By J Gardener
Quick-picture the last gingerbread house you saw, in your mind. Now, without thinking about it, what was the season when you saw it? Chances are, it was Christmas-time. Few treats are as closely associated with Christmas as gingerbread, and rarely do we see it, any other time of the year-which is amazing, since your kids can’t seem to get enough of it, when it’s offered.
As well, we seem to have it embedded in our cultural consciousness that gingerbread is somehow inherently English and Victorian. But the history of gingerbread goes back much further than nineteenth century Europe.
The word ginger probably comes from an ancient Sanskrit word-“sringavera”-which means “horn-shaped root”. All ginger comes from a rhizome we call ginger root, native to Asia, but grown extensively today in Jamaica.
In ancient China, it was used as a medicine. In ancient Rome, it was used as a spice-and was heavily taxed. Ginger first became popular in Europe during the Middle Ages, probably brought in by returning Crusaders. Originally used as a spicy delicacy, the Europeans soon discovered ginger’s preservative properties, and began treating their meat with it, as a way of preservation and a way of disguising the meat’s odor, as it aged. As ginger became more widely used, it became more expensive, and was one of the most precious spices traded in Medieval Europe.
By the fifteenth century, Europeans relied heavily on ginger and it was imported in large quantities, bringing prices down a bit. Europeans also began using ginger as a primary flavoring for cakes and breads. Most countries developed unique gingerbread recipes, which they showcased at the many gingerbread “fairs”, popular throughout the continent.
Eventually, gingerbread-making became a highly respected profession in and of itself, completely distinct from other bakery professions. In Germany, England, and France, gingerbread bakers formed their own guilds, similar to unions, and were recognized by their respective governments.
Gingerbread cakes and cookies became associated with many holidays, and were baked into shapes relevant to special celebrations. The Germans became famous for their shaped ginger creations. Nuremberg became the unofficial ginger capital of Europe, where artisans from other crafts-wood-cutters, sculptors, etc.-fashioned elaborate molds used by gingerbread bakers to make beautiful delicacies.
When the Brothers Grimm published their collections of fairy tales, the witch’s house in “Hansel & Gretel’ was described as a house of candies and cakes, but German bakers began the tradition of crafting “Hexenhaeusle”, or witches’ houses, a tradition which led to the gingerbread houses we know today.
American gingerbread makes use of maple syrup and fewer spices in most recipes, lending a heavy sweetness not found in most European brands.
Enjoy all the gingerbread you can, this season. But remember, it’s a wonderful confection that tastes just as good in July as in December.
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