Text and images excerpt from the catalog “Old crafts in Serbia”
Author: Vesna Marjanović P.h.D.
WHEN HONEY COOKIES ARE SACRIFICED
“The most expensive is what is not for sale.”
he art of gingerbread making is very old and dates back to the ancient times. It is believed that the cookies of this type had a significant role in ancient cults, particularly in offering sacrifices to particular deities. According to some scientists, licitar or leceder is the word of German origin – lebzelter – but it is derived from the Latin word libum meaning a sacrificial cake. Symbolism of honey in chthonic cults was very strong, because a special quality was attributed to honey in communication between the world of the living and the world of the dead, i.e. mundane and otherworldly realities. In the Serbian traditional culture, honey also enjoyed a special place in the cult of the dead, as well as during holidays that ritually connected the living and the dead.
Honey cookies were, however, mentioned in the broader context in the 12th century and their baking was linked with the monastic life, since monks were known for bee-keeping and extraction of honey, and beekeepers also often settled at the monastery estates. In addition, production of honey cookies was widespread at the time of some Christian holidays; cookies were given as gifts at the Christmas and New Year celebrations. As of the 17th century, Christmas tree, the forerunner of today’s New Year’s tree, was decorated in Central Europe, with honey cookies of different shapes.
Gingerbread-makers in the Balkan cultural milieu have always been engaged in wax craftsmanship. Therefore, it is customary to refer to wax craftsmanship along with gingerbread making. By all accounts, this craft, or crafts, come to the territories of Serbia from two directions – from south, with knowledge acquired from the Greek masters who taught about the wax craftsmanship, and from the north, from the Austrian and German craftsmen, who were skilled makers of honey cookies. Early records about development of the gingerbread making in today’s Serbia take us back to the 18th century. Gingerbread making was considered, along with wax craftsmanship, to be a very lucrative craft, which is why it was often referred to as the “golden craft“.
The first gingerbread makers appeared in economically developed centers, artisan and commercial urban districts.
Archival records indicate that, for example, gingerbread makers were mentioned as artisans in the area of present-day Vojvodina, in the town of Ruma in the 1760s and 1770s, while the first craftsman, Mihбly Schmidt came to Subotica in 1769, and, according to these sources, there were also three artisans in Zemun from 1784 to 1799. It is also recorded that in addition to master gingerbread makers, there were three journeymen in Novi Sad in 1793.
Zemun, Novi Sad, Subotica and Ruma, were developed commercial and trade centers in the 18th century, and known for processing wax and honey even in the 17th century, during the time of Turkish rule. Gingerbread craftsmanship was, therefore, a field for beeswax makers who were also successful at the processing of honey and making of honey cookies. Archival sources show that Serbian craftsmen were more engaged in the processing of wax and sale of candles, while Hungarian and German artisans were skillful gingerbread makers. Thus, for example, in the late 19th century, out of fourteen beeswax makers in Belgrade there were eight who also made excellent honey cookies. Therefore, gingerbread making is attributed to the influence of German colonists who initially developed this craft in parts of southern Hungary, and then it gradually spread south of the Sava and Danube rivers into other cities in Serbia. Thus, for example, gingerbread makers have been mentioned south of the Sava and Danube in the territory of Serbia since 1888, when there were forty nine of them.
Gingerbread cookies were originally baked in appropriate molds, which were made of hard wood, usually pear or apple, in different sizes and different figurations. Figures on the molds were made so to leave relief on the baked cookies. Differences in size and shape of figures were related to the purpose of gingerbread cookies. Wooden molds served to create the so-called yellow cookies, which were used in their original form until World War One. Yellow cookies, or honey cookies, were made from “nokson”, diluted and boiled honey, flour and eggs. A little white dough, made from a little sugar and flour, mixed with potash, was added to dough to make the cookie mealy, but while kneading, a little yellow flour called “kurkumel” was added. Records show that, for example, 1 kg of mead requires 1 ј kg of flour, 1 kilo of honey – 1 Ѕ kg of flour, and 1 kg of sugar – 3 ј kg flour. Water was added to honey and sugar as needed, but it was not added to mead. The dough was made in large quantities, and baked according to needs. The thus-prepared dough was then pressed firmly into a greased and floured mold. The baked cookies were decorated.
Those cookies, prepared for sale, were given as gifts to children or adults. Such gift had not only a quality of a symbol, but it represented the respect and affection of a bestower. The cookie was usually given as a sign of affection towards a person.
It was common for craftsmen of this kind not to have their own shops. In the late nineteenth and early 20th century in Serbia, young men carried gingerbread products placed on trays or in baskets in the streets of towns and villages. Gingerbread cookies were usually purchased at rural fairs, assemblies, on All Saints’ Day, and other mass gatherings.
Gingerbread cookies were given as gifts not only to the close, but to other people as well, especially during the winter holidays. The most common time to present honey cookies – gingerbread products -was usually a time of great festivities related to the church’s annual calendar.
Gingerbread cookies can be made with different representations and in various shapes. Most have a form of anthropomorphic or zoomorphic representations, and motives may include religious messages or be ergomorphic. Men were often given a cookie with a horseman, the so-called “hussar”, horse, pipe, pistol; women were given cookies in the shape of a woman, a doll, hens in the nest, while girls got a “swaddled newborn”; the elderly were given angels, crosses, figures of a saint and the like.
The most popular and best known shape until today is a gingerbread heart-shaped cookie, in different sizes, decorated with a mirror, which young men gave to girls as a sign of affection and love. A typical gingerbread Topola, 2008 cookie is in the shape depicting a male figure in a baroque outfit – with long hair, a narrow brimmed hat, dressed in a long coat with fur collar and braided in front, and striped pants. The figure was placed on the pedestal. The female figure is often dressed in a folk costume, wearing a high cap lined with a wide ribbon with a tassel hanging on the right-hand side of the face, with wavy hair often falling down the shoulders; a cross is hanging around the neck, the dress tailored to emphasize the waist and her waistcoat is adorned with braids, and she wears an apron.
The legs are disproportionate to the body, they are small and turned to the side, and placed on the pedestal. The figure of a swaddled newborn was also frequently presented on the honey cookies – it is cylinder-shaped, with a lace-decorated cap on the head, the top is covered with a striped cloth, while the swaddle is obliquely wrapped and ornamented, and the bottom has a large ornament, a ribbon tied into a bow. The figure of a horse is frequently made as a walking horse with one front leg slightly lifted. The pedestal on which it stands is decorated with floral motifs. The slipper was colored yellow with saffron and had a top sprinkled with crushed nuts.
Gingerbread makers often decorated their products with colored paper topped with various images. The paper was attached by dough made from sifted flour.
In Central and Southeastern Serbia, gingerbread makers were members of the grocers’ guild and celebrated the Ascension Day as their patron saint’s day until World War One.
These goods are now poorly represented; they lost their symbolic meaning long ago. In the past years, gingerbread goods were mostly sold in stalls at village fairs during holidays and were presented only to children.
Recently, tourists simply tend to grab these traditionally decorated, cheerful and colorful cookies, discovering in them the magic of bygone times, chastity and simple joys.