Fall in Russia is much the same as the autumn seasons in the USA and most of Europe. The foliage turns golden, the weather crisp, with pumpkins, Turkeys, apples and gingerbread taking their turn at family tables. In the States, we have the seasonal markers of Halloween and Thanksgiving, which tend to define this time of the year with seasonal tastes and colors celebrating the turning of leaves and change.
Decorated gingerbread is not a newly imported autumnal fad in Russia. For centuries, various types of gingerbread sweets (Kozuli) were prepared for the holidays, given as presents, and even used as decoration. Arkhangelsk Pomors it seems baked the first known kozuli. These were prepared with ritual care, and often had the form of goats (koza), which explains the name of the cookie.
These cookies were historically a treat, because they were prepared usually for the yuletide solstice and Christmas time. Originally, these were three-dimensional small figurines or toys. Century’s later kozuli acquired the modern look of iced gingerbread and became flat. Every family had molds or cookie cutters for making these cookies. These cookie forms were often passed on from generation to generation.
Originally, gingerbread cookies were a symbol of fertility, happiness, prosperity, or promised good hunting and fishing. That is why the gingerbread cookies were made to resemble domestic animals: goats, cows, horses. Kozuli either were eaten fast, or were saved for a very long time (a dentists dream come true), and men sometimes took them to the sea as amulets for good fortune.Enough with the folk history. Only recently, I wrote about small business in Russia, and the organization OPORA that supports and lobbies for SME’s throughout the country. Even Vladimir Putin has made small business a prioritized national project. That being said, there are many small businesses, which simply appear and thrive on their own vision, without anyone’s support or advice. What has this to do with Russian gingerbread cookies? Everything!
As it happens, things tend to occur in groups, and the concept of small business seems to be no exception. While out shopping at my local mall on Nagatinskaya Street, I literally stumbled onto the small newly opened display/workshop of Ginger Boom!The aroma of gingerbread initially lured me by the nose, but looking at their displayed cookies sealed the deal – I had to go inside.Nothing about the place suggested it was a shop. There was a huge wooden table taking up about half the space where four to five twenty-somethings we busily hand crafting truly unique gingerbread cookie object’s de art. These were not the classical Germanic gingerbread constructs, these are gingerbread creations for the Geeks of this planet, millennials and not only. Besides, these treats are not necessarily seasonal as superheroes are good-to-go all year long, they rule!
The owners are a husband and wife team, Ignat and Julia Nesterenko, both born and raised in the Moscow Oblast, hours away from Moscow itself. A year and a half ago, being in their late 20’s, they decided to take a chance, move to Moscow, rent a flat and get jobs. They moved, renting a small flat, but no jobs – at least not jobs that resonated with their creative spirits.Neither of them had a business background or financial means. He was by interest an illustrator and graphic artist with a love of comics and the millennial heroes of the internet. She was drawn to handicrafts and had a love of cooking. Both wanted to find for themselves that special niche in life that would allow them to follow their interests and inspirations, as well as earn something for a roof over their heads and eats.
They came up with the idea of creating superb quality gingerbread cookies that are hand cut and hand decorated with the superheroes and villains of today. Their palette of creativity is vast, from Naruto, Queen, The Big Lebowski, and Gravity Falls through to Star Wars, Pusheen and the Marvel cast of heroes. In short, some now call them “thermonuclear” superhero cookies.They may be small today, but they are thinking big. Ignat has already developed edible portrayals for over 80 heroes, perhaps the largest theme coverage in the world! Their tiny business makes cookies from movies, comics, TV shows, cartoons, games, memes, and other popular subjects, and this is growing constantly.
Both Ignat and Julia (and those artists of like mind who now are working with them) are fans who watch the TV shows, play the games and read the comics they portray. They know which characters should be funny and which should be ominous. They have a clear talent for making the heroes recognizable, with characteristics that reflect their appeal.
As with many inspired bright ideas, this began life in their small kitchen. After many attempts (more than 20), they got the gingerbread recipe just perfect – not too hard, and not too mushy… it had to be just right or Julia simply would not allow it into the world. Same was true for the colored glazes and tones they use to make and “paint” the characters – all 100% natural and tasty. Meanwhile Ignat kept creating and perfecting ways to present his superheroes in the best way possible given the gingerbread medium. Both their efforts resulted in a coming together, an epiphany of taste, shelf life, and visual impact.With no capital, and no desire whatsoever to get into debt, plus no experience in business did not stop them. They created a website, took and posted some pictures of their cookie masterpieces and sales slowly happened. At first, their customers were few – thematic aficionados. However, the word soon spread on social media and demand started to grow and got stronger. Then bulk company orders started to come in – firms who wanted something different to commemorate an event, logo or a product. Recommendations by happy customers and word of mouth demand kept growing.
Finally, their apartment kitchen was simply not workable, as hand crafting the various themes on their cookies needs space, and more hands-on creative artists to make both custom and standard cookies. This is the stage when I stumbled upon them last week. I first became aware of them when I walked into their new office/workshop upstirs at the mall, hidden away in a rear corridor. Their apartment is still the bakery where every gingerbread cookie made is cut and baked. Each day these various shaped gingerbread “canvases” are brought to their mall workshop to be worked on individually and become cookie hero art.
Ignat and Julia now employ eight people, and if things keep going the way they seem to be, this number will certainly grow, but as I was told “never at the expense of quality”.
While I was speaking with Ignat, Julia was 100% concentrated on the faces of a raft of cookies. They were the only two working (it being Russia’s national unity day), an official holiday, but they both told me that they now have to put in 24/7 days to make sure standards are kept, orders filled and sent off as promised. The vast majority of their trade is through e-commerce, although a few customer like me are starting to come in their workshop door to order, buy or just watch, chat and chill.
No doubt, they will keep growing. One day in the not too distant future, they will probably have a Chinese, Korean, Japanese and an English language addition to their website, but today Russian-only is more than enough. When I asked whether they considered making custom gingerbread likenesses of say Zhirinovsky, Pompeo, Netanyahu, Macron, Abe, Poroshenko, Putin, Merkel or Trump. Ignat laughed, and said they have more than enough on their production plate today, but in the future, as they expand, why not? “It seems to me that many people around the world would happily take a bite of them, especially if they taste good”.
November 5, 2018 for Russiaknowledge.com