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Discover Budapest’s Gingerbread City

David Holzerʼs New Year resolutions see him cultivating an interest in that festive speciality, mézeskalács, or gingerbread.

My New Year’s resolution is to really take advantage of Budapest’s rich cultural scene this year, so I’ve been checking out current and up-and-coming exhibitions.
I’ll definitely be visiting “Within Frames – The Art of the Sixties in Hungary (1956-68)” at the Hungarian National Gallery. This is the first exhibition to offer a comprehensive picture of Hungarian art in that period, bookended by the defeat of the Hungarian Revolution and the Prague Spring.
In Hungary at this time, cultural works were classified according to the “Three T’s” of Tiltott, Tűrt, and Támogatott (for “Forbidden”, “Tolerated” and “Supported”). The exhibition shows how, despite these restrictions and a general feeling of disillusionment, artists in the period continued to experiment and find new ways to express themselves.
But, before I educate myself at this no doubt fascinating exhibition, I’ll be skipping off to visit the Gingerbread City at the Bálna Shopping Mall and Cultural Center, which has free entry and runs until January 27. And, who knows, I may well erect my own gingerbread building.

Rise of the Gingerbread City

I had no idea gingerbread cities existed, but it turns out that they’re quite the phenomenon. Pepperkakebyen, which currently claims to be the largest, is in Bergen, Norway, and has been under construction since 1991. Apparently, it contains everything from “international signature buildings” to local landmarks as well as gingerbread people.
I’m not sure when Hungary’s first gingerbread city was constructed. But, given the country’s centuries-old association with gingerbread, it’s not surprising that Budapest now has its own.
If you’ve ever visited a Hungarian souvenir shop or food fair, you’ll have seen mézeskalács. Often made at Christmas, these beautifully decorated cookies, often heart-shaped, are traditionally decorated with classical Hungarian designs, and are often arranged around a small square of mirror, which is meant to represent true feelings and a pure spirit.

A Brief History of Gingerbread

The custom of making spicy bread is believed to have been introduced to Europe at the end of the 11th century by crusaders coming back from the Middle East. As well as being delicious, ginger helped preserve the bread.
By the 13th century, gingerbread was being shaped into different forms and the custom spread across Europe. In the 1600s, Nuremberg became known as the “Gingerbread Capital of the World” when its master bakers began to create intricate designs on carved boards. The first documented appearance of gingerbread people comes in the 16th century when Elizabeth I of England had them made in the likeness of some important visitors.
Given Elizabeth’s ruthless reputation, I wonder how the dignitaries felt about being offered miniature gingerbread versions of themselves to eat. I can picture Elizabeth’s beady eyes as she picked out a gingerbread man that resembled a particularly troublesome diplomat and offered it to the man himself.
(Incidentally, because of her love of sugar, which had only just arrived in Britain from the Colonies, Elizabeth had terrible teeth. Many had fallen out, making her speech hard to understand, and the rest were blackened and rotting. She later had all her teeth removed and only ever appeared in public with her mouth padded with cotton. Let that be a lesson to you, kids.)
By the 17th century, gingerbread baking had become a recognized profession. Apart from at Christmas and Easter, only authorized bakers were allowed to bake it. Gingerbread was also sold outside churches on Sundays. At the same time, making gingerbread became a popular art form across Europe, with gingerbread molds depicting actual events.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of gingerbread’s significance was the fact that it was often worn as protection in battle and to ward off evil spirits.

Gingerbread houses

I don’t know about you, but when I think of gingerbread I immediately think of “Hansel and Gretel”, the wonderfully nasty fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. But it’s debatable whether gingerbread houses actually existed before the fairy tale was written and published in 1812.
In the original version of the story, the house is described as having bread walls and a roof of cake but no more. Despite this, after the book was published, German bakers began making gingerbread houses called Lebkuchenhaus or Pfefferkuchenhaus which became popular at Christmas.
Since then, gingerbread buildings have grown more and more ambitious. Ever since the Nixon administration in the early 1970s, an enormous gingerbread house has appeared in the White House every year at Christmas. These began as standard German-style houses but, in recent years, have evolved into highly detailed creations, including a gingerbread White House covered in white chocolate.
The Guinness World Record for a gingerbread house was set in 2013 when a group in Bryan, Texas made a 2,520-square foot house in aid of a hospital trauma center. Its estimated calorific value was thought to be more than 35.8 million, with 7,200 eggs used to make it.
Until I make it to Gingerbread City, I can’t vouch for how impressive it may or may not be. But visiting the exhibition, especially if you have children, is also a great reason to visit the Bálna itself.
Opened in 2013, the Bálna is a futuristic-looking glass and metal structure in the shape of a whale (bálna is Hungarian for whale), designed by Kas Oosterhuis, and wrapped around a historic building. Apart from the Budapest Gallery, the Bálna houses bars, including the Jónás Craft Beer House which brews Hungarian beers and also offers exceedingly good coffee. There are also shops selling Hungarian delicacies and organic food. The development of the building is a somewhat chequered story. With the contracts disputed, it was eventually taken over by city hall. After running the venue for several years, the city council voted to put the Bálna up for sale in September. It was announced in December that the government will buy the building.
After you’ve explored the Bálna, the walk down the river back towards the center of Budapest offers one of the most atmospheric waterfront cityscapes anywhere in the world.

Find out more about “Within Frames” at www.mng.hu and the Bálna at www.balnabudapest.hu.