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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TOMATO JAM

I love gardening … flowers, vegetables, it doesn’t matter.  So after returning from a two-week trip to England, I was anxious to see how my vegetable garden had faired without my constant attention.  Because it was the middle of September and I  knew the veggies, especially tomatoes, would be ripening on the vine, I told friends and family to just ‘help themselves’.  Of course, no one did, so when we returned the garden was bursting.  Yikes!

It took not one, but three trips with a basket from the kitchen to the garden, to pick all the beautifully ripe, red, sweet tomatoes.  The first thing I did, of course, was to put as many into the freezer as there was room for.  (Yes, I freeze tomatoes.  All summer, I had been stocking the freezer with all sorts of tomato-based soups, stews and salsas.)  The next thing was to look online for inspiration … something completely different using these luscious fruits … something I hadn’t made before.

Tomato Jam! The “world wide web” had done it again!  Tomato Jam it was going to be.  I narrowed it down to three of what appeared to be, from the reviews, reasonably successful recipes on three reasonably successful websites.  Before trying any recipe from any website, I always check out the reviews.  Most of the reviews are merely comments from people saying “how good that looks”, or “I can’t wait to try this” yet never having made it.  Or, “this was delicious after I added ‘this, that or the other’ and ‘cooked it for'”.  So, it can be a bit frustrating and does take a bit of sifting through each review to find those who actually have made the ‘original’ recipe.

The first recipe said 1 cup sugar to 1-1/2 lbs. of tomatoes.  Seems like a lot of sugar to me.  The second recipe said 1-1/2 cups sugar to 2 lbs. of tomatoes.  Same ratio.  The third recipe said 3/4 cup sugar to 4 lbs. of tomatoes.  Okay, now I’m interested.  They all said chop the tomatoes, put them into a heavy saucepan and then add lemon juice, cinnamon, cloves, freshly grated ginger and salt.  At least they agreed on something.

Again, the first recipe said to bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for an hour and 15 minutes until thick and jam-like.  The second recipe said the same except after an hour the jam should be ready.  The third recipe stated it takes two to three hours for the fruit to break down and become thickened.  This is beginning to sound like Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  All the recipes did agree, however, that the jam would be sweet, spicy and delicious … a wonderful spread on sandwiches, with cream cheese and crackers, as a condiment or dip.

I started with 10 lbs. of tomatoes, washed, hulled, and cut up.  Put the chopped tomatoes into my Le Creuset stock pot (love that pot), added the lemon juice, grated ginger, cinnamon, cloves and one cup of brown sugar and one cup of white sugar (more tomatoes, less sugar per pound was my thinking).  Because we like a bit of spice, I added a heaping teaspoon of red chili flakes.  I then brought the mixture up to a boil, reduced the heat to a sputtering simmer and waited.

Feeling quite confident, I made a cuppa tea and relaxed in front of the telly.  An hour later, I check on the pot.  It’s soup.  Huh?  Okay, it’s obvious that because I used more tomatoes, it’s going to take a bit longer.  An hour later, it’s still soup.  It has reduced down, but it’s still soup.  Patience is not one of my strong points.  An hour later (now three hours into this, I chop up an apple, thinking the pectin from the apple is going to help with the thickening.  Another hour goes by.  No thickening!  I’m getting annoyed … take out my immersion blender and start pulverizing.  The time is now 10 pm and I’m tired, but I’m not about to give up.  Go to the cupboard and get powdered pectin.  Add two heaping tablespoons, mix everything together, cover the pot, turn off the heat and go to bed.

Next morning, I check.  Still soupy, but better.   Back on the heat it goes.  Another hour goes by and it’s beginning to thicken.  By hour no. six, I’m done with this.  Off goes the heat, I let it cool, taste it for seasoning … and it’s surprisingly good.  Spicy and sweet, but not overpoweringly so. Jam?  Not really.  I pour it into individual plastic containers, cover, label and put them into the refrigerator.

That evening I take one container out and, yes, it’s finally thick, rich, sweet, spicy Tomato Jam!  Hooray!  What the problem was, I will probably never know.  Were my tomatoes too juicy?  Should I have removed the seed pods?  Did the other recipes intentionally mislead readers?  As for now, Tomato Jam is on the table and we’re going to enjoy it tonight as a spread on our leftover pot roast with goat cheese, arugula and sauteed onion sandwiches.

If you want to try your hand at making Tomato Jam, here’s MY recipe!!  And take it from me, start in the morning.  Good luck!

TOMATO JAM
Length of time …?  How much will it make …?

10 lbs. of good quality, fully ripened tomatoes – hulled, chopped, with seed pods removed
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
Juice from one large lemon
1 tablespoon minced/grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon red chili flakes (or more to taste)
1 large apple, chopped
powdered pectin, if needed

In a large stock pot, add all the ingredients.  Bring to a boil and then reduce heat and simmer until thick and ‘jam-like’.  The mixture should coat the back of a spoon and there should be no separation.  Taste and season according to your likes.  This could take anywhere from two to six hours depending upon the level of liquid from your tomatoes.  If necessary, mash with your potato masher or get out the immersion blender and blend the pulp.  When ready, pour into individual jars or plastic containers.  Will keep in refrigerator for up to two weeks.  To keep longer, freeze or can.

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CHAI … it’s sordid beginnings

In many languages “cha” or “chai” is the word for tea.  Chai, or Masala tea as it is called in India, is that milky, spicy, sweet, hot beverage we’ve all come to love.  Knowing the humble origins of chai, I’m amazed when I go to stores like Home Goods or TJ Maxx or even Ocean State Job Lot to see ‘chai‘ in shelf-stable packages, pre-made and ready to drink.  Actually I shouldn’t be surprised at all.  As much as we might love this spicy beverage, we’ve become a country in which we are so busy, we don’t have time to sit, relax and enjoy the process of … making chai, baking bread, growing herbs .  I’m one of those people, however, who tries to make time for it all.

I find the story of how Chai began quite fascinating, because it tells the story of tea … with all its grit, espionage, smuggling and deceit.  Chai has one of those sordid origins where it was bred out of necessity, much like soul food.  People had to eat (or in this case, drink) what was available.  If they didn’t they went hungry, and in most cases, they would die.

Let’s start at the very beginning.  It was 1848 and the East India Company had lost its monopoly on the China tea trade.  The Chinese were resentful that Britain attempted to addict their entire nation to opium and refused to do business with them.  The whole of Great Britain was now demanding “tea” and It was imperative that the British government establish its own independent tea supply.  But where and how?

Among botanist Robert Fortune’s tasks in China was to learn the procedure for manufacturing tea, as shown in this 18th century tea plantation. (The Granger Collection, New York)

A Scotsman by the name of Robert Fortune, curator and botanist of the Royal Horticultural Society, was asked by the East India Company to go on a “tea-discovery” mission to China.  Little did Fortune know that he was about to become an international man of espionage.  For three years, disguised as a Mandarin, Fortune visited the most famous tea districts, kept meticulous notes on the soil, the pruning, plucking and manufacturing process, and systematically collected seeds and plants.  By 1851, Fortune had amassed such knowledge, and plants, that he filled four vessels sailing from Hong Kong to Calcutta with thousands of plants, seedlings and had hired a team of experienced Chinese tea workers.

While Robert Fortune was busy collecting specimens, Robert Bruce, a fellow Scotsman, was meeting with one of the chiefs of the Singpho tribe in Assam, India.  The Singpho tribe, as the Chinese and other tribes in Southeast Asia, had also been making tea for centuries.   A tea committee was immediately formed to explore the possibilities of growing tea in this Assam region, which lies just to the west of China.

And then the takeover began.  Britain appeared to align themselves with the tribes, but their intent was to take over this territory.  They began by moving into this area and stripping the tribal people of their land, and then increasing the land tax to the point where the Assamese were unable to pay it.  This forced the Assamese to work clearing their own swampy, mosquito-laden land for the future tea gardens of their new British land “lords”.

These indigenous people had no experience laboring in this manner, and under deplorable working conditions.  The  British viewed them as “lazy, indolent and miserable”.  As a result, the British began “importing” labor from other parts of India. This “importing” of labor was, in fact, slavery.  Recruiting agents were sent into rural areas and promised a good wage and better life to men, women and children … ‘recruits’ who willing to immigrate to Assam.  When they had enough ‘recruits’ from one area, they loaded them onto overcrowded boats with appalling conditions for the six- to eight-week trip up the Brahmaputra River.  Many of the men, women and children, or ‘coolies’ as they were called (the term ‘coolie’ is believed to originate from the Tamil word for wages, ‘kuli’), died from cholera, dysentery, malaria or typhoid fever.  The ones who did survive were put to work no matter how sick, hungry or tired.  They were managed with whips, lived in pitiful huts, were chronically ill and malnourished, and unable to escape.

Most often the only source of nourishment for the ‘coolies’ was rice and tea.  No, not a good quality tea, but tea made from the dregs of the pluckings, infused with some milk for nourishment, sugar for energy, and spices to cover up the bad taste.   As a result, coolies suffered a very high mortality rate.  Between 1863 and 1866 half of the 84,000 laborers brought into this area died.  As I said, the history of “tea” and this now-beloved drink isn’t the sweetest tale.  Many thousands upon thousands of people died from malnourishment, disease and mistreatment.

Born out of necessity, today “chai” is the national drink of India. From sipping chai in someone’s home, while making a purchase in a shop, at a train station, or on a street corner, you can’t visit India without experiencing this unique culture.   Chaiwallahs are on every street corner in every village and town, ready to serve you a small cup or glass of this wonderful beverage.  Each may have their own special recipe or preparation style, but rest assured, each is as delicious as the next.

Everywhere in India there are chaiwallahs on the street with large kettles selling their spicy tea steeped with boiled milk and sugar. Because of the stiff competition between chaiwallahs, each tries to develop a unique style.

While specific recipes can vary, the black tea is always brewed with a blend of spices, generally cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, ginger, and cloves, with the addition of milk and sugar or honey.  In the U.S., some folks steep their tea together with milk, spices and sweetener. Others steep the tea and spices together, then add the milk and sweetener. A third group steeps the tea, stirs in the sweetener, and enjoys it without milk. It’s your choice.

We enjoy ours best steeped in a saucepan for 10 minutes or more with equal parts water and milk and one teaspoon of tea, spices and sugar for every 8 ounces of liquid.  Milk may burn if the heat is too high, so steep the heat at a medium temperature for about 10 to 15 minutes. After steeping, strain into a pot, and enjoy.

Yes, making it yourself does take about 15 minutes or more, and you can certainly buy prepared chai in bottles or packages, or even dry chai mixes, but taking those 15 minutes is so worthwhile.  And, if you make too much, just put it into the refrigerator and enjoy it cold the next day, over ice, or reheat it.  In the summertime, I love to make chai shakes … with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in the blender.  Try it.  It’s absolutely delicious!!

I may occasionally order a chai (notice I didn’t say “chai latté”), in a café, but I really enjoy making it at home.  The aroma of those comforting spices steeping in that dark, rich tea just relaxes the senses and puts me in that “happy” place.

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References:  TEA by Roy Moxham, The Heritage of Indian Tea by D.K. Taknet, For All The Tea in China by Sarah Rose, Academia, Teatulia, Smithsonian

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