You Know Koláče, Knedlíky, and Pivo. Now Bring on the Bohemian Gingerbread!
As a youngster, I would often accompany my grandmother to help with her weekly grocery shopping. I loved this task since it usually involved either an after shopping lunch at the Woolworth’s lunch counter (for one of those hotdogs in their unique squared-off buns) or if time was short at least a treat dropped into the shopping cart for me to take home. During these trips my most frequent treat request was for a box of Ginger Snaps. I loved, and still do, gingerbread cookies and would beg my grandmother to get a box, but she never would. Instead, she would get a sour look on her face, gaze straight into my eyes, and say; “Those aren’t real gingerbread cookies, Scott.” Then if I was really lucky, she would continue with “I’ll make you some at home.” I’d smile all the way home as her gingerbread cookies were nothing short of a dream come true!
At the time I never realized the connection that existed between my grandmother’s generations-deep Bohemian roots, my lifelong love of gingerbread, and my grandma’s disdain for the store-bought variety.
It would be decades later, while I was working on my Bohemian genealogy, I came across the fact that one of my ancestors, František Burda, from my ancestral village of Milevsko, Bohemia, was a pernikář, (gingerbread-maker), there. Not long after I made this discovery I happened to casually mention it to my mother. At first I will admit I thought she was far more excited than she needed to be about this tidbit, but thankfully her excitement opened my eyes to the fabulous history of gingerbread and its important ties to Bohemia.
While we know the ginger plant itself originated in Asia, the actual birthplace of gingerbread is long lost. However, there is a significant and centuries old linkage between gingerbread and our beloved Bohemia.
Known as peperník, or Perník for short, the names comes from the fact the original (and many still today) gingerbread recipes used black pepper in the dough. The dough is a special rye dough rather than yeast dough and always included honey and a variety of spices. When you place all the ingredients together to make gingerbread you actually have to let the dough ferment for a few days! That’s right. It actually ferments. Not only has gingerbread been known for its assistance with digestive troubles, but it also is practically non-perishable due to the spices used.
Author Cecilie Hálová-Jahodová in her hard-to-find 1955 book, Vanished Crafts, explains the gingerbread-makers had their own guild and were very highly regarded. Often times they received preferential housing away from the ‘ordinary bakers’ as well as other benefits.
The first recorded gingerbread-maker in Bohemia dates back to 1324 with the first written proof dating to 1335. The Gingerbread Guild started in 1415. By 1419 Prague had 18 gingerbread-makers and by the mid-1400s Bohemia was known as the center of gingerbread making. Cities, towns, and villages throughout Bohemia each had their own gingerbread shops, which sold nothing but gingerbread and often there were specific families who were the only gingerbread makers allowed. Now that is what I call some serious history!
According to Chef Max Hansen, gingerbread cookies were even one of the very earliest forms of social media. Gingerbread cookies would be made with wooden molds that announced births, weddings, feast days, and other holidays.
They also often doubled as holiday decorations. Many families with limited incomes would bake gingerbread cookies before the holidays such as Mothers’ Day, Easter, and Christmas. Then they would decorate them, and since they were so long lasting, would hang them on the Christmas tree, walls, and doors. Before you think this is just old school, let me point out that modern day Czech gingerbread masters from Vsetín baked special gingerbread decorations for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton and also for the birth of their son, Prince George.
I can only imagine if we were to use gingerbread cookies as decorations they wouldn’t last all that long in our house when our grandsons come for Christmas! But, hey, I think my wife and I will try it this year anyway!