Sweet Toothed City

  • Sweet Toothed City
  • Sweet Toothed City
Issue 17, October 2009.

Foreign visitors to Lviv are often quite surprised by the local passion for all things sweet and sugary. Many remark that the vast array of cake and chocolate delicatessens they see dotting the city streets and the sumptuous dessert menus they encounter are literally the last things they would have expected of a former Soviet city. Unfortunately, much of the outside world continues to labour under the delusion of the post-Soviet space as a bleak and sour region of the world, but in actual fact Ukraine excels in its desserts and Lviv in particular has a long and proud history as one of the sweetest-toothed towns in all Europe.

Ever since its foundation in the thirteenth century, Lviv has been a sweet-toothed city, and from the very beginning the delicious pastries and chocolate-coated confectionaries for which the city would soon come to be renowned formed a key role in the Lviv economy as highly sought-after assets in the lucrative Eurasian trade routes of the Medieval period.
The city’s location on the Silk Route and other great trade roads of the Middle Ages brought
its merchants into contact with all manner of exotic sweets, and trade in these sugary delicacies soon became a priority. The city’s earliest confectioners were afforded the privilege of freedom from the control of Medieval Lviv’s already-existing baker’s guild, a special accommodation that came in part thanks to the sweet merchants’ connections to powerful Asian trading houses.

Cakes and jam as the sweetest medicine

In a time long before the relative sophistication of today’s healthcare options, the sweet trade of early modern Lviv took on a medicinal quality, with a vast array of jams, syrups and gingerbread sold in both coffeehouses and by pharmacists in the city’s many apothecaries. It was common for Lviv citizens to visit their local apothecary to purchase a tailor made cocktail of sweet concoctions for their own specific ailments, while wealthy  Lvivites would often order up special liquors for birthdays and other celebrations. By the mid-seventeenth century confectionaries were no longer luxury goods or prized treasures of the Silk Route but had become a staple for the majority of Lvivites. Annual fairs were held on a square beneath the city’s St. George’s cathedral where the Lviv tradition of giving out honey cakes during major holidays was first introduced. These fairs were also famed for their gingerbread men, which came in a dazzling array of flavours including coffee, vanilla, almond, citrus and many more.

Habsburgs bring added Viennese pastry elegance

In 1772 Lviv was incorporated into the Habsburg Empire as the capital city of the realm’s most easterly Galician province. The Austrians brought with them a taste for wide, rolling boulevards that suited Lviv’s own sense of style to perfection, and a two-century long cohabitation began which saw Lviv emerge as one of the most cosmopolitan and dynamic cities in the empire. Not only did the Viennese administration offer trams, telegraphs and the railways – they also added their own passion for sweet delicacies to Lviv’s already Augustine traditions. Café culture boomed under the Habsburgs, with many of today’s most esteemed bars and restaurants tracing their predecessors back to this formative age. Famous names emerged from the world of Lviv confectionaries and one exclusive region of the  regional Habsburg capital eventually became synonymous with the trade. On one of Lviv’s most luxurious streets - Carl Ludwig Avenue - a whole string of confectioner’s stores sat alongside coffee houses run by Lviv legends including Jan Wolf, Leopold Rothlender and Matey Kostetsky, whose cozy storefronts stood comparison with the very finest which the Vienna of the time could offer. Other famed coffee houses of the Habsburg era included the Rynok Square establishment which Swiss pastry chef Dominick Andreolli ran for most of his life. Such was his fame in the city that the pathway linking the square today with Teatralna Street has been renamed Andreolli Passage. Foreigners visiting Habsburg Lviv would often rave about the sugary treats on the menu. In 1841 visiting German writer I. G. Kohl spoke of his delight at Lviv’s dessert culture in his book “Reisen im Innerem von Russland und Polen.” He rated  the coffee houses and confectioners of the city as more elegant and sophisticated than in his native Dresden or other German cities.

A democratic cake-scoffing culture

The coffee shop culture of the Habsburg years was very democratic in nature and would bring together all walks of life. Prominent Lviv mathematician Stefan Banach is said to have liked nothing better than to tackle complicated   algebra whilst tucking into a slice of a Lvivbaked cake and was famed for writing down his latest theories on crumb-covered napkins. More rowdy students would often enter into cake-eating races, which enjoyed a brief but socially notorious popularity towards the end of the Victorian epoch. Urban legend has it that on one occasion at Yulian Werbitsky’s cake store one student of the university’s law faculty managed to eat a total of 34 shortcakes before giving up, while his medical student rival took the title by eating 50! The Lviv newspapers in the 1870s were full   over coverage about a confectionary-related romance that was the tabloid sensation of its day. The romance etween talented young Lviv painter Artur Grottger and Wanda Monne, the glamorous niece of famous Lviv pasty
chef Mihal Monne, captivated the public, and they were often seen dining out on cake and coffee in the city’s confectionaries, but before they could marry the dashing young Artur died in France while undergoing tuberculosis treatment. His mortal remains were brought back to Lviv and he was buried in Lychakiv cemetery under a statue depicting a crying young woman mourning his untimely passing.

Ludwig Zalewski: Chocolate king of Lviv

These Habsburg era cake barons may have all been legendary figures in their own right, but the title of chocolate king must surely go to Ludwig Zalewski, whose shop was a fixture of inter-war Polish Lviv and who was to end up hunted down and hounded into an early grave by the NKVD. Zalewski’s emporium was located on luxurious cademichna Street in a beautiful stone building and was a favourite haunt for local celebrities and university professors. It was Zalewski who first introduced the concept of selling foodstuffs ‘to go’ into Lviv culture, and his sweets and cakes soon became a popular gift among Lvivites whenever visiting friends or relatives. Zalewski himself used to send a delivery of confectionaries to Warsaw by plane every single day, even though he had his own store in the Polish capital. The Soviet seizure of West Ukraine in 1939 forced the closure of this decadent den, forcing the by then aging Zalewski into hiding in the city’s hospital, where he eventually died in 1940. He is buried in Lviv’s Lychakiv cemetery. Zalewski’s only son and the natural heir to the family’s confectionary empire was rounded up and sent to the Gulag in 1947 as part of the Soviet Union’s pacification efforts throughout its formerly occupied European possessions. He died the same year in a Soviet concentration camp. Chocolates were big business by the 1920s,   with large factory operations bringing sweet treats to the general public in large qualities. In 1922, undeterred by the extremely competitive existing market in Lviv, The Fortuna Nova chocolate and dessert producer decided to move its main production plant from Przemyszl to Lviv. The owner of the factory, Klimentina Awdykovich-Glynska, also opened a confectionary store in the city where every day up to 250 kilos where sold. The Fortuna Nova enterprise in Lviv certainly had holy blessing – one of the investors was Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytskyi, and until the outbreak
of WWII the business prospered. In the 1930s such was the fame of Fortuna Nova that they were actually sending decorative boxes of chocolates and other local confectionaries from the Lviv plant to New York in packaging decorated in traditional Ukrainian folklore style. This Ukrainian national tradition was continued in a famous and rightly celebrated series of chocolate bar wrappers entitled ‘the Sweet History of Ukraine.’ As a result of this clever propaganda in favour of an independent Ukrainian history and nation, the brand’s owners fell out of favour and the factory was eventually closed during the German occupation of the city.

Lviv legend Svitoch outlasts the Soviets

After WWII the city’s few remaining confectionaries slowly picked up the pieces and began working once more, but on a much more modest Soviet budget. With many of the production facilities concentrated on Moscow for items    deemed luxuries by the austere Soviet authorities, Lviv’s chocolate heritage began to melt, but the city continued to produce pastry recipes and dessert ideas that were then passed around every city in the Soviet Union. The celebrate  Soviet chocolate sweets known as ‘Stozhary’ were invented at Lviv’s Svitoch factory, for example. Since the advent of independence Lviv has taken great strides towards its former place as the region’s sweetest city, with the local   brand name chocolate giant Svitoch leading the way. Svitoch has been one of the biggest chocolate brand names in post-independence Ukraine and has proved such a success that it was bought up by global giant Nestle. Across
today’s Lviv you will find sweet shops and dessert-heavy menus in a hundred and one cosy coffee houses and elegant sugar emporiums. The city has rediscovered its passion for the sweeter things in life and tapped into one of the  oldest aspects of ancient Lviv history.