‘And I had but one penny in the world. Thou should’st have it to buy gingerbread.’
William Shakespeare, Love’s Labours Lost
Today’s image: gingerbread
In centuries gone by, Advent was a time for fasting. This continues to be practised by some, including in the Orthodox Church. Today, for most of us with a Christian heritage, though, there are few denying the fat, eggs, sugar, and the like. The 1st December flicks a sort of switch, that it’s time to treat ourselves, and the rest is an indulgent build up towards the 24th. We seem, as many have observed, to have lost the art of delayed gratification.
Gingerbread has been a sweet treat for so long that is represents the season. In her book Making Gingerbread Houses, Rhonda Massingham Hart mentions that the earliest known recipe for gingerbread came from Greece in 2400 BC.
There is a somewhat old-fashioned saying in English: ‘taking the gilt off the gingerbread’, i.e. making something meant to be a sweet treat less appealing, due to removal of its most attractive element, spoiling the fun. It comes from Medieval times, when gingerbread cakes, at least in wealthy homes, would be decorated with a thin layer of gold leaf, and were more humble without this glittering decoration.
And gingerbread men? A slightly later development. Shakespeare’s contemporary Queen Elizabeth I was the first known person to hand out these gingerbread figures, offering them to visiting diplomats, as a sign of England’s wealth and power. For ginger was an expensive commodity – with half a kilogram costing around the same as one sheep.
The 15th-century recipe below comes from a wonderful collection at Gode Cookery (linked). The website author notes that it would have produced something more like a candy or confection than a cake or doughy biscuit:
“Gyngerbrede.–Take a quart of hony, & sethe it, & skeme it clene; take Safroun, pouder Pepir, & throw ther-on; take grayted Bred, & make it so chargeaunt that it wol be y-lechyd; then take pouder Canelle, & straw ther-on y-now; then make yt square, lyke as thou wolt leche yt; take when thou lechyst hyt, an caste Box leves a-bouyn, y-stykyd ther-on, on clowys. And if thou wolt haue it Red, coloure it with Saunderys y-now.”
Roughly translated, I think that’s something like: Gingerbread – take a quart of honey, heat then skim it; add saffron and ground pepper; stir in breadcrumbs to thicken it enough to be sliced [not sure about that bit!]. Scatter over powdered cinnamon then shape it into a ‘sliceable’ square. Scatter bay leaves on top and stick in some cloves. If you want it red, use sandalwood to colour it at this point. I assume it’s then baked; early recipes were not very imprecise. As with ginger, spices such as pepper, cinnamon, and cloves were expensive imports, enjoyed only by the rich. I imagine the poor got little chance to develop a sweet tooth.
I am not, personally, a big fan of gingerbread, or sweet things in general, but the smell of these spices is like Christmas itself. Just that I would prefer mine in a mulled wine.
So many of us have looked forward to this winter’s celebrations in particular; it’s something we need right now – to add the hot flame of spice and light into the uncertainty and monotony of lockdown.
References and sources
Tori Avey, ‘The History of Gingerbread’ on The History Kitchen.
The Museum of London: ‘Yule Dolls and Fiery Biscuits: Medieval festive sweets’.
Vegetable Facts: ‘Ginger History: origins and original uses of ginger’.
Gode Cookery http://www.godecookery.com/.
Main image Mark Mühlberger on Unsplash
Smaller image Marta Branco from Pexels