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Torun gingerbread: the ancient luxury with a secret recipe

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Two master bakers dressed in white use a long knife to carve a heavy, thick slab of molasses-coloured gingerbread dough out of a huge metal vat, where, like wine, it has been maturing for a few months, deep in the cellar of one of the world’s oldest bakeries.

The bakers at the Kopernik Confectionery Factory in Poland’s historic central city of Torun taste the matured dough, checking whether each vat is ready for baking.

The factory has used a jealously-guarded secret mix of spices since it opened in 1763 and has been serving up its popular brand of gingerbread non-stop ever since, with the exception of a few years’ hiatus during World War II.

Only six of the factory’s bakers know the exact proportion and types of spices that are used, according to spokesman Jakub Kopczynski.

“Cloves preserve the dough, which of course also includes flour and sugar, allowing it to develop its unique flavour as it ages,” he tells AFP.

Cinnamon, ginger and pepper are also in the spice mix, he adds, though he politely refuses to divulge further details.

“Like fine wine, good gingerbread must be aged and like wine making, the process requires a lot of know-how,” he adds.

Around him are a hundred or so vats lined up in neat rows across the factory’s bottom floor, each of them weighing around 700 kilogrammes (1,500 pounds).

Vegan, kosher, non-GMO

The bold, inviting aroma of gingerbread spice wafts through the sprawling factory on the edge of Torun.

The secret recipe draws on the city’s gingerbread tradition harking back to the Middle Ages when spices from India and the Middle East first began to arrive in Torun, later a major crossroads for Hanseatic trading routes.

Its origins may be ancient, but Torun gingerbread is also as trendy as it gets: the factory has acquired certification attesting that its products are vegan, kosher, non-GMO and that they do not contain palm oil.

“It’s always been our traditional standard; now we have formal recognition,” Kopczynski adds, having moved to another part of the factory, where a conveyor belt feeds gingerbread hearts into a 36-metre-long (119-feet) oven to bake for seven minutes.

The historic factory is a joint-stock company owned by current and former employees, who have shunned offers from foreign investors in order to prevent them from acquiring their prized recipe.

Named after Nicolaus Copernicus, the Torun-born father of modern astronomy who is known as Mikolaj Kopernik in Polish, the factory produced 3,500 tonnes of gingerbread this year, sold in Poland and across the globe.

Luxury item

Polish high school student Jagoda presses a ball of gingerbread dough into a hand-carved wooden cookie mould in the shape of a horseshoe inscribed “szczescie,” or Polish for “luck.”

She has come with her class from the nearby city of Bydgoszcz for a hands-on baking lesson at the state museum of Torun gingerbread, nestled in the original red-brick Kopernik factory near the city’s historic central square.

“My family has a tradition of making decorated gingerbread cookies to give away as Christmas presents,” the 17-year-old tells AFP, holding a heart-shaped cookie impressed with a flower motif in the palm of her hand.

Shaped as knights, angels, princesses or horse-drawn carriages, large gingerbread cookies and cakes, pressed from intricately carved wooden moulds, were long among the most exclusive of gifts during the pre-industrial era up until the late 1700s.

“Because the imported spices were so expensive, gingerbread was a luxury item which only the elite could afford,” explains museum director Malgorzata Mikulska-Wernerowicz, adding that gingerbread bakers were also wealthy and stood high on the social ladder.

“Kings visiting Torun received gingerbread from the city council,” she says, standing next to a display with gingerbread moulds carved in applewood and pearwood dating from the 1600 and 1700s.

‘Pepper-bread’

Invited by a local prince, knights of the Teutonic Order came from the Holy Land to found Torun, known in German as Thorn, in 1233.

The knights are believed to have brought the first spices from the Middle East, triggering demand and with it, a lucrative spice trade that helped Torun become one of Europe’s wealthiest cities during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Gingerbread is still big business in Torun, with dozens of bakeries, shops and even a private interactive museum capitalising on the tradition in the city of just over 200,000 residents.

Unlike the thin, crisp gingerbread snaps popular in Sweden or Britain, Torun gingerbread is chewy and meaty.

Traditionally based on honey, spirits, wheat and rye flour mixed with spices, records show that the Torun variety was already being made by local German bakers in the mid-1500s and drew its name from pepper — Pfefferkuchen — rather than ginger.

The modern-day Polish term for gingerbread — “pierniki” — also refers to pepper.

Legend has it that Copernicus himself enjoyed munching on the treat.

“He came from a family of wealthy merchants so there’s no reason why he wouldn’t have indulged in gingerbread,” says Mikulska-Wernerowicz, with a twinkle in her eye.

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LIFESTYLES

University of Windsor establishes first Canadian transportation cybersecurity centre

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The University of Windsor will be the site of Canada’s first organization dedicated to countering threats to the connected transportation marketplace.

The SHIELD Automotive Cybersecurity Centre of Excellence will focus on developing the skills, innovations and policy to secure connected and autonomous vehicles.

Researchers will partner with industry, government and community stakeholders.

Co-founding and heading up the centre will be Dr. Mitra Mirhassani of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Dr. Ikjot Saini of the School of Computer Science.

In the past year, the two University of Windsor professors were both recognized as being among Canada’s top talents in the automotive cybersecurity field.

“Hardware and software vulnerabilities could put personal information and vehicle safety in jeopardy,” said Mirhassani.

“Transportation systems are especially susceptible to attacks from malicious actors due to the complexity, implementation costs and lifecycles of equipment and platforms.”

The SHIELD centre is a continuation of the Windsor region’s focus on developing its cybersecurity ecosystem.

The province has already designated the area as the regional tech development centre for cybersecurity and border logistics.

The cybersecurity centre got a further boost this week with the announcement of a memorandum of understanding with the Automotive Parts Manufacturing Association (APMA).

APMA and SHIELD will collaborate to develop market-based technologies to meet the needs of producers and consumers and build academic programs to address industry’s evolving requirements.

“We hope that this partnership will help to advance a cybersecurity culture shift in the industry in Canada,” said APMA president Flavio Volpe.

“There is much work to be done to protect our collective interest in advancing this country’s globally competitive automotive sector.”

The centre will also promote the sharing of knowledge among parties to advance standards and enhance policies in the field.

Part of the plan is to offer micro credentialing through the university’s Continuing Education programs.

“We plan to offer consultation and test services to small- and medium-sized Canadian companies that will help them stay up to date,” said Dr. Saini.

“Open-access publications and public webinars will widely share the latest information.”

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LIFESTYLES

Hamilton police charge ‘Hugs Over Masks’ protest organizers in two separate events

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TORONTO — Hamilton, Ont., police say they have charged two organizers of an anti-mask protest group for holding events that allegedly violated public health rules.

Police say the events were held in downtown Hamilton on Jan. 3 and Jan. 10.

The force alleges that 40 people attended first event and 60 attended the second.

Current provincial restrictions limit gatherings to a maximum of 10 people outdoors.

Police say they informed the “Hugs Over Masks” organizers that the planned Jan. 10 gathering would result in charges, but they went ahead with the event.

They say a 27-year-old man and 38-year-old woman are facing charges under the Reopening Ontario Act that carry a minimum fine of $10,000 if convicted.

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Ontario issues stay-at-home order to start Thursday as Ford declares state of emergency

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Premier Doug Ford is declaring another state of emergency, effective immediately, in response to surging COVID-19 infection rates.

In a news conference on Tuesday, Ford announced Ontario is issuing a stay-at-home order, effective 12:01 a.m. Thursday.

It requires people to stay home except for essential activities such as accessing health care or shopping for groceries.

The new measures also include restricting the hours of operation for non-essential retail stores such as hardware stores to between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Addressing big box stores, which are allowed to remain open, Ford said an inspection blitz is coming to ensure they are following proper protocols.

“I’m going to come down on them like an 800-pound gorilla,” he said.

Schools in Hamilton, Toronto, York, Peel and Windsor-Essex will not return to in-person learning until Feb. 10.

Other public health regions, including Halton and Niagara, will find out when students can return to class by Jan. 20.

Schools will now require students in grades 1-3 to wear masks and masks will be required outside where physical distancing can’t be maintained.

Child-care centres for non-school aged children will remain open.

The premier announced the restrictions shortly after the province released new projections that show the virus is on track to overwhelm Ontario’s health-care system.

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