July 01, 2021

More than a Cookie

More than a Cookie
Alexei Kalyagin, pryanik entrepreneur

Russians typically associate “pryaniki” – traditional Russian spice cookies – with Tula. But that is hardly the only city known for this confection. Residents of Gorodets, in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, have been baking them for about 300 years.

The ancestors of Russian pryaniki are believed to have been rye lepyoshki (flat, round pastries) made with honey. Later, in the thirteenth-fifteenth centuries, kovrizhki began appearing on people’s tables – more or less the same honey pastry, but with designs on the top for a festive look.  In time, more spices were added – cloves, nutmeg, anise, ground pepper, ginger – and kovrizhki transformed into pryaniki. Spices were expensive, though, and it was not until the eighteenth century that pryaniki ceased to be solely a delicacy for the wealthy and became affordable for families of shopkeepers and clerks. Various cities started baking their own version of the treat. 

It’s hard to tell when exactly the craft of pryanik-making arrived in Gorodets. Judging from surviving documents, it was probably in the seventeenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century, the town claimed some 15 shops engaged in making pryaniki. Production was generally a family business, but these shops still had to take on employees. To prevent the recipe from being stolen, employees were strictly prohibited from bringing precise means of measuring weight into work. Ingredients were weighed against stones, horseshoes, and various objects kept by the shop. Thus, in recipes of the time, one comes across phrases along the lines of “three white stones of flour, two horseshoes of molasses, one black stone of honey,” and so on. Every pryanik-maker had its own system, and no one shared their unique recipe.

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