Leibacher Gingerbread Makers – Mouthwatering Craftsmanship

 

 

After earning his degree in history, passionate collector Leibacher initially wanted to work in a museum. He soon realized, however, that vacant jobs in the field are rare and, after a number of internships, decided to change course and pursue his early childhood dream of becoming a professional baker and confectioner. Today, he lives out a number of his passions. In their manufactory, Claudio and his brother Silvan produce mouthwatering Swiss-style gingerbread (called “Biber”) from choice ingredients – entirely handmade.

That Claudio Leibacher is an enthusiastic collector becomes clear the minute you enter his home in the hilly Zurich countryside and are led past a number of objects from days gone by such as LPs displayed in CD stands, nineties Hi-Fi equipment, and antiquated household gadgets. The most eye-catching collection however is a wall-to-wall bookshelf filled chockablock with old irons. Not one model appears to have been left out: heavy, tall, tiny, flat, and enormous irons are neatly displayed in spotless condition and perfect order. Leibacher’s eyes begin to gleam when we inquire about this collection. “Humans have been ironing for over 2,000 years. I like using an object as a starting point to travel through history. Each iron comes with its own story and illustrates traditions and customs from different countries.”

I like using an object as a starting point to travel through history.

To the creative 33-year-old, these flights of imagination are almost more fun than actual traveling. “I like following things through. I also prefer exploring a nearby place over getting on a plane to fly to some far-off land. I don’t have to travel far to discover interesting things,” he tells us.

And his passion for molds isn’t a transient whim either. To be precise, the molds we’re referring to are not the unpleasant furry growths that cover foodstuffs when left standing around too long. Molds can also be hollow containers used to shape hot liquid or pliable raw materials as they cool down. The molds Leibacher collects and makes are wooden, with carvings on the inside, and they are used to make the patterns and decorations of the gingerbread.

Celebrating tradition

Molds are collectibles too and, opening a drawer, Leibacher pulls out a couple of well cared-for examples, some of them up to 500 years old. Despite his outward calm, we catch a brief glimpse of underlying pride. His wife looks in for a moment to say hello, then disappears again. Leibacher continues showing us his collection of molds, drawing our attention to certain aspects, especially a delicately carved coat of armor from St. Gallen, where part of the Leibacher family originated.

I don’t have to travel far to discover interesting things.

On the top floor of the house, a workbench stands next to a window. To the right there’s another bookcase, filled with – irons. A link between the collection and his work is made by a dark wooden board that hangs on the wall between bookcase and workbench. It is a wooden mangle board: a rectangular panel with a handle and carved decorations. Together with a cylindrical wooden dowel, the object was used to press laundry. “It’s Swedish,” Leibacher tells us, and, as he shows us the mangle board, it is easy to see him in the role of a capable museum curator. “It was used as a betrothal gift, as can be ...,” he runs his index finger over the top edge of the wooden object, “…seen here clearly. Look, the wedding date’s been carved in as well. A suitor would make a mangle board as a courtship gift for his betrothed; that was common.” His own molds are created with the same techniques used for the delicate carvings of the mangle board, Leibacher explains.

On the workbench lies – ready to be carved – a piece of pear wood with a print of the landmark Bernese medieval tower – the Zytglogge – on it. Leibacher will attend the Slow Food Market in Bern from March 11–13, so he is creating a special gingerbread design to meet the occasion. He explains that sometimes he is lucky enough to find an existing print to use on his gingerbread molds, which he then adapts. “I transfer the print to the wood and start carving.” The trained historian has a selection of over 100 carving knives to choose from, all of which are laid out on the workbench in neat order. His skills at carving are almost entirely self-taught. “Twice I had the opportunity to look over someone’s shoulder and observe; the rest I learned by trial and error.”

A family affair

Depending on intricacy and size, it takes Leibacher between two hours and two days to carve a mold. Companies can order molds featuring their logos and have their own gingerbread forms made. “My brother Silvan comes up with these ideas. He’s in charge of building up the brand and of strategy. I’m the gingerbread baker and mold carver. Silvan takes care of marketing and sales.” Wherever possible, the brothers buy their resources from local suppliers. Besides making traditional gingerbread filled with honey, their range includes a white gingerbread made with aniseed that has a filling of roasted ground hazelnuts as well as a vegan gingerbread with a zesty almond filling. To replace the lacking honey flavor (or even improve on it), they use a delicious marc or pomace brandy from their hometown of Wermatswil.

It’s funny to think that we used to play in this room as kids, the same room that I now spend most of my time in.

Last year they produced approximately eight tons of gingerbread. During busy seasons such as Christmas and Easter, Leibacher can fall back on a network of flexible employees who help him with production and shipping. “Sometimes, even my parents jump in,” he grins. In fact, it was thanks to them that he was actually able to establish the manufactory. His father gave him free reign in the basement and, over time, Leibacher turned it into a bakery. “It’s funny to think that we used to play in this room as kids, the same room that I now spend most of my time in.” Today, three women are at work in the bakery making gingerbread for Easter. Overall, there is a tangible sense of interconnectivity in Leibacher’s work – between the past and present, and between the people who go in and out on a daily basis, working toward a common goal. After starting the venture, Leibacher and his wife were able to move into the adjoining house: now, even the houses are connected to each other through the bakery.

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