Gingerbread is a very ancient treat, enjoyed in the distant past by the rich and powerful all year round, but indulged in by ordinary folk only on special occasions. It could be argued that gingerbread is seasonal at any time of the year, but there is something about the combination of dark colours and warm spices that suggest the winter months. Once upon a time these warm spices (including the sugar) were exotic imported (and therefore expensive) ingredients, considered suitable and affordable for special feast days and fairs. I assume that this combination of dark, sweet warmth and relative expense has something to do with the particular popularity of gingerbread at autumnal and wintry northern hemisphere celebrations – which in Britain includes Halloween (this week’s inspiration), Guy Fawkes’ Night (November 5th), and Christmas.
As you will know, if you are a regular reader, I have a particular fondness for gingerbread, and from time to time try to add something different to the archive Through the Ageswith Gingerbread. Having said that, there are many gingerbread recipes scattered through the blog which I have not gotten around to adding to that special page, but I will, folks, I will.
English travellers to The Continent in times past occasionally commented on the difference between English gingerbread and the European version – one writer going so far as to say that French gingerbread was a ‘deceit’, as it contained no ginger. There is no deceit at all - French ‘gingerbread’ does not pretend to be gingery, it is pain d’épices – literally, ‘spice bread’. There does seem to be a particularly British pride in the ability to tolerate very hot spicy dishes, I assume as a rather tortuous sideline to the pride in The Empire and all she provided. A curry was not a curry to many a returnee from his outpost in India unless it was blisteringly, eye-wateringly hot, and a man not a man who could not eat it with pale dry calm.
This fascination with spicy-hot foods extends to gingerbread. In the north of England (Lancashire?) there are mentions of a form of ‘hot gingerbread, having in it a mixture of ginger and Cayenne, causing the most ridiculous contortions of feature in the unfortunate being who partakes of it.’ There was also something called ‘lolly-banger’ (in Somerset? There is much research still to do on this), which is described as a very thick, very hot gingerbread, enriched by raisins.
I give you two recipes for gingerbread today; a benign-sounding ‘lemon’ gingerbread, which contains cayenne pepper, and ‘Indian’ gingerbread (from a Scottish cookery book) which does not.
Grate the rinds of two or three lemons, and ad the juice to a glass of brandy: then mix the grated lemon in a pound of flour, make a hole in the flour, pour in half a pound of treacle, half a pound of butter melted, the lemon-juice and brandy, and mix all up together with half an ounce of ground ginger and a quarter of an ounce of cayenne pepper.
A New System of Domestic Cookery, by Mrs Rundell (1808)
Take twelve ounces of pounded loaf sugar, a quarter of a pound of fresh butter, one pound of dried flour, two ounces of pounded ginger, and of cloves and cinnamon a quarter of an ounce each. Mix the ginger and spice with the flour; put the sugar and a small tea-cupful of water into a sauce-pan; when it is dissolved, add the butter, and as soon as it is melted, mix it with the flour and other things; work it up, and form the paste into cakes or nuts, and bake them upon tins.
The Practice of Cookery adapted to the business of everyday life, by Mrs Dalgairns (1830)
Quotation for the Day.