Ginger has a very long history of use in English cooking for it was already in use before the Norman Conquest and probably arrived with the Romans, who used it in quantity, although mostly for medicinal purposes. So, by the time the 12th century crusaders brought back so many of the spices that we use today, ginger was already familiar.
All manifestations, be they dried, ground, preserved in syrup, crystallized or pickled, come from the rhizome zingeber officinale, the finest of which comes from Jamaica. In medieval times ginger was as common in savoury dishes as in sweet, although it is in the latter that it really established its popularity in English baking. Spices were not cheap, so their use was reserved for high days and holidays. At court or in other wealthy households, gingerbreads might be gilded with gold leaf. Gingerbread, often in the shape of a man or pig, and often also gilded, was always found at fairs. In Florence White’s Good Things in England a Miss M. W. Rogers from Marazion writes that a proper and complete “fairing” included:
Candied sticks of Angelica
In Yorkshire, Parkin was made especially for Bonfire celebrations around the end of October. Gingerbread was also popular on the continent, especially in Germany, where it was often used to construct cakes in the form of houses, but also in France where Pain d’Epices was, predictably, claimed to be the original. This may in fact be true, because whilst ginger was known in Britain well before the Norman Conquest, recipes for Gingerbread only began to appear soon after it.
Gingerbread became particularly popular in the North of England with Ormskirk being renowned as the Gingerbread capital for centuries, helped by its position as a staging post between Liverpool (where the ginger was docked) and Preston. At the Ormskirk stop travellers would encounter the Gingerbread Ladies selling their wares, each proclaiming their own recipe as the best.
There can be few recipes for which there have been so many recognised variations. For example, in Florence White’s Good things in England, written in 1932, a chapter entitled Country Teas gives 15 different ginger cake/bread/biscuit recipes (out of a total of only 50) with a further 5 appearing in the chapter on Local Specialities.
If we first remove cakes from the equation, there are still many variations on the Gingerbread theme. The first distinction is perhaps between thick and thin – oats were more widely available than wheat flour and produced a thicker, chewier version epitomised by Parkin, but the thinner, crisp, biscuity version was more dominant in Scotland and the borders. Remember too that many gingerbreads were cooked on griddles before homes had ovens, although Bakers’ ovens accounted for earlier commercial versions. Commercial bakers were not the enormous national companies that we see today but small family firms that played an essential role in keeping alive regional recipes, which all too often become extinct when these businesses close. Probably the best known commercial gingerbread being made today is Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread. Sarah Nelson’s recipe is a trade secret although Grasmere was well known for it’s gingerbread before Sarah Nelson began selling hers to tourists in the 1850’s. In 1803, Dorothy Wordsworth wrote in her Grasmere journal of her efforts to buy both the thick and thin versions associated with the village. The thick version is still made for the annual rush-bearing ceremony that takes place in the village church of St. Oswald. Rush-bearing ceremonies occur throughout the Lake District, and in fact elsewhere in Britain, and involve laying fresh rushes on the floor of the church. In Grasmere, St. Oswald’s church-wardens’ accounts for 1819 give the earliest record of payment for “rushbearers’ gingerbread” – the reward for those who gathered and laid the rushes. In contrast, Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread is of thin type – with a sandy, almost shortbread like, texture.
Although most recipes have been updated to reflect the availability of new ingredients and equipment it is still possible detect the evolution through the recipes. Here is the basic timeline, and example recipes can be seen here.
55 BC – 407 AD The Romans used ginger in large quantities but more for its medicinal than culinary properties.
407 – 1066 AD The Anglo-Saxons certainly valued spices, ginger is amongst those listed amongst the prized supply left by the Venerable Bede on his death in 735, but it would not have been in widespread usage.
1066 – The Norman Conquest – marks the earliest references to Pain d’Epices, the French Gingerbread.
C15th – The Crusaders brought back many spices and the use of ginger became almost as common as pepper, in both sweet and savoury dishes, at least in wealthy circles. The gingerbread made at this time (note that it did not always include ginger) was served at court and on ceremonial occasions, made in elaborate mounds and gilded with gold leaf. Smaller versions, often shaped as men or pigs, were sold at fairs and known as “fairings”. Gingerbread at this time was made from breadcrumbs and honey.
C16th & C17th – Breadcrumbs were replaced with flour or oatmeal and treacle replaced honey (a distinguishing ingredient of pain d’epices). Butter and eggs became popular additions and in the C17th white Gingerbread became fashionable especially in the East Midlands (e.g. Ashbourne Gingerbread).
C18th & C19th – Towns and villages throughout the north of England became associated with their own version of gingerbread.
The Taste of Britain – Laura Mason and Catherine Brown (Harper Press 2006)
Good Things in England– Florence White (The Cookery Book Club 1932)
The Oxford Companion to Food– Alan Davidson (Oxford University Press 1999)
The Gingerbread Ladies– Jack Hallam (John Siddall 1979)