Have you seen them yet in northern Croatia, those lovely red hearts? They are called Licitar hearts and are completely edible, even though most people prefer to use them as decorations instead. They are Croatia’s festive baking custom; similar to gingerbread houses found in the UK and US, or spiced German stollen. They are made of flour, sugar and food colouring.
Cookies with a message
Making Croatian Licitar cookies is a labour of love. Prepared in the traditional way, it can take up to a month to make a single cookie. Not just pigeonholed to Christmas, Licitar hearts are popular gifts for loved ones, for instance on weddings (decorated with the wedding date and the names of the bride and groom) or on Valentine’s Day.
Licitar cookies often have messages written on them (such as love poems) or have a small mirror in the middle, so that the receiver can see the face that the giver loves. If you are looking for a romantic gift, you can’t go wrong with a Licitar heart. But they also come in other shapes (such as animals, horseshoes, houses and Christmas symbols) so you can surprise anyone with a Licitar cookie, for any occasion.
The cookies are becoming more and more popular as Christmas decorations and we have to agree that they will make any Christmas tree look very special and festive. Luckily, you don’t have to eat them all after Christmas as they stay fresh and pretty for many years.
The history of the Licitar heart
The tradition of making Licitar cookies started in the Middle Ages, when they were made throughout Europe, usually in monasteries. In those days they were mostly sold at fairs or during religious feasts, and they were a popular way for young men to show their affection to young women. Pilgrims used to buy Licitar as souvenirs, to remind them of their long and often taxing journeys and this is why, for many people, the cookies still have a religious connection to this very day.
UNESCO added Licitar to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010, describing the tradition of making the cookies as a craft that requires skill and speed. You might be surprised to learn that initially the men were the ones who passed on the tradition from one generation to the next. Women didn’t get involved until much later.
Buying your own Licitar hearts
Because of its popularity, you can even buy jewelry inspired by Licitar, such a pendants and earrings, usually made from silver and painted in the traditional red color. Plastic Licitar ‘cookies’ are available as well, but considering that the original ones are much prettier and stay fresh for years, we recommend buying originals. That way you also support the craft itself, which is an important part of the Croatian identity. If you want to be sure that you are buying an original, handmade Licitar cookie, you can look for certain quality labels, such as the one named ‘Croat’s warm heart’ (toplo srce hrvatskoga puka).
Would you like to make Licitar cookies yourself? There are plenty of recipes on the internet that show you how to prepare the dough and bake the cookies, but the most important part of the process is of course the decorating. If you want to learn how to decorate like a pro, you can attend special Licitar workshops in and around Zagreb.
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