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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Chicken and Leek Pie

This classic Welsh “pie” is served on March 1st which is St. David’s Day.  St. David’s Day celebrates Wales’ patron saint with celebrations all across the U.K.  Born in the 6th century, Fr. David was heavily involved in missionary work and founded a number of monasteries.  As a strong leader and with a strict adherence to Christian beliefs, his loyal followers grew.  Fr. David was made Archbishop while on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and was consecrated a saint by Pope Callistus in 1120.  With more than 50 churches named after him, and the largest Cathedral in Wales, there is no doubt as to this man’s popularity.

I’m not sure why this particular dish is associated with St. David’s Day … could be because two of the key ingredients are practically national symbols of Wales (leeks and Caerphilly cheese). What I do know, however, is this is a fantastic family dish … and perfect for to be served on March 1st or any other day!

I have to admit I did not have Caerphilly cheese (and couldn’t find it), so I substituted Cheddar, but I think next time I’m going to use Stilton.  I also added sliced mushrooms for a little earthiness.  It was hearty, rich and delicious!  As they say in Britain, “why not have a go?”.

CHICKEN AND LEEK PIE
Bake at 425° F for 20 minutes … reduce heat to 350° F for 40 minutes.

4 large chicken breasts, or 8 chicken thighs (or any combination), cubed
4 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
salt and pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups leeks, washed and sliced
1 cup mushrooms, sliced
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup crumbled Caerphilly cheese (or Feta, or Gouda or Cheddar)
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon, chopped
1 sheet frozen puff pastry
1 egg, beaten
salt and pepper


Cube the chicken pieces.  In a large plastic bag, add the flour, salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Put the chicken cubes into the flour bag and toss til the chicken is completely coated.

Into a large skillet heat the oil and sear the chicken.  Remove the chicken to a plate and add a bit  more olive oil to the pan.

Reduce the heat to medium and saute the leeks til soft (about 5-6 minutes).  Add the garlic.

Put the chicken back into the pan and add the mushrooms.

Turn up the heat and slowly add the chicken stock and the white wine.  Stir well to combine and reduce to thicken.

Then turn the heat to low and add the heavy cream, the mustard and the cheese.  Taste to adjust the seasoning.

Remove from the heat and add the fresh herbs.  Pour everything into a large heat-proof casserole dish.

On a floured board, roll th e puff pastry sheet out just a bit to fit over the top of the dish.  Brush the egg around the top of the dish for the pastry to adhere.

Place the pastry on top and cut slits into the top of the pastry for the steam to escape.  Brush the pastry with the beaten egg.

 Place the casserole onto a baking tray just in case you get seepage.

Pop the tray into a very hot oven 425°F for 20 minutes.  Reduce the temperature to 350°F and bake for an additional 30 to 40 minutes.

 

 

 

Serve piping hot with a side salad and glass of wine!  Now sit back and take all the complements!

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References:  Catholics Online, Wikipedia, Encyclopedia.com,

From the Wine Trail to the Whisky Trail

While in New Hampshire this past weekend, we thought it might be nice to visit some local wineries. New Hampshire’s wine industry is in its infancy, with the oldest vineyard, Jewell Towne Vineyard of South Hampton, opening in 1994.  Although there were two previous to Jewell Towne, they’ve since ceased operations.

Our day out took us to the Haunting Whispers winery in Danbury.  As we drove up along the winding, tree-lined, immaculately manicured road, we were unsure about what we were going to discover.  But there at the top of the hill was a large impressive home with imposing stone fireplace looking out over a magnificent vista.  The vineyard was at the bottom of the grassy knoll enclosed in a Jurassic Park-like wire fence, laid out in perfectly aligned rows, with young trellised vines just starting to show their fruit.

Our host was very gracious and took us on a detailed tour of the winery, from the fermentation room to the bottling area.  But what was most interesting, after touring the wine-making process, was being escorted into the distillery.  Distillery?  This, it seemed to us, was where his passion lie …. making whisky!

Scottish bagpipersThis visit brought us right back to our tour of the whisky distilleries in Scotland and how magnificent those distilleries were.  There are approximately 10 different, organized whisky trail tours in Scotland, with over 50 distilleries.  Because we were in the Aberdeen area at the time, we took a self-drive tour of the distilleries in that region.   From Strathisla, established in 1786 to Glen Moray established in 1897, each distillery was unique in its approach to providing an impressive atmosphere where you could walk through the historic buildings and watch the intrinsic processes of malting, milling, mashing, and distillation of the barley.  From there you proceed to the barrel storage cellars and then to the tasting rooms where an informative presentation is made and where you would be schooled in the art of tasting whisky, each with its distinctive taste, texture, color and smell.

Single Malt Whisky Casks

Single Malt Whisky Casks

The word “whisky” evolved from the Gaelic “uisge beatha” meaning “aqua vitae” or the “water of life”.   According to Wikepedia, the ‘art of distillation’ began in Ireland but was not recorded until the 12th century in Scotland.  Some historians believe that the ‘Heather Ale’ drink could have been brewed since 2000 B.C.  In the 12th century, however, whisky was being produced in Scotland, in monasteries by monks for the relief of colic, palsy and even smallpox.  It’s amazing how beverages, such as tea, coffee, and whisky, were introduced to us for their beneficial and medicinal  qualities. The practice of distilling grains solely for medical purposes eventually became a beverage to be enjoyed by the aristocracy.  In 1494 James IV, King of Scotland, so enjoyed this “water of life” he ordered approximately 500 bottles “To Friar John Cor, by order of the king, to make aquavitae“.

Henry VIII, King of England

Henry VIII, King of England

With the cold raw winters in Great Britain, it doesn’t surprise me that whisky became very popular very quickly.  And when in 1536 King Henry VIII, self-proclaimed Supreme Head of the Church of England, forced the closure of the monasteries, monks had nowhere to go and needed to find a way to earn money. That was when whisky production moved into the farms and homes.  With the merging of England and Scotland in “The Act of Union” in 1707, taxes were applied to this now very popular beverage.  This is when the government, realizing the potential for additional taxation, introduced the English Malt Tax, forcing most of the distilleries underground, where they remained for the next 150 years.

Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand
And may his great prosperity
Ne’er fail in old Scotland!

By definition, we are not ‘whisky drinkers’ (although we do enjoy a wee dram now and then), we did, however, come away with a new appreciation for this beverage and the dedication of the men and women who have been working in this industry for over 300 years.  With its breathtaking landscape, warm and generous people,  should you get the opportunity to visit Scotland this summer, or any time, you MUST make the Scottish Whisky Tour part of your journey.

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References:  Scotch Whisky Association, Wikipedia.org, Biography.com, Visit Scotland