Who thinks of “gingerbread” in April? In America, “gingerbread” doesn’t seem to enter our thinking until the holidays start approaching. And even then, we tend to think of gingerbread only in the form of gingerbread men cookies and gingerbread houses. In the U.K. and throughout Europe, however, gingerbread is available, purchased, baked and enjoyed year round. This may be of no interest to anyone, but I find it fascinating.
We’re all familiar with ginger, even if its only in the dried, powdered form. But did you know the ginger plant, from which we use the root, was discovered in the Indonesian islands, along with many similar plants, as early as 2000 B.C. Knowing its medicinal benefits even then, ginger was already being cultivated by the indigenous people. Along with turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon and cassia, ginger was among the first spices to be transported from the Far East over land and by sea to the Middle East and Europe.
From burning the spices in religious ceremonies, to creating ointments and potions to ward off the plague, as well as to hide putrid household smells and make unpalatable food edible, spices were in high demand. We all know Christopher Columbus was trying to find a shorter route to the spice islands when he ‘bumped’ into this land mass. The trade routes were so coveted, battles were fought over them and spice merchants became extremely wealthy and powerful. Ginger was so expensive n the Middle Ages, one pound was the same price as one sheep. But once the trade routes became established during the 15th and 16th centuries, prices stabilized … and by the 17th century, the Spanish were able to cultivate ginger and were growing it in the West Indies, making it affordable for all.
So, now that we know where ginger came from, let’s find out where “gingerbread” came from and why it’s so important in European cuisine . . .
I’ve read that the first known recipe for ‘gingerbrede’ came from Greece in 2400 BC. Really? How do they know that? I do know, however, that food historians have traced ginger as a seasoning since antiquity. From my research, it seems an Archbishop from Armenia, in the 1st century, is credited with serving his guests a cake made of spices. By the tenth century, its proven that Chinese recipes for ‘spice breads’ were developed using ginger, and by the 13th century European nuns in monasteries were known to be baking ‘gingerbredes’ to ease indigestion. As spices, and in particular ginger, made their way throughout Northern and Western Europe, these breads baked in monasteries became so popular professional bakers began to make them. The ingredients, of course, were a bit different from what we would expect. Ground almonds, breadcrumbs, rosewater, sugar and ginger were mixed together and baked. It wasn’t until the 16th century when eggs and flour were added.
Did you know Queen Elizabeth I is credited with creating the first “gingerbread man”? Known for her outlandish royal dinners, Queen Elizabeth employed a ‘Royal gingerbread baker’. Among her array of fancy desserts were not only birds, fruits, and castles shaped out of marzipan, but also of gingerbread. The first documented gingerbread-shaped biscuit actually came from the court of Queen Elizabeth when she commissioned figures to be made in the likeness of some of her important guests. They were the hit of the court and soon these biscuits made their way into the bakeries.
Still not an inexpensive treat, gingerbread became widely popular at Medieval fairs all over Europe. They were sold not only as delicious snacks, but as souvenirs and good luck charms. Gingerbread became so popular, cities in France and England began holding “gingerbread fairs” and even formed Gingerbread Guilds, with strict baking guidelines and competitions. Nuremberg, Germany was actually recognized as the “Gingerbread Capital of the World” and the quality of their gingerbread was so high that it was even used as currency for paying city taxes. The oldest recorded gingerbread recipe, dating back to the 16th century, is on display in the Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg.
Elaborately decorated gingerbread became so synonymous with all things fancy and elegant that the Guilds began hiring master bakers to create works of art from gingerbread. Bakers began carving wooden boards to create elaborately designed molds to shape individual images. The shapes included not only flowers, birds, and animals, but even people. They were in such demand, kings and queens, lords and ladies, knights and bishops wanted their images captured in “gingerbread”. Should a young woman want to improve her chances of attracting a husband, she would have a “gingerbread man” made for her in the likeness of her gentleman’s image. The hope was that if she could get him to eat the spicy delicacy, he would then fall in love with her. Decorated gingerbread was given as a wedding gift, or to celebrate a birth or special occasion.
Gingerbread became such a specialized and highly prized item, only professional ‘gingerbread’ bakers were allowed to make it, unless, of course, it was a holiday such as Christmas or Easter, then anyone would be given permission. The gingerbread house, as we all know and love, was created in Germany to replicate Hansel and Gretel’s foray into the woods. Can we say Brothers Grimm? This tradition of creating gingerbread houses at Christmastime is as strong today as it was 300 years ago.
In England, the small town of Market Drayton has been making gingerbread since the 1640s, and by 1793 had four gingerbread bakeries. The town is so proud of its gingerbread heritage its displayed on their welcome sign.
In many European countries, gingerbread is still considered an art form, and the antique mold collections are on display in many museums. According to the Guiness Book of World Records, the largest gingerbread man was made in Norway in November 2009 and weighed 1,435 lbs. And the largest gingerbread house was made in Texas, November 2013 by the Traditions Club – 60 ft. long, 42 ft. wide and 10 ft. tall – all to raise money for St. Joseph’s Hospital.
Whether you enjoy your gingerbread soft and chewy, as a crispy biscuit, or as a dense cake sweetened with molasses or honey, this tummy-warming treat is hard to resist. Now that I’ve uncovered these little known facts about gingerbread, I think I better understand why its so popular in Europe . . . from Norway to Switzerland, Poland to Germany, Bulgaria to England, gingerbread is available, loved, and eaten year round, and not just at Christmastime.
As Shakespeare said, “An I had but one penny in the world,
thou should’st have it to buy ginger-bread…”