Christmas got me thinking about gingerbread, which seems to be inextricably bound up with that time of year. I haven’t been able to work out exactly why the two are connected, but my theory is that in the medieval and early modern periods ginger’s hefty price tag made it too expensive to eat every day, while its warming tang also made it appealing in the cold months!
One of the reasons we still make that association today is that gingerbread is a staple at the German Christmas markets which are now so popular around the globe. Those gingerbreads tend to be thick, brittle biscuits, often decorated with festive wishes in icing, or alternatively, constructed into elaborate and beautiful houses. Both gingerbread itself, and those houses, are most firmly associated with Nuremberg, which was famed for its Nürnberger Lebkuchen (a name with protected status). This is largely because Nuremberg stands on a crossroads of trade paths, making it ideally placed to handle quantities of spices like gingerbread in the medieval period. It was also located close to a forest where bee keeping was a speciality – vital for all the honey needed for making gingerbread (today we often substitute syrup).
It’s not known whether gingerbread houses like the ones made in Nuremberg sparked the folk tale of Hansel and Gretel and the edible witch’s house, or whether they were made in honour of that story (which was published in the early nineteenth century). The biscuity gingerbread is made is many other traditional shapes too, including the British favourite, Gingerbread Men (in France he is called a bonhomme de pain d’épices), and the German equivalent, the Honigkuchenpferd (honeycake horse). The tradition of baking gingerbread houses was taken to America with German migrants and remains particularly popular in Pennsylvania, where many of them settled.
Gingerbread houses are exactly the sort of baked goods I thought I wouldn’t have the patience to make – and yet, last week the Munchkin and I made one for his Granny’s birthday! Photos to follow….