Czech Culture and Heritage: More on Bohemian gingerbread and where you can find gingerbread gifts in the US
During my research on Bohemian gingerbread I had a real stroke of luck.
I discovered a wonderful gingerbread-making Czech, Anna Kalgard, who makes gingerbread ornaments and more through her business, AKAGIFT in Park River, North Dakota.
I had recalled my maternal grandmother not only making gingerbread and gingerbread cookies, but also having some very old, what she said were gingerbread Christmas ornaments on her tree every year. I wish I had paid closer attention to them now!
However, I am about to rectify this oversight, at least in part, as I have ordered some wonderful gingerbread ornaments made by hand by a wonderful Czech I have met. They are absolutely destined to become family heirlooms. But before I go on, let me introduce you to this talented and creative Czech-American, Anna Kalgard:
“Hi! My name is Anna Kalgard and I was born in Brno, the second largest city of Czechoslovakia where I grew up and lived for 42 years. In 2002, I moved to Winnipeg, Canada because I’ve got a very interesting job offer from the largest Canadian fashion company, Nygard International, Ltd., as a technical designer/technologist.
In 2011, after 9 years in Winnipeg, I married a very nice American man and came to the United States. I gave up my career in fashion and ended up on a farm outside the small town of Park River, North Dakota. This is an area of many nationalities, where you can find here Italian, Norwegian, Finish, Polish, and Czech people. There are towns near me where the most population is originally Czech like Lankin, Veseleyville, and Pisek. When I moved here, I felt like I was still at home. I was warmly welcomed by local people and many of them still remember their maternal language so we can chat in Czech.
While I was waiting for my legal immigration status after my wedding, suddenly I had a lot of free time on my hands so I took advantage of it and I started to do what I loved very much but never had time to do before – bake and paint.
As a youth I studied at The Folk School of Art in my home town of Brno. My professor Květa Jadrníčková was a famous Czech illustrator and artist. I learned a lot of techniques related to painting, printing, metal engraving, linocut and sculpture from her. I found it very interesting to paint with coffee. I paint on wood or canvas and I have to admit – it’s a challenge. Each individual wooden plaque reacts different and it is very different on canvas. I have to make my own mixture of paint from coffee grounds. But as my own life has been an adventure, I like this challenging work because it makes me feel good when I can put my thoughts and ideas in a picture. This technique is unique and not really famous, but I think it is beautiful. Sometimes I wish that my day would have at least 36 hours because I have more ideas than I am able to make.
There is a little different story about my gingerbread. A long time ago, Christmas, 1989, right after the “Velvet revolution” in communist Czechoslovakia, I was excited by our new freedoms. We bought an expensive real silver fir tree. It was so beautiful that I refused to put any gold, silver or any other colorful decoration on it because it would ruin its natural look. I decided to bake gingerbread, make some icing, and decorate the tree just with those cookies, pine cones, red ribbons and real red candles. I found a recipe in a woman’s magazine so I tried to bake it. My Mom was helping me a lot as she was an excellent cook. After World War II, from 1945 to 1948, she was a cook for Zdeněk Fierlinger, the prime minister of Czechoslovakia. Many times she also prepared a dinner for his visitor – Edvard Beneš, the president of Czechoslovakia. She had never made gingerbread decoration before but she had a lot of experience with baking all types of delicious pastry and cookies and I learned a lot from her.
Our first cookies were nice and very tasty but my Mom couldn’t help me with decorating because her life of hard work, had hurt her hands. So I had to work on decorations alone. My icing on the cookies wasn’t perfect at that time, but my boys loved them. We never had such a beautiful Christmas tree like that ever and I’ll never forget my sons’ sparkling eyes. I have baked our decorations almost every year since.
Gingerbread can last for many years for decorative purposes, but the problem was that my boys always stole some from the tree. By the end of Christmas they had eaten them all so I had to bake the next year again. I’ve also built a gingerbread house for them probably 25 years ago and my older son still keeps it. He said it was too pretty to eat. Now, my grandchildren are enjoying it at Christmas time.
I changed the recipe and techniques a few times to find the best one. I now use one that is very traditional. After much research and experimenting I am using a recipe that is 600 years old for my non-perishable gingerbread ornaments and pictures. It’s a piece of my heritage passed from generation to generation. This gingerbread ornaments can last forever. They contain a lot of honey and don’t contain any grease so they don’t ever mold and they don’t crumble. Through the use of 8 kinds of spices (including black pepper) even bugs don’t want it. The dough is mixed and must stay in a cool place for a week to ferment. This fermentation process makes them self-preserved. Then the dough is ready for baking and I can start my work. I roll the dough and cut out different shapes. After baking, my gingerbread must “breathe” another 4-5 days before I start to decorate them. It’s a long procedure.
I do not using any chemicals, except of food coloring, so my decorative gingerbread is still edible, just very hard. But I prefer a different recipe for gingerbread cookies for eating – with butter in the dough and less black pepper. Then they are very soft and they also work for a good digestion. Honey and spices make them very tasty and they smell very nice for long time. I make this soft kind of gingerbread every year for our Christmas and they are always gone first. We love them very much.
The decoration on the gingerbread is very intricate and it takes training, a steady hand, and a lot of patience. Each piece takes between 20-120 minutes – just to decorate, depending on the size and design. Every single piece is done by a free hand. I don’t use any stencils or prints as people tend to think. Every line is done one by one individually and it’s the same with dots. You can call it “liquid embroidery” and yes it looks like cross stitch, but I have to make also my own “fabric”, which I fill up with dots to create a pattern which looks like lace. There is a special recipe for icing as well and it’s not easy to make the exact texture needed. Sometimes it’s too runny and sometimes too thick, then none of it is able to be used. It took me many years to get this knowledge right, but I always like a challenge, as I said before.
I started my business in December 2012 and I had a hard time selling my product because people didn’t know what it was and they didn’t believe that my gingerbread can last forever. Now, I have many, many customers who come back each year to buy my gingerbread as little gifts for their family members and friends. It makes a very unique gift. I also supply weddings with little decorated gingerbread hearts as favors, large hearts with names and the date as a cake topper or as “thank you” gifts.
I don’t have a store as my gingerbread is a more seasonal product but I sell my ornaments at Holiday shows such as The Big One, in Fargo, Pride of Dakota in Fargo, Grand Forks, and Bismarck, and at the largest Scandinavian festival in the USA, the Norsk Høstfest, which is hold every year in Minot. I also have my gingerbread art in a gift shop of Hjemkomst Center in Fargo, ND, in Williston Convention & Visitors Bureau, Williston, ND and in the Home Sweet Home store of Pride of Dakota products in Minot, ND.
People who are interested in my art can order my product through my website at www.akkgift.com, they can reach me via e-mail at email@example.com if they want something special that isn’t on my website.”
Just take a look at these photos and you can see how beautiful Anna’s work is