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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

Ottawa families give mixed reviews for online schooling

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So, how’s it going with online school? Families reached by CBC Ottawa seem to have mixed reviews. 

Masuma Khan is a mother of two. Her seven-year-old, Hana Wyndham in Grade 2, is attending French immersion virtual school. Masuma is grateful it’s an option, but can’t help notice a lot of down time.

“There’s a lot of, ‘are you on mute?’ In terms of the amount of learning that’s actually happening, it does seem to be not that high,” said Masuma.

Parents who kept their children at home this fall are in the minority, but they still form a significant chunk of families in Ottawa.

In the city’s largest school board, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), about 27 per cent of elementary students and 22 per cent of high school students chose online learning. The Ottawa Catholic School Board says roughly a quarter of its students are online.

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LIFESTYLES

Top environment official urges Canadians to back Ottawa’s ambitious plans to tackle plastic trash

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The second in command at the federal Environment Ministry challenged Canadians to continue to speak up about the problem of plastic pollution and push elected officials, scientists and businesses to do more.

Quebec MP Peter Schiefke, parliamentary secretary to the minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada, made the comments online at Vancouver’s annual zero waste conference on Friday.

He said most Canadians want solutions to curb the tens of thousands of tonnes of plastic garbage that ends up as litter each year on the country’s beaches, parks, lakes and in the stomachs of animals. 

“Making sure that message is heard with industry stakeholders, elected officials and make sure that they are constantly putting pressure on it … so we notice that this is something that Canadians want, the backing of Canadians to go and undertake these huge challenges,” he said.

Schiefke filled in for  Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson at the last minute after Wilkinson was called away to meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

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OC Transpo’s monthly bus pass one of the most expensive fares in Canada

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OTTAWA — OC Transpo’s monthly bus pass is one of the most expensive passes in Canada, and transit riders are facing another 2.5 per cent hike in transit fares on New Year’s Day.

Ahead of Wednesday’s Transit Commission meeting on the 2021 budget, CTV News Ottawa looked at the cost of a monthly adult bus pass at transit services across Canada. Ottawa ranks behind the TTC in Toronto, Mississauga’s “MiWay”, Brampton Transit and Vancouver “TransLink” Zone 2 access to the suburbs for most expensive transit fares in Canada.

The cost of an OC Transpo adult monthly bus pass is currently $119.50 a month.

The 2021 City of Ottawa budget includes a proposed 2.5 per cent hike in transit fares. If approved, an adult monthly transit pass will increase $3 to $122.50, while a youth pass will increase $2.25 to $94.50 a month.  The cost of an adult single-ride cash fare would rise a nickel to $3.65.

The TTC is the most expensive transit service in Canada, charging $156 a month for an adult fare. MiWay charges $135 a month, and the cost of an adult monthly pass with Brampton Transit is $128.

Metro Vancouver’s transportation network “TransLink” has three fare zones. The monthly bus pass cost for “Zone 1”, which covers Vancouver, is $97 for adults. The “Zone 2” fare, which covers Vancouver and the suburbs of Richmond and Burnaby, is $131 a month.

Edmonton Transit Service, which includes a Light Rail System with 18 stations on two different lines, charges $97 a month for an adult monthly bus pass.

An adult monthly bus pass in Calgary costs $109 a month.

The survey by CTV News Ottawa of transit fares across Canada shows Gatineau has higher transit fares than Montreal and Quebec City. The STO charges $99 a month.

A monthly adult bus pass costs $88.50 in Montreal and $89.50 in Quebec City.

The cheapest adult monthly bus fare is in Charlottetown, at $58.50 a month. A monthly bus pass in Whitehorse costs $62 a month.

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