GINGERBREAD

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.

Illustration depicting Christopher Columbus’s fleet departing from Spain in 1492.

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
…”

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References:  Britannica, Unesco, Vegetable Facts, Wikipedia, Confectionary Chalet, BBC,
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Princess Alice of Battenburg

Has anyone else been watching this season’s THE CROWN on Netflix?  I am spellbound by this remarkably well-made, historical drama.  From the stunningly beautiful and lavish set designs to the dramatic vistas and landscapes, the authentically-detailed period costumes, and, of course, the remarkable portrayals of each of the Royal family by such a talented cast, it’s very difficult to not get caught up in every nuance, image and monologue.  Some people may call this nothing more than a glorified soap opera, but it is so believable, so well made, I had to do some fact checking.  Is this historically accurate or has it been infused with ‘artistic license’

Not having any more information about the Royals than most people (supermarket tabloids, banner headlines on search engines), I’ve been intrigued by such a parade of complex individuals who’ve occupied the rooms of the palace and 10 Downing Street at one time or another.  One such person was the recent episode which introduced us to Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenburg, brilliantly played by Jane Lapotaire.  But a nun?  Living in a down-trodden community in Greece? Looking for charitable donations?  I needed to know more . . .

Victoria “Alice” Elizabeth Julia  Marie was born on February 25, 1885 at the home of her great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, in Windsor Castle to German parents, Prince Louis of Battenburg and Princess Victoria of Hesse.  Alice’s father was an officer in the Royal Navy, and as a result, the family lived in, not only London, but Germany and Malta.  The eldest of four, Alice’s mother was very concerned by Alice’s lack of development.  Alice was slow in learning to speak and had trouble pronouncing words.  Through her aunt’s intervention, Alice was later diagnosed with congenital deafness.  Once diagnosed, Alice quickly learned to lip read and became proficient in English, German, French and Greek.

Princess Alice and her husband, Prince Andrew
(1903)

She was a stunning beauty and grew to be one of the loveliest young women in Royalty.  At the coronation of King Edward VII, Alice met her future husband, Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark.  On October 6, 1903, she 18 and he 21, this handsome couple were married and moved to Greece where Andrew became a commissioned officer in the Greek army.  The marriage was marred from the beginning.  Little did Alice know of Prince Andrew’s bisexuality or extravagant lifestyle.  Regardless, the pair would go on to have five children, four daughters and one son. The youngest, Philip, born in 1921, six years after their youngest daughter.

As with most young, wealthy princesses, Alice had little or nothing to do but attend social gatherings.  On a trip to Russia in 1908 to attend the wedding of her husband’s niece, Alice became intrigued about plans to create a religious order of nurses.  When Alice returned to Greece, she found the country in political turmoil.  The turmoil escalated into war and the Balkan Wars broke out in 1912.  Alice quickly threw herself into helping the wounded soldiers by organizing field hospitals.  During this time Prince Andrew’s father was assassinated by a Greek anarchist so the family was forced to flee in exile to Switzerland.

Alice with her first two children, Margarita and Theodora, c. 1910

Just a short two years later saw the outbreak of WWI which caused horrific tragedy to Alice’s family back in Germany, most of whom were murdered.  The family had to give up all of their privileges, positions and titles, as well as their name.  From “Battenberg”, they were now known as “Mountbatten”.  With the end of WWI and the fall of the German empire, the Mountbattens returned to Greece, but once again war broke out in Greece only two years later and Prince Andrew, who was commander of the Military, was banished from the country.  This time the family fled to Paris.

After all this turmoil, tragedy and disruption in their lives, it’s no wonder that Alice turned to religion.  She converted to the Greek Orthodox faith.  Her philandering husband didn’t help Alice’s now fragile state of mind.  With all she had been through, Alice began thinking she had special healing powers and was receiving messages from God.  The couple became estranged. Now diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Alice, aged 45, was forced to move into a sanatorium in Switzerland, where she lived for two years.

Alice tried many times, unsuccessfully, to escape from the sanatorium.  Under the care of many psychiatrists, including Dr. Sigmund Freud, Alice was forced to undergo invasive treatments to “cure her of frustrated sexual desires” which was Freud’s diagnosis.  Dr. Freud concluded that Alice was suffering from unsatisfied sexual frustration.  Her son, Philip, was just nine years old when his mother was taken from him.  Prince Andrew had no desire to raise his son.  He, in fact, ran away with a mistress to the French Riviera.  Young Philip was raised by other members of his family in England, living and being educated in exclusive boarding schools.  During this time, Alice’s daughters all married German prince’s and moved to Germany.  Alice did not attend any of the weddings.

When Alice was finally released from the sanatorium in 1932, she found herself alone.  With nowhere to go, she drifted throughout Germany for years.  The death of her daughter and her daughter’s family in a plane crash in 1937 was the first time in seven years Alice saw her husband.  It was at that time she reunited with the rest of her children and family.  Alice then returned to Greece to continue her charity work.  She wanted her son, Philip, to come with her, but he had a future with the Royal Navy.  When the second World War broke out, Alice’s family was split between Germany and England.  Her son and British family members were on the Allied side, while her daughters and in-laws were on the German side.

In 1941 the Nazis took over Greece.  Although many fled, Alice remained and became an activist, hiding as many Jews as possible in her home, smuggling in medical supplies and doing whatever charity work she could find.  In 1944 when the war was over, Athens was liberated but nothing changed in Greece.  The British were now fighting the Communists for control.  With no food, most people living in squalid conditions, Alice continued putting her life on the line with her dangerous acts of charity.

In 1947 Alice did get the opportunity to leave Greece to attend the wedding of her son, Philip, to Princess Elizabeth.  Her visit was short lived, however, because she wanted to return to Greece where she organized a nursing order of Greek Orthodox nuns, modeled after the one she had witnessed in Russia many years before, known as the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary.  By June of 1953, Alice was now clothed only in the simple grey habit worn by many Greek Orthodox nuns, which she wore to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth.

The military junta in 1967 forced Prince Philip to send for his mother.  Alice returned to London to live out her years with her son, Prince Philip, and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, at Buckingham Palace.  Now quite frail and deaf, but alert and cognizant, she continued to smoke and play canasta.  Then, on December 5, 1969, at the age of 84, with every one of her belongings given away at her request, Princess Alice of Battenberg died.

This remarkable woman endured more than most.  It’s sad to me that so few have even heard her name, never mind her incredible story.  I wonder if any of us could have lived through the terrors of wars, family members killed and murdered, a husband who betrayed her and children who seemingly left her completely on her own.  The British government named Princess Alice “Hero of the Holocaust” for her services during the Jewish Massacre, and in 1994 she was honored by Israel as ‘Righteous among the Nations’.

As fascinating as the episode on The Crown was, it barely scratches the surface of the dramatic life this woman has lived.  Were there some artistic liberties taken for the script?  Yes, of course.  But I don’t think it was necessary.  A remarkable story of a remarkable woman.  Thank you Netflix!

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References:  Crowns, Tiaras, Coronets, Famous People, Wikipedia, CNN, Elle,

THE NATIONAL LOAF

Today is the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the allied invasion of Normandy, which was a major turning point during World War II.  The horrors of war are untold and we are very fortunate to live in a country in which we haven’t had to fight a world war on our soil.  I realize the Civil War, Revolutionary War, and French and Indian War were all fought here, but they were not ‘world’ wars and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who lived through those times.  You can, however, still find people who lived through World War II and remember the horror and sacrifices that had to be made.

Britain entered the second World War in 1939 after many attempts at appeasing Germany.   At that time, Britain was importing about  20,000,000 tons of food each year to feed its 50 million people, from meats and cheeses to sugar, fruits and grain.  Most of Britain’s imported food, at least 70% of its grain, came by ship across the Atlantic from Canada.  Although Great Britain had the support of many countries, war is incredibly expensive and food, fabrics, coal and oil had to be rationed.   A year later, in addition to the months and months of bombings, Germany’s strategy was to cut off all imports to Great Britain, attacking all ships bound for England, and starving this island nation into submission.  By 1942, with no end in sight, this once-powerful country was not only running out of money, it was running out of food and the ability to produce the most important staple of life … bread.

The government-organized Ministry of Food was resurrected from WWI to create a system of rationing.  Customers were required to register at selected shops where they would receive ration books with coupons for their purchases.  Prices were controlled and the shopkeeper would have just enough food and goods for those registered customers.   When making a purchase, the shopkeeper would take the necessary coupon.  If you did not have a ration book, you could not buy (unless, of course, you had the money to pay exorbitant prices on the black market).  Although some fruits and vegetables were not rationed, they were available in very limited supplies.  Children growing up during this time had never heard of, and didn’t even believe ‘bananas’ existed.  It was during this time that “victory gardens” were encouraged, and are still very popular today.

But it was bread, the staff of life, that garnered the most attention.  Today, quite a few of us wrinkle up our noses at the thought of a loaf of squishy white bread, preferring whole grains and artisan loaves.  But in Great Britain at that time, a loaf of ‘white’ bread was thought to be the preferred bread, eaten by the upper class, with whole grains relegated to the poor lower classes.  With the diminishing supplies of wheat, however, the Ministry of Food had to come up with a way to provide a more nourishing staple for the masses.  What they came up with was a milled flour which had far less ‘white flour’ and contained far more wheat germ, to which they added calcium and fortified it with iron.

Now named the ‘national loaf’, bakers were banned from baking any other type of bread.  To further complicate the availability of purchasing this national war effort ‘loaf’, bakers could only bake the fibrous bread one day a week … and could not sell it until the next day … realizing that the day-old bread could be sliced thinner, providing more slices per pound, although the one pound size was also reduced to 14oz.

A homemaker filling out her bread ration card for the day.

Many sacrifices had to be made during the war and rationing of food supplies was some of the hardest.  But it was the bread which they loathed the most.  Nicknamed “Hitler’s Secret”, the high fiber, dense flour, created a loaf which, although nutritious, was heavy, grey in color, and stale by the time it was purchased.  Even Eleanor Roosevelt, America’s First Lady, when visiting Buckingham Palace in 1942 was served “the same kind of war bread ever other family had to eat.”

On May 8, 1945, the Allies formally accepted unconditional surrender of the Nazi Germany armed forces, but it wasn’t until 1956 when the ‘national loaf’ was finally laid to rest, after years of providing healthy, nutritious bread to stave off hunger during and after the war.

“Pat-a-loaf, pat-a-loaf
Baker’s Man
Bake me some Wheatmeal
As fast as you can:
It builds up my health
And its taste is good,
I find that I like
Eating just what I should.”

We are so very fortunate to live in a country and during a time when we have vast amounts of foods available to us, not only quantity, but superior quality, and unlimited varieties of foods.  Sadly, 30% to 40% of the food produced in the U.S. is quite literally thrown away, ending up in land fills across the country.  Given a national emergency, could we survive food rationing and would we support a “national loaf”?  I wonder.

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References:  Wikepedia, World War II History, Granny Robertson, Cook’s Info
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