Cookie molds are artwork?
You’d better believe it.
Someone once said, “Gdańsk wodka, Toruń gingerbread, Kraków maidens, and Warsaw ankle boots – some of the best things in Poland.” I don’t know about the maidens or the ankle boots, but the wodka and the gingerbread are definitely worth checking out.
And, as with all the best things, if it’s going to be the best, it had better be artful.
Nobody knows exactly when Toruń started making gingerbread, or piernik (pee-ehr-neek), as the Poles call it, but it was a long time ago. One of the first mentions of gingerbread comes in 1380, but there’s evidence that the practice started in the previous century. Knights coming back to Europe from the Crusades would stop in Toruń on their way to other places – often Gdańsk, the port town – and peddle whatever loot they’d brought back from the Holy Land with them. One of the most popular commodities was spices. Things like cinnamon, cardamom, clove, and, of course, ginger made their first appearances in Poland, and the Poles quite quickly took to adding them, along with honey, to flour in order to make sweetbreads. It didn’t take much longer to figure out that this new sweetbread is pretty tasty when washed down with some of that good Gdańsk wodka.
The bakers in Toruń knew what they were doing, and once they perfected the art of gingerbread baking, they moved on to the art of legally protecting their gingerbread. Only the bakers of the cities of Toruń in Poland and Nuremberg in Germany knew the secrets of making excellent gingerbread. The information was closely guarded, much to the dismay of travelers who wanted to make some when they got home. In fact, the two cities had an agreement: they would only share tricks of the trade with each other. Together, the two cities created an effective monopoly in the making of gingerbread.
The third aspect of the art of gingerbread came last: the molds. Bakers would work with woodcutters to design elaborate molds for the gingerbread. Nothing was off-limits. Everything from current events to the Madonna and Child were whittled out of wood and used to shape gingerbreads. This particular tradition continues today. Visitors to Toruń can find gingerbread in all sorts of shapes, just by walking down the street. Shop owners will have vendors on the streets, with carts that are just full of gingerbread town halls, Nicholas Copernicuses, horses and buggies, the city crest, and even people dressed up in traditional folk costumes.
Not only can you find gingerbread in fun shapes, you can see the actual molds from the 17th century! The old ratusz (rah-toosh; town hall) has been converted into an arts museum, and one section is dedicated to the art of gingerbread. The molds on display are relics of the trade from the 17th and 18th centuries, when the gingerbread trade was at its height. Looking at the molds, it’s a wonder that they ever got any gingerbread baked. The designs are so intricate, with so many little details, that it’s hard to believe the carvers ever finished them, let alone that they would allow all that work to be smothered with sticky stuff and thrown into an oven.
So, these molds are artwork? Yes. So artful was the making of gingerbread, in fact, that visitors thought the rest of Toruń paled in comparison: Chopin wrote to a friend of his that he had “seen the whole city…All this, however, cannot compare to the gingerbread, yes, the gingerbread…”