You can’t talk about Croatia without mentioning their iconic gingerbread hearts — although to be clear, there’s no ginger in them. Even though they're technically edible, they’re rock-solid, and you’ll likely break a tooth if you are ever temped to bite into one.
Licitars, as the hearts are officially known, were inscribed on UNESCO’s representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity in 2010 as "gingerbread craft from Northern Croatia."
The history of licitars dates back to the sixteenth century, when they first appeared in certain Central European monasteries before finding their way to Croatia, where the craft of making them became highly regarded. Most of the craftsmen and -women who produce them today are situated in the region of Hrvatsko Zagorje, in the pilgrim town of Marija Bistrica, northeast of Zagreb. Many of them also produce honey cakes, the honey wine called gvirc, and beeswax candles.
We sat down not long ago with Djuro Brlečić, a 75-year-old gingerbread maker, who showed me around his workshop and his little museum of historical artifacts. Brlečić has been making gingerbread since the 1970s. The process of making them is pretty simple, and everyone does it the same way.
"First, you make the dough [of flour, sugar, water, baking soda, and spices]," Brlečić says. "Roll it, and you cut each one by hand. When they are baked, we let them cool, and after that dunk them in colour. When they are dried, each one is hand decorated by traditional motifs of lines and flowers." Some artisans add pictures, names of towns, verses from poems, and, frequently, mirrors.
Brlečić mostly works alone, making as many as 500 hearts a day. Though red hearts are traditional, he also makes gingerbread in the shapes of horses, babies, horseshoes, and decorations for Easter and Christmas. "They are edible," he says, "but because they have mirrors on them, they are not classified food, but as decoration." The difference between these licitars and the humbler honey cakes these artisans also make is the level of make-up applied. Licitars are dredged in rouge, while honey cakes are unadorned but for a light dusting of sugar frosting.
People buy licitars as souvenirs, gifts, symbols of love (including for Valentine's Day and weddings, the latter bearing the names and wedding dates of the newlyweds), and Christmas ornaments. Artisans are typically invited to display and talk about their work at cultural events and religious festivities, such as those surrounding St. Margaret’s Day, Nov. 16.
Another artist, Franjo Habazin, owns the gingerbread shop in the picturesque blue house in the center of Marija Bistrica with his wife, Gordana, and his son, Denis. Habazin has been working in the shop for more than a decade, but his wife's family has sold its creations there since the beginning of twentieth century.
"People usually buy one or two small hearts and some honey cakes," he says, "and, of course, gvirc. Some of them drink gvirc right in the spot, some buy a bottle — simple or decorative —for themselves or as a gift. Gvirc is very popular, we make it ourselves and bottle it. It is lot of work because we have to do everything the old-fashioned way, but we love it." Habazin tells me that tourists from abroad are especially keen to learn more about both licitars and gvirc.
"We love our job," Habazin adds. "It is part of who we are. We are very proud that this little heart is something people recognize as symbol of Croatia."