Tradition is important. It is important to keep it alive, in order to honour those who came before us and preserve some of their values. However, sometimes it is important to keep tradition alive simply because it is so incredibly tasty! The Toruń gingerbread, a gingerbread named after the city of Toruń, the place of its origin, is a traditional Polish biscuit with a history stretching back to the Middle Ages. Today, we will be doing our part in preserving this piece of history, as we will be taking a look at how the gingerbread came to be. Did you know that the biscuit also has its own museum? Well it does! In case you ever wish to visit Poland, we recommend putting the museum on your “to see” list. We will be giving you a short description of the place, so that you can decide for yourself if it is something that you would like to check out. All throughout the article, you will also be met with an assortment of interesting facts, all connected to the Toruń gingerbread. Without further ado, let us begin with a quick overview of the biscuit’s history and a look at the city itself.
If you are ever visiting Poland, Toruń is definitely a time-worthy place to visit, as it is rich in architectural styles and monuments, with an even richer baking tradition. The city, according to the last population census, has a population of around two hundred thousand people. This makes Toruń a great place to visit for those seeking a perfect mix between an active and a quiet vacation. It has been the seat of the Kuyavian-Pomeranian Voivodeship self-government ever since 1999. On two previous occasions (from 1921 to 1945 and from 1975 to 1998) it had been the capital of the Pomeranian and Toruń voivodeships, respectively. Since it is the seat of the Kuyavian-Pomeranian self-government, the city is also one of the two voivodeship’s capitals, along with Bydgoszcz. The city has always had an important historical and economical value to the people of Poland.
Toruń counts amongst one of the nation’s oldest cities. The first iteration of the city of Toruń was in the eighth century, when the first settlement was built by the Slavic tribes. This settlement was reinforced and expanded four centuries later, under the order of the Teutonic knights. The city of today is regarded as a place of high living standards, and this has been true for most of its history. In the period from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, the city was part of the Hanseatic league. Being a member of the league carried with itself a large number of benefits, and because of this, the city became one of the most elite trading posts in Eastern Europe. This led to the proliferation of Gothic and Baroque architecture, which is the reason why the Old Town of Toruń is considered a UNESCO world heritage site. During World War II, the city was, fortunately, spared from bombing, so the Old Town core was left intact. The city is also listed as one of the seven wonders of Poland, and it is also the birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus.
The very first mention of Toruń gingerbread hails from the fourteenth century, 1380 to be exact. The old Polish sayings mention a local baker by the name of Niclos Czana, but the tradition of gingerbread baking dates back much earlier than that. The true expansion of the gingerbread production started in the thirteenth century.
As was previously mentioned, the city of Toruń used to be a part of the Hanseatic league and was therefore one of the major points of trade in Poland. This enabled the city of Toruń to receive shipments of spices imported from the Orient, which was transported by the league itself into Poland through the northern territories. Besides that, the city of Toruń also had a preferable location in terms of agriculture. The town was built on rich soil; therefore, the city was pretty-much self-sufficient. The population of the town harvested its own crops and produced its own flour, while the nearby villages supplied the town with honey. Honey was a highly sought-out ingredient in the Middle Ages, as it was considered to have certain healing and nurturing effects.
The great location enjoyed by the city of Toruń, with its trading posts and a large supply of wheat and honey, enabled it to create a tradition of baking gingerbread that could rival that of the city of Nuremberg. As we know, the city of Nuremberg in Germany is also famous for its tradition of baking delicious and healthy gingerbread biscuits. In fact, the city of Nuremberg and the city of Toruń made an agreement in the year 1556 that each could bake their competitors’ specialties. This was a great step in the relationships between the two cities, but before that, each sought to protect their baking secrets, since they were such great rivals.
But back to Toruń gingerbread… As was already said, the first mention of the gingerbread itself comes from the year 1380, back in the fourteenth century. It mentions a certain baker by the name of Niclos Czana who produced the famous gingerbread. The product soon gained much fame, not just in Poland, but in neighbouring countries and other parts of Europe as well. The professional bakers of Toruń were not the only inhabitants of the city to produce gingerbread, however. Just like the friars in Nuremberg started the tradition of Lebkuchen baking and later produced their own gingerbread, the Cistercian order, whose monastery was on the outskirts of the town, also produced its own gingerbread.
A couple of centuries later, the famous workshop of the Grauer family would appear. Recognizing the potential and lucrativeness of the gingerbread production and trade, the town’s authorities gave the city’s gingerbread producers tax reliefs, all so the trade could be increased, and the town could get even more profit.
The town, and in turn, the production of gingerbread, would experience a decline during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the year 1825, there were only three bakers left in town, and with the advent of capitalism, all of these businesses would be rolled-up by rich investors. This led to the industrialization of the gingerbread production.
With the industrialization of the gingerbread business, the biscuits could be mass produced. One of the largest factories of the eighteenth century in Toruń was owned by a man named Gustav Weese. He inherited a bakery from his father Andreas in the year 1824 and turned it into a large business. Although the baking process was industrialised, it was still based on the baking traditions of Johann Weese back from 1763. Another successful company was the Toruń Gazette, which had international fame. Their exports included such exotic places as Africa, Japan, Honolulu, Turkey and China. In the year 1913, the descendant of Gustav Weese, Gustav, built a factory that operates even today. He sold it to a Polish company called Społem. The company still exists and is one of the oldest confectionaries in Poland.
The Toruń gingerbread is probably one of the most famous and important dishes of Poland’s national cuisine. Proof to this is the large number of baking moulds which carry the likenesses of such important dignitaries such as Sigismund the Third of Poland and many others. The reason why there are baking moulds in the shape of these historical figures is because the authorities of Toruń would commission the town’s producers to bake some gingerbread, in order to gift it to the visitors of high renown. Amongst these are Polish kings, leaders, artists and anyone else who distinguished themselves in the service of the country. Some notable individuals who had baking moulds shaped in their own likeness were king Sigismund the Third of Poland, king Vładysław the Fourth Vasa, queen Cecilia Renata, Napoléon Bonaparte, Jan Matejko, Józef Piłsudski, Czesław Miłosz, pope John Paul the Second, Marie Casimire Louise, Zygmunt Krasiński, Helena Modjska, Artur Rubinstein and others. Along with these, there were also the baking moulds of the royal seal with the Polish eagle and crests of other provinces.
Since the inception of the Toruń gingerbread tradition, the town has become synonymous with the gingerbread, and many tales and legends have been associated with it. If you wish to find out what gingerbread actually is and what it is made of, you should check-out the linked article about Nuremberg’s Lebkuchen. Basically, the reason why these biscuits are called gingerbread is because they use a number of different exotic spices which aid digestion. The other main ingredient of gingerbread is honey, which further aids digestion and adds other health benefits to the mix. That is why gingerbread cookies are extremely popular during holiday seasons, as they help to keep you from feeling bloated after a large holiday feast.
This connection with honey, naturally, spawned a legend about the origin of the very gingerbread. According to this legend, the gingerbread was a gift from the so-called “Queen of Bees” to an apprentice called Bogumił. There are numerous legends surrounding the town’s beloved gingerbread, and it is also a large part of Polish literature. For example, the seventeenth century poet Fryderyk Hoffman wrote about the best four things in Poland. These are: “The vodka of Gdańsk, Toruń gingerbread, the ladies of Kraków, and the Warsaw shoes.” Poland is still recognizable for its vodka and gingerbread biscuits today, so it nice to see that some things never change.
Other famous artists who wrote about the Toruń gingerbread include Ignacy Krasicky, who wrote about the biscuits in his poems, and surprisingly, Frédéric Chopin. The famous composer visited the village of Szafarnia near the river Drwęca when he was fifteen years old. During his stay in the village, he visited (you guessed it) the nearby town of Toruń. He practically fell in love with the spicy gingerbread biscuits, as evidenced by the letters he wrote to his friends, telling them of the delightful biscuits of Toruń. To commemorate this occasion, the largest producer of gingerbread biscuits today called the Kopernik Confectionary Company, created the special gingerbread called Scherzo, in the shape of a heart with Chopin’s likeness on the wrapper!
If you love biscuits, and were intrigued by the information you read in this article, why not visit the famous museum dedicated to the town’s famous gingerbread?
The museum was opened on 20 June 2015, in Toruń Old Town, in 4 Strumykowa street. This location was not chosen randomly, as this was the location of the factory opened up by the one and only Gustav Weese. The modern confectionary factory Kopernik is also located here.
The museum opened exactly one hundred and thirty years after the opening of the Weese factory which would later become the Kopernik. The gingerbread is an integral part of the city’s history, and as such, it deserves its own place of commemoration, especially when you consider the fact that the gingerbread is still eaten and beloved by many today, almost a millennium afterwards!
The museum is divided into three sections. The first is the basement, where visitors are greeted by a virtual stallholder who gives an introductory presentation about medieval Toruń. The many baking moulds we have mentioned can be found here, in well-preserved conditions. There is also interactive multimedia for those wishing to learn the baking process behind the gingerbread biscuits.
The ground floor is decorated as a kind of a factory workplace. This was done intentionally, as visitors can bake their own Toruń gingerbread here, and get a taste of how it feels to produce these sweets in such working conditions.
Finally, we have the first floor, which displays the gingerbread in a number of everyday situations. There is a thematic café here, and virtual games where people can become stallholders or factory owners. The numerous types of gingerbread and their packaging are on display here as well. Also, the movie presentation about the origin of the most famous type of Toruń gingerbread, the “Katarzynka”, can be viewed here.
As we can see, the Toruń gingerbread is a very famous and loved type of biscuit. It has a long and rich history filled with interesting facts, tales and legends. Not only that, but it is also one of the national symbols of Poland. It was always given as a gift to dignitaries and was the focal point of the works of many artists and poets. The Toruń gingerbread is truly a superstar among biscuits, with a rich taste and renowned tradition. We hope you enjoyed the article. If you ever visit Poland, be sure to stop by the Museum of Gingerbread and enjoy some of these treats!