Eastern Europe’s longest river, the Danube, flows through a host of cities that wouldn’t look amiss on a chocolate box. The river was traditionally a vital trade route – its history has resulted in a miscellany of cultures, craft and heritage along its banks.
In our ‘Makers of the Danube’ series, we’ll be travelling along the river and speaking to some of the makers and doers who are keeping these dying arts alive. The first stop is Bratislava, the city that crowned Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria-Hungary and mother of Marie Antoinette. However, we’ll be looking at something a little less regal – the humble biscuit! This week, we’re talking to traditional Slovakian gingerbread maker, Zuzana.
Hi Zuzana – tell us about your craft…
I handmake traditional organic Slovak honey gingerbread cookies. They are unique to Slovakia, particularly in the way they are decorated and frosted. When I was younger, I was always making things and trying to create something beautiful and special – something that would make your heart skip a beat. I love the idea of making an edible present – a gift that you can either eat or keep. These treats allow you to indulge not just your taste, but your visual senses.
That sounds amazing! How far does the tradition go back?
Honey gingerbreads are a Christmas tradition in Slovakia. The history of these sweets goes back for hundreds of years, when people first had the idea to mix flour with honey from wild bees and bake it in earthen vessels. Gingerbread making as a craft is officially documented since the 14th century, as early as 1379 and 1434.
The first official honey gingerbread producers’ union, The Main Guild Treasury, was established in Bratislava in 1619, when it gained independence from Viennese union. These products have always been sold in street and farmers markets in towns around Slovakia. Sadly, the popularity of honey gingerbread slowly began to decline in the 19th century, when traditional confectionery became more popular.
How important are national crafts to Slovak culture?
I think that the Slovak people are naturally hard workers. Craft making is very time-consuming and requires a lot of skill, particularly with the intricate details. We’re a driven people, and we’re not afraid to work with our hands. As a nation, we are quite traditional, which sometimes stops innovation and growth, but this has meant that crafts are still popular and embedded in our culture.
What does a normal working day look like for you?
My days are very packed. I was let go from my previous employer after maternity leave and had to improvise and find a way to provide for the family. I decided to turn my hobby into small business. I had to pass confectionery exams and meet lots of hygiene requirements, so it was tough going.
My day starts by making breakfast for my two daughters before I go to my workshop, where I’ll stay for the rest of the day. Christmas is a really busy time for me, and I start preparing for it in October. To get into festive mood, I listen to Christmas carols in Autumn, which can feel a bit strange! [laughs] Sometimes I take my children to the workshop after school. I want them to appreciate the craft of making and understand the hard work that goes into the final product.
You sell your crafts at the Bratislava traditional farmer’s market overlooking the Danube. What’s it like to work there?
I love the farmer’s market! Everybody is so relaxed and friendly. It’s great because so much of it is about showing people the process and making them more involved with the product. I also run workshops in the markets, where children can decorate their own ginger bread. I love doing that because they can understand the skill behind it and can appreciate what they are buying into a bit more. I think that’s better than going into a shop and buying a chocolate bar.
Why do you think there is such an abundance of crafts along the river?
The Danube definitely played a vital role in the sheer amount of craftsmanship in Bratislava, because the water enabled makers to transport their craft further afield. Bratislava’s proximity to Vienna and Budapest also helped craft foods and drinks to spread easily across central and eastern Europe. It made wholesome foods part of the economy. That’s what I am trying to bring to Bratislava – a genuine, hand-crafted product made with love.
What do you love the most about working in Bratislava?
I’ve had a lot of opportunities here. Sometimes, I’ll meet an interesting person in the market and then they refer me to their friends abroad, who then will place an order online. Its already helped me ship to Thailand, California, Ireland and Austria. It’s good to know that through word of mouth, the craft of honey gingerbread making is spreading. I’m always hoping to find that angel investor, who appreciates the hard work behind what I do and would be able to help me expand my business.
What are your tips for people travelling to Bratislava?
Definitely visit the landmarks, like Bratislava Castle and St. Martin’s Cathedral. Obviously take a look at the markets as well. The Central Market is worth a look, as well as the Good Market and the fresh food Farmer’s Markets. Every autumn and spring, there are also harvest markets all around Bratislava in various neighbourhoods, and there’s also the Christmas Market too.
Thanks very much, Zuzana!
This is just part one of our series, so do come back next week when we’ll be interviewing the CEO and head grape picker of Zahel wines in Vienna. If you’re interested in visiting the beautiful Bratislava, take a look at our Tale of Three Cities river cruise.