has been baked in Europe for centuries. In some places,
it was a soft, delicately spiced cake; in others,
a crisp, flat cookie, and in others, warm, thick,
steamy-dark squares of "bread," sometimes
served with a pitcher of lemon sauce or whipped cream.
It was sometimes light, sometimes dark, sometimes
sweet, sometimes spicy, but it was almost always cut
into shapes such as men, women, stars or animals,
and colorfully decorated or stamped with a mold and
dusted with white sugar to
the impression visible.The
term may be imprecise because in Medieval England gingerbread
meant simply "preserved ginger" and was a corruption
of the Old French gingebras, derived from the Latin name
of the spice, Zingebar. It was only in the fifteenth century
that the term came to be applied to a kind of cake made
with treacle and flavored with ginger. Ginger was also discovered
to have a preservative effect when added to pastries and
bread, and this probably led to the development of recipes
for ginger cakes, cookies, Australian ginger nuts and flavored
breads. The manufacture of gingerbread appears to have spread
throughout Western Europe at the end of the eleventh century,
possibly introduced by crusaders returning from wars in
the Eastern Mediterranean. From its very beginning gingerbread
has been a fairground delicacy. Many fairs became known
as "gingerbread fairs" and gingerbread items took
on the alternative name in England of "fairings"
which had the generic meaning of a gift given at, or brought
from, a fair. Certain shapes were associated with different
seasons: buttons and flowers were found at Easter fairs,
and animals and birds were a feature in Autumn. There is
also more than one village tradition in England requiring
unmarried women to eat gingerbread "husbands"
at the fair if they are to stand a good chance of meeting
a real husband. Of course, you could always visit Elizabeth
Botham & Sons, a family-run craft bakery on the North
Yorkshire coast of England, and sample some authentic pastries.
you lived in London in 1614, your family would have gone
to the Bartholomew Fair on August 24. Of the special cakes
prepared for holidays and feasts in England, many were gingerbread.
If a fair honored a town's patron saint, e.g., St. Bartholomew,
the saint's image might have been stamped (and even gilded)
into the gingerbread you would buy. If the fair were on
a special market day, the cakes would probably be decorated
with an edible icing to look like men, animals, valentine
hearts or flowers. Sometimes the dough was simply cut into
Gingerbread-making was eventually recognized as a profession
in itself. In the seventeenth century, gingerbread bakers
had the exclusive right to make it, except at Christmas
and Easter. Their street cries could be heard well into
the nineteenth century, but in 1951, writer Henry Mayhew
sadly recorded that "there are only two men in London
who make their own gingerbread nuts for sale in the streets."
all the countries in Europe, Germany is the one with the
longest and strongest tradition of flat, shaped gingerbreads.
At every autumn fair in Germany, and in the surrounding
lands where the Germanic influence is strong, there are
rows of stalls filled with hundreds of gingerbread hearts,
decorated with white and colored icing and tied with ribbons.
If you lived in Nuremberg in 1614, your family would have
gone to the Christkindlmarkt in December. You would have
bought carved Christmas decorations, special sausages, and
the famous Nuremberg Lebkuchen flavored with ginger, which
you probably would have thought was the best in the world.
Nuremberg gingerbread was not baked in the home, but was
the preserve of an exclusive Guild of master bakers, the
Nuremberg became known as the "gingerbread capital"
of the world and as with any major trading center, many
fine craftsmen were attracted to the town. Sculptors, painters,
woodcarvers and goldsmiths all contributed to the most beautiful
gingerbread cakes in Europe. Gifted craftsmen carved intricate
wooden molds, artists assisted with decoration in frosting
or gold paint. Incredibly fancy hearts, angels, wreaths
and other festive shapes were sold at fairs, carnivals and
Lebkuchen are made throughout Germany and large pieces of
lebkuchen are used to build Hexenhaeusle ("witches'
houses," from the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, also
called Lebkuchenhaeusel and Knusperhaeuschen—"houses
for nibbling at").
Nuremberg merchants, in fact, were so well known for their
spices that they had the nickname "pepper sacks."
From early on, Nuremberg's Lebkuchen packed into one recipe
all the variety of flavorings available to its bakers—cardamom,
cloves, cinnamon, white pepper, anise and ginger.
traditions in France were closer to the German than the
English ones, with noteworthy recipes for pain d'epices
coming from Dijon, Reims and Paris. In 1571, French bakers
of pain d'epices even won the right to their own guild,
or professional organization, separate from the other pastry
cooks and bakers. In Paris a gingerbread fair was held from
the eleventh century until the nineteenth century at an
abbey on the site of the present St. Antoine Hospital, where
monks sold gingerbread cut into the shape of pigs.
the nineteenth century, gingerbread was both modernised
and romanticised. When the Grimm brothers collected volumes
of German fairy tales they found one about Hansel and Gretel,
two children who, abandoned in the woods by destitute parents,
discovered a house made of bread, cake and candies. By the
end of the century the composer Englebert Humperdink wrote
an opera about the boy and the girl and the gingerbread
Christmas, gingerbread makes its most impressive appearance.
The German practice of making 'lebkuchen' houses never caught
on in Britain in the same way as it did in North America,
and it is here still that the most extraordinary creations
are found. Elaborate Victorian houses, heavy with candies
and sugar icicles, vie in competition with the Hansel and
Gretel houses, more richly decorated and ornamented than
most children could imagine in their wildest dreams.
Gingerbread making in North America has its origins in the
traditions of the many settlers from all parts of Northern
Europe who brought with them family recipes and customs.
By the nineteenth century, America had been baking gingerbread
American recipes usually called for fewer spices than their
European counterparts, but often made use of ingredients
that were only available regionally. Maple syrup gingerbreads
were made in New England, and in the South sorghum molasses
was used. Regional variations began occurring as more people
arrived. In Pennsylvania, the influence of German cooking
was great and many traditional Germany gingerbreads reappeared
in this area, especially at Christmas time.
The North and Midwest of America welcomed the Northern and
Middle Europeans. At Christmas it is still very common in
the midwest to have Scandinavian cookies like Pepparkaker
or Lebkuchen. Often one can find wives holding "coffee
kolaches" (coffee mornings) at which European ginger
cakes still reign.
Nowhere in the world is there a greater repertoire of gingerbread
recipes than in America —there are so many variations
in taste, form and presentation. With the rich choice of
ingredients, baking aids and decorative items the imaginative
cook can create the most spectacular gingerbread houses
and centerpieces ever.