Lebkuchen from Nuremberg are sent all around the world. The city’s long tradition of Lebkuchen baking dates back to the Middle Ages. The term Nuremberg Lebkuchen (Nürnberger Lebkuchen) is protected and if you come across it, you can be sure that the Lebkuchen were produced within the city of Nuremberg.
The history of the Nuremberg Lebkuchen began some 600 years ago. At this time, Lebkuchen were called “honey cakes” in Europe. According to Germanic, Roman, Greek and Egyptian mythology, honey was a gift from the gods. Even the bible mentions "the promised land flowing with milk and honey”. This explains why in ancient times honey was said to be a divine gift that had demon-expelling, healing and life-giving powers. And all foods and pastries that contained honey were perceived to have these properties as well.
During the 13th century, this “honey cake” of pre-Christian times became Lebkuchen in the German speaking part of the world. In the monasteries, it was quite popular to accompany the strong beer that was drunk during the Lent season with peppered Lebkuchen – so called “pepper cakes”. At that time, “pepper” was a collective term for all stomach friendly spices which were well known in the kitchens of the monasteries: they aid digestion and relieve bloating. So the resourceful monks used any possible spice from the Venetian shipments to flavor their "panis piperatus": cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, anise, coriander, clove and of course black pepper.
Nuremberg owes its glory and tradition as a Lebkuchen city to its convenient location - at the crossroads of ancient salt and trade routes, “pepper sacks” were shipped from the Orient via Venice and Genoa northward: this meant continuous spice supplies for the bakeries of the busy Lebküchner.
The second essential ingredient “grew” in the region: it is not a coincidence that the dense and waste Reichswald Forest around Nuremberg was called “The German Empire's Bee Garden”. Members of the profession of Zeidlers, wild bee keepers, used the forest to harvest honey and wax which was then delivered to the city. In 1350, Emperor Charles IV accorded the exclusive exploitation rights of the “sweet gold” to the Zeidlers.
When “the Empire’s bee garden” with all its assets and rights was purchased by the city of Nuremberg in 1427, these privileges were fully recognized by the “High Council of the City". Honey remained the main sweetener in the kitchen and the Lebkuchen baking trade of medieval times. Number one: East Indian cane sugar was too scarce and too expensive. According to today's monetary value, 50 kg cost € 600 - 700 which was prohibitive and it was therefore unknown.
In 1395, the first Lebküchner was mentioned in documents as operating from Nuremberg’s Schmidgasse. A very memorable day for Nuremberg’s Lebküchners was in 1487 when Emperor Frederick III who was holding a Reichstag in Nuremberg, invited all children of Nuremberg “who are able to walk” to come to the Emperor’s Castle for a feast. Almost four thousand children received a Lebkuchen that showed an image of the emperor. The actual Lebküchner trade wasn't officially mentioned until the 17th century. After almost a century of vainly striving for independence, the City Council finally authorized the establishment of an independent "sworn" Nuremberg Lebküchner guild including "charge and hostel" in 1643.
Since 1441, Nuremberg had a spice authority. Sworn auditors checked the quality of the shipped spices.
The Thirty Years War brought a serious decline for Nuremberg’s Lebküchner trade because their spice supplies went dry. Due to two year-long sieges of Nuremberg (Tilly and Wallenstein) the city was practically cut off from the outside world. The task of re-opening the old markets was cumbersome and took almost two centuries.
In 1867, the freedom of trade brought a welcome change, but the transition from craft to industrial production did not happen overnight. Mass production required the development and the construction of special machines, which could handle the heavy Lebkuchen dough.
During the two world wars Nuremberg’s Lebkuchen industry faced difficult setbacks. In World War I there was an extreme scarcity in resources. In December 1916, baking the fine kinds of Lebkuchen was prohibited as luxury. After World War II, virtually no Nuremberg Lebkuchen factory was left undamaged. Some were completely destroyed by the bombings, but today all of them are fully rebuilt, expanded and modernized.
Apart from the obvious local market, Nuremberg’s Lebküchners have always baked their goods for international trade. It was the old trade routes that took Nuremberg Lebkuchen all around the world and made them so famous. This tradition is also still alive today: Lebkuchen-Schmidt ships their delicacies to customers all around the globe.