A brief history of gingerbread

Gdańska wódeczka, Krakowska dzieweczka, Warszawski trzewiczek,
Toruński pierniczek!
Fryderyk Hoffmann,
Poeta elbląski, 1627-1673

Although we would very much like for it to be so, gingerbread was not invented in Toruń. Its history dates back much, much earlier, to ancient times. Back then, honey-coated cookies called “miodowniki” were popular. In one of the Roman cookbooks written by Apicius, there is even a recipe for a honey cookie with pepper, reminiscent of later gingerbread. These were a delicacy enjoyed by the Roman Emperor Nero. After the fall of the Roman Empire, this delicious tradition fell into oblivion. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that nuns began to bake spiced honey cakes according to ancient recipes. This became possible due to the Crusades, which allowed the import of large quantities of spices to Europe. With the development of cities, specialized baking guilds emerged, drawing on the experience of the nuns. And so, the great career of gingerbread (not only from Toruń) began.

The tradition of baking cookies with honey and spices arrived in Toruń with the first settlers from German cities. The earliest mentions of Toruń gingerbreads date back to around 1380 and speak of a baker named Mikołaj Czan, who likely, alongside bread, engaged in baking spiced cookies. We had to wait almost two centuries for the term “piernikarz” (gingerbread baker) to appear. In 1564, city records provide information about the death of the gingerbread baker Symeon Neisser.

Why did Toruń become the “gingerbread capital“? The advantageous location of the city where Copernicus resided certainly played a significant role. The fertile Chełmno Land and Kuyavia regions ensured a steady supply of good-quality flour. Similarly, honey was abundant due to advanced beekeeping that provided large quantities of high-quality ingredients. Access to exotic spices was also easy due to its position on a trade route connecting Lviv with Gdansk.

A greater challenge lies in determining when the term “gingerbread” was first used. The adjective “pierny,” meaning spicy or peppery, from which the delicacy derived its name, was used until the 16th century. The word “piernik” itself appears at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries. The creation of gingerbread and the derivation of its name from “pierny” were associated with the addition of spice to the popular cake made from flour and honey, called “miodownik”: pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg. Many legends have arisen about the reasons behind this surprising combination. They are explained, among other things, by a mistake made by the aforementioned Mikołaj, which turned out to be a source of great wealth for him, or by the desire of a poor apprentice named Bogumił to win the heart of the beautiful Katarzyna.

It is difficult today to determine what the process of making gingerbread looked like in the Middle Ages. Recipes were closely guarded and passed down orally from generation to generation. For this reason, the oldest recorded recipe for Toruń gingerbread dates only back to 1725. Interestingly, it didn’t come from a cookbook, but from the popular medical compendium “Compendium medicum auctum.” This was due to the medicinal properties of the spices that were added to the dough.

Najstarszy przepis na piernik toruński

Weź miodu przaśnego ile chcesz, włóż do naczynia, wlej do niego gorzałki mocnej sporo i wody, smaż powoli szumując, aż będzie gęsty, wlej do niecki, przydaj imbieru białego, gwoździków, cynamonu, gałek, kubebów, kardamonu, hanyżu nietłuczonego, skórek cytrynowych drobno krajanych, cukru ileć się będzie zdało, wszystko z grubsza jak miód ostygnie, że jeno letni będzie, wsyp mąki żytniej, ile potrzeba, umieszaj, niech tak stoi nakryto, aż dobrze wystygnie, potym wyłóż na stół, gnieć jak najmocniej, przydając mąki ile potrzeba, potym nakładź cykaty krajanej albo skórek cytrynowych w cukrze smażonych, znowu przegnieć i zaraz formuj pierniki, wielkie według upodobania porobiwszy, możesz znowu po wierzchu tu i ówdzie wtykać cykatę krajaną, do wierzchu pozyngowawszy piwem kłaść do pieca i wyjąwszy je jak się przepieką, znowu je zyngować miodem z piwem smażonym i znowu po wsadzeniu do pieca.

In ancient times, two types of gingerbread were baked: soft and figurative. The difference lay in the addition (or lack thereof) of a leavening agent. In the Middle Ages, this role was played by potash, which is essentially burnt wood charcoal. Soft gingerbreads were simply consumed as they were. Figurative ones, however, were pressed into intricate wooden molds and due to the high cost of spices, they were considered luxury items and symbols of the owner’s wealth. Therefore, they were hung on walls in prominent places and, to enhance their beauty, they were painted with colors, and some were even gilded. This, however, didn’t deter sweet tooths. In consequence, it led to the authorities in the city banning this practice. Figurative gingerbreads were reportedly so hard that, according to one legend, they could successfully replace a wheel on a cart.

However, gingerbread is not just a treat. In ancient times, it had various functions. It served as a snack with vodka (as they used to say, “Whoever doesn’t drink vodka and avoids it is not worthy of tasting sweet gingerbread”). It was also used as a military hardtack that could be stored for a long time due to the preserving properties of honey and spices. Additionally, it was sold as a remedy in pharmacies, thanks to the medicinal properties of the spices added to the dough.

Gingerbread proved to be a successful diplomatic tool. In 1696, gingerbread gifts managed to win favor with the Swedes concerning the city’s debts, and in 1778, Empress Catherine received as a gift from the people of Toruń a gingerbread measuring four cubits long and half a cubit thick, worth 300 thalers. It is certain that most of the twelve Polish kings who visited Toruń were also bestowed with gingerbread gifts.

While there are many cities in Europe that gained renown through gingerbread baking, such as Basel, Salzburg, Aachen, or Pardubice, the only significant competitor to Toruń in the race for gingerbread supremacy in Europe was Nuremberg. Each of these cities zealously guarded its recipes while making efforts to uncover the rival’s secret. Eventually, through an agreement in 1556, Toruń gained the right to bake “Nuremberg” gingerbreads, and Nuremberg officially started producing “Toruń” gingerbreads.

While we can’t directly compare the taste of 16th-century gingerbread with its contemporary counterpart, we can still observe how such figurative gingerbread looked, thanks to the preserved gingerbread molds. These wooden gingerbread molds continue to captivate with their diversity of forms and exquisite craftsmanship. They were created by either gingerbread masters or specialized woodcarvers. The patterns carved into the molds vary widely and can sometimes be incredibly intricate. Among the preserved molds, human images dominate, including Polish rulers such as King Sigismund III and Queen Constance, or King Władysław IV, fashionable ladies and gentlemen, soldiers, as well as allegorical and religious figures (primarily St. George and St. Nicholas). Somewhat less common were depictions of animals (most frequently: rooster, wild boar, deer, fish, stork) and symbols – among these, hearts, fruits, houses, and gloves held special significance as symbols of particular respect and friendship toward the recipient. The coat of arms of Toruń was also a recurring motif. The molds used during museum demonstrations incorporate all the most popular motifs found on historical gingerbread molds.

Among the shapes of gingerbreads, the “Katarzynka” (Catherine) undeniably occupies the first place in Toruń. Every year, starting from November 25th, which is the feast day of St. Catherine, until Christmas, this shape was baked massively in Copernicus’ city. The form of the “Katarzynka” intrigues, and even today, practically nothing is known about its origin. Legends speak of a beautiful Catherine, the daughter of a master baker, who filled in for her seriously ill father in the workshop.

An inexperienced gingerbread maker, unable to find intricate wooden molds, used a cup to cut out six little circles and arranged them on a baking sheet. The gingerbreads in the oven fused together, forming the shape we know today. Another legend tells of a journeyman named Bogumil, who was in love with the master’s daughter. He intricately cut a pattern from the dough, consisting of two hearts and two rings. He named the gingerbread “Katarzynka” in honor of the beautiful daughter of the master, whose heart he wanted to win.

The Living Museum of Gingerbread proudly continues the over 600-year-old tradition of baking Toruń gingerbreads. In addition to preserving and showcasing to our visitors the guild techniques of gingerbread baking, we recreate the old gingerbread recipes. After all, who can resist the spicy aroma and taste that encapsulate centuries of history? Come in great numbers to our museum and experience it for yourselves!

Gingerbread trivia

  • “What does gingerbread have to do with a windmill?” – this question is meant to indicate two things that have nothing in common. We, the Gingerbread Bakers, know the correct answer – flour.!
  • The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a period when small family-owned businesses selling their gingerbreads at rural fairs and festivals experienced a true boom. Most often, these gingerbreads were produced using the cheapest ingredients, which often resulted in their (sometimes shockingly) low quality. Decorated with colorful icing, adorned with colorful paper featuring printed images, or even embedded with photographs, they were meant to delight the eye and embellish rural households. Often, a gingerbread with an appropriate inscription for a religious festival served as an expression of feelings. It was also a gift for children attending school. In the rural mindset, consuming the icing-covered gingerbread letters was believed to lead to better academic performance.
  • The character of the amusing gingerbread “Man” from Shrek has a longer history than you might think! Human-shaped gingerbread figures were baked as far back as the Middle Ages. There are accounts that Queen Elizabeth I of England gifted gingerbread shaped like her guests. The gingerbread figure itself became known as a folk tale hero. It was first published in 1875 in the American St. Nicholas Magazine. The gingerbread figure was baked by an old childless woman. As soon as she took it out of the oven, the little man came to life and escaped. The woman and her husband set off in pursuit, but they couldn’t catch him. The little man ran quickly, outpacing farmers and various animals. However, he eventually falls victim to a cunning fox who devours the escapee. The gingerbread man character quickly joined the ranks of American children’s literature heroes. Various variations of the story emerged, often omitting its sad ending. The gingerbread man not only inspired writers; in 1905, a musical titled “The Gingerbread Man” premiered on Broadway and enjoyed success on stages throughout the United States. The motif of food “running away” appears in many European folktales. In Russia, there’s the story of “Kolobok,” a round loaf of bread that similarly escapes its creators’ home (in this case, it’s a grandfather and grandmother) and, after numerous adventures, is tricked into being eaten by a fox. From German-speaking countries comes the legend of an escaping chubby pancake. In Hungary, there are tales of a running cheese and dumpling.
  • The oldest gingerbreads that have survived to this day were baked by the Toruń gingerbread shops of Weese and Hermann Thomas in the 1920s and were later given to Krakow. They were exhibited at Wawel Castle and then became part of the collections of the Ethnographic Museum, where they remain to this day. They are almost 100 years old now. They depict Polish kings and Tadeusz Kościuszko, and they are particularly valuable because the molds used to make them have not been preserved. To see a true “old gingerbread,” you need to visit Krakow.

Gingerbread records!

The longest gingerbread was baked in 2019 during the Bread and Gingerbread Days in Jawor, Silesia. The gingerbread covered the entire side of the market square in Jawor and measured 59.8 meters.

The largest gingerbread figure was created in 2009 in Oslo. Weighing 651 kg, the gingerbread was baked by employees of the local IKEA store.

The largest gingerbread house was built in the United States. In 2013, a group of friends in Bryan, Texas, set a record by constructing a gingerbread house with an area of 234 square meters. To bake it, they used 1,327 kg of brown sugar, 820 kg of butter, 7,200 eggs, and 3,300 kg of flour. It was calculated to contain a total of 35.8 million calories. The house stands outdoors and can be visited.

What we are particularly proud of, the largest gingerbread heart was created in 2019 at the Living Museum of Gingerbread. During the Grand Finale of the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity, together with our guests, we assembled and decorated a gingerbread heart measuring nearly 20 square meters with icing. The heart weighed a quarter of a ton and was made up of 650 pieces of gingerbread cake coated with red icing. The gingerbread took almost 3 days to create and was consumed in 3 hours! I guess we don’t need to prove to anyone anymore that we have a heart for gingerbread, do we?

Share with friends:

ul. Rabiańska 9
87-100 Toruń
woj. kujawsko-pomorskie


od godz. 10.00 do 18.00