“Lebkuchen” gets translated from German as “gingerbread,” but that’s not quite right. The word “gingerbread” sets expectations for it being the kind of stuff you’d build a house out of, though that variety does get used in edible architecture.
There are also those ubiquitous gingerbread hearts, decorated in icing sugar with your sweetheart’s name and a swooping script that says “Ich liebe dich” — I love you — or maybe just “Greetings from this twee Germanic town.”
The stuff used to deliver messages or act as culinary sheetrock is all fine and well. But more interesting is a cakey sort of cookie packed with honey and spices and baked on top of what’s essentially a communion wafer — in much earlier days, baking gingerbread was the provenance of nuns and they found that a communion wafer kept the cookies from sticking to the pan.
This style of “lebkuchen” is translated more literally as “honey cake.” A similar batter is baked into little brick shapes, layered with jam, iced with chocolate, and topped with candied fruit. That configuration comes layered with nougat, too — ground nuts and chocolate and butter in an icing-like paste — or it might be layered with marzipan. The round cookie is a more traditional, it’s typically got an icing sugar glaze, though they do come coated in chocolate with colored sprinkles on top. They may or may not have raisins in them, but they’re always very sweet.
Bad Aussee is a pretty riverside town, very traditional, surrounded by glacier capped mountains. On the main highway, there’s a barn of a place with a giant sign that says “Ausseer Lebzelterei.” (Aussee is the region, and a lebzelterei is a gingerbread factory.) This place makes gingerbread right on site. Some days, you can look through he picture window just inside the front door and see bakers hard at work.
This particular gingerbread factory was founded in 1892 by the Hungarian trained pastry chef Gustav Lewandovsky. Lewandovsky stocked the baked goods at the spa in town. Victorian and Edwardian era European spa culture must have been considerably more indulgent than the yoga and juice fast situations those seeking revitalization put themselves through today.
The salon that still bears Lewandowsky’s name is lovely but it’s more fun to see the old gingerbread molds and vintage packaging on display at the roadside stop. It’s also cool to see the machinery that was used as mass production methods came into place, the giant enamel mixers, the stacked baking ovens, and to have so many kinds of gingerbread to choose from.
It’s a roadside attraction kind of place, but the snacks are thousands of times better than anything you’d get at the World’s Largest Frying Pan or The Second Biggest Head of Abraham Lincoln. The only downside is that you may eat all of your souvenirs before you get them back home.
Top image: Bad Aussee Townscape 6/52 by Johannes Ornter via Flickr (Creative Commons)