, Germany, Weitzel worked in his home country as well as England and Switzerland before crossing the pond for the United States of America, where he joined the pastry team at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. "I love the precision and creativity of pastry," he tells the Straight in an interview at the Four Seasons' YEW seafood + bar.
Upon moving to Vancouver in the 1980s, he worked for a time at Hotel Vancouver when it was still a CP property. He had his own bakery in Royal Centre when it first opened. Patisserie Cherie, as it was called, later moved to Robson street.
Weitzel joined the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver in 1991. After 50 years in pastry, Weitzel “retired” 10 years ago--sort of. He's been helping with pastry and desserts at the Four Seasons on and off ever since.
At Christmas, his workload intensifies, retirement becoming a foreign concept so he can make his legendary stollen. He makes about 800 to 900 each year; he figures he has made more than 25,000 loaves during his time with the Four Seasons.
His recipe is pure gold, a (somewhat) closely guarded secret that he acquired from a friend in Germany, a former pastry chef for the King of Sweden.
The recipe, which yields 80 loaves, calls for 6.6 pounds of butter for the marzipan centre and nearly 10 pounds of butter for the dough. "A lot of places use water or milk to make the bread soft," Weitzel says. "The secret is butter."
Stollen is not difficult to make, he says, but it is labour intensive and requires resting time between stages. All of the ingredients must be room temperature. "The day before, I soak nearly 12 pounds of golden raisins in two bottles of rum--hot rum," Weitzel says. "The next day, all the rum is gone. The raisins soak it right up." He then adds the zest of 25 oranges and 25 lemons.
After baking, he brushes the stollen with clarified, salted butter two times. "It adds a little nuttiness," says Weitzel, a married, proud father of a grown daughter. Then he covers the loaves with white sugar.
His preferred way of enjoying his labour is to sit down with a warm slice and a cappuccino.
The stollen is available at the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver for $31 per loaf.
However, with the closure of the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver happening on January 31, 2020, what will happen to the beloved local tradition? It's the end of an era.
Breathe easy: We haven't seen the last of Weitzel's famous stollen yet.
He has shared his recipe with a single person, a certain pastry chef you might have heard of: Thomas Haas. (Haas used to work at the Four Seasons.) "He's a good friend," Weitzel says. "He has asked me to help many times."
So, perhaps we'll see Weitzel making the same holiday gloriousness in cake form at a different kitchen next season. Here's hoping the legend lives on long after the doors to the Four Seasons close.