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The History and Tradition of Gingerbread

Gingerbread cookies and decorations such as the gingerbread house are a wonderful and deep-rooted family tradition that involves the young and the old in numerous countries around the world.

Gingerbread cookies
Gingerbread cookies
The sweet-and-spicy gingerbread cookies and Christmas decorations which make their usual appearance in the fall and winter, are made from a lumpy ginger root that originated as an ancient Asian spice, which gradually found its way into making festive gingerbread decorations in Europe.

Introduction of Ginger to Europe

Gingerbread cookies are traditionally made of dough, honey and spices such as ginger, then cut and baked into the appropriate shapes. Ginger has been a popular ingredient in food and medicine for many centuries and its use for medicinal purposes dates back to the ancient lands of India, China and Southeast Asia.

Ginger
Ginger

The Arthashastra written in the 4th century BCE by Kauṭalya an Indian teacher, philosopher and royal advisor mentions the use of spices including ginger used in the food, as part of the eating habits, of the people.

The earliest mention of spices in Indian literature can be found in the ancient Hindu scriptures of Rig Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda which lists a number of healing plants including ginger. The Rig Veda which is the first of the four Vedas, is said to be composed between about 1500 and 1200 BCE.

The legendary Chinese emperor Shen Nung is assumed to have written the 'Pen Ts’ao Ching' around 2700 BCE. The early Chinese materia medica mentioned more than a hundred medicinal plants. Later during the Ming dynasty, Li Shih Chen wrote Pen Ts'ao Kang Mu (The Great Herbal) which summarizes what was known of herbal medicine up to the late 16th century and includes ginger.

Ginger was used in the ancient lands of Asia to treat indigestion, seasickness and more specifically motion sickness.

The Silk Road network of routes
The Silk Road network of routes
The ancient Greeks, Arabs and the Romans developed trade with Indian kingdoms using the Red Sea ports and the spices from India were one of the products traded.

Between the period 9-15th century, the Republic of Venice held the monopoly of European trade including spices with the Middle East. Spices were among the most expensive and in-demand products during that period, used mainly in medicine and as an ingredient in different food dishes.

Trade route from Venice to India
Trade route from Venice to India
Spices such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, pepper and ginger were imported from Asia by the Venetian merchants who distributed them in Europe.

Near the end of the 15th century, Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama, who sailed around Africa, became the first European to re-establish direct trade links with the kingdoms of India since the Roman times.

After the Portuguese discovery, the Dutch and the English began to gain control over the spice trade in Asia as they had a huge naval power and this further increased the spice trade with Europe.

The English origin of the word, 'ginger', is from the mid-14th century, from Old English gingifer, which was readopted from Old French gingibre which in turn came from Medieval Latin name for the spice, gingiber. The ancient Greeks referred to it as zingiberis, which itself has been traced back to the Sanskrit srngavera, meaning 'hornbody' from srngam 'horn' and vera 'body', from the shape of its root.

The History of Gingerbread

Gingerbread evolved from the early honey cake that was made by the ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans. Honey cakes are one of the oldest form of cakes and in their most basic form were made by mixing honey and flour, and baking the mixture to create a hard golden pastry. The honey cakes were popular on long journeys as they lasted indefinitely and were considered a good source of energy.

The honey bees and honey which was the only sweetener widely available in the ancient days were considered to be sacred and honey was also used as gift to the gods. Therefore pastries that used honey, were in turn considered as symbolic religious food during the ancient days.

With the discovery of spices from Asia and due to their medicinal as well as aromatic benefits, these spices were introduced in the foods by the ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans.

De Re Culinaria, 1541
De Re Culinaria, 1541
The use of spices such as ginger in the Roman cuisine can be found in the collection of recipes published in De Re Coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking), attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, a wealthy and educated member of the Roman elite and lover of refined luxury who lived sometime in the 1st century AD, during the reign of Tiberius. The recipes in the book are thought to have been compiled in the late 4th or early 5th century AD.

Soft gingerbread by Johan Bryggare
Soft gingerbread by Johan Bryggare
Over a period of time, the ancient honey cake recipes were modified to incorporate spices such as ginger, cinnamon and gloves mainly for zest and flavor as the spice trade between Asia and Europe increased and hence the early form of gingerbread cookies were created. These baked delicacies using spices are thought to have been first made by the monks.

Though some of the spices were introduced into Europe during the Crusades in the 11th century, the Venetian merchants were mainly responsible for importing the spices into Europe and held the monopoly of European trade with Asia, through the Middle East, particularly during the period between 11-15th century.

In the early period of the spice trade, before the discovery of the direct sea route to the kingdoms of India by Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama, gingerbread made with spices were an expensive specialty due to the limited availability of the spices in Europe. They were mostly consumed by the rich nobility, the elites and certain monasteries.

Gingerbread at Fairs and Festivals

From the 16th century onward as the spice trade from Asia to Europe increased, the adoption of spices in European food also started to increase, along with a gradual increase in its adoption by a larger number of people as the price of spices started to decrease.

A reference to gingerbread can be found in one of Shakespeare's early comedies, Love’s Labour’s Lost written in the mid-1590s — 'An I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy ginger-bread...'

Gingerbread decorations in Croatia by Robert Majetic
Gingerbread decorations in Croatia by Robert Majetic
In Europe, gingerbread pastries were sold in special shops and at seasonal markets that sold sweets and gingerbread shaped into many things including animals, flowers, coats of arms and characters from the Nativity around Christmas time.

Gingerbread was especially sold outside churches on Sundays and religious gingerbread reliefs were popular particularly during religious events, such as Christmas and Easter. It became a tradition to bake gingerbread biscuits and paint them as window decorations.

Towards the start of the 19th century spice trade was well developed and many of the important spices were cultivated in other parts of the world, hence making it more readily available to the people.

In Europe, the tradition of making gingerbread cookies and different shaped figures was particularly popular in England and Germany. The court of Queen Elizabeth I of England is known to have made gingerbread figures in the likeness of some of her important guests.

Lebkuchen the German Gingerbread

In Germany, Nuremberg is particularly famous for its traditional Christmas cookies known as Lebkuchen which are spicy cake-like cookies traditionally made from honey, a variety of spices including ginger and nuts.

The tradition of making Lebkuchen started during the 14th century when Nürnberg was a rich city with good trade associations, which allowed it to procure spices, at a time when they were a rare and expensive commodity in Europe.

Lebkuchen from Nuremberg with almonds
Lebkuchen from Nuremberg with almonds
Nuremberg has an old tradition of making gingerbread cookies, which are a Christmas treat. In 1643, the city officially recognized the Lebkuchen-Baker profession by creating the 'League of Lebkuchen-Bakers'.

Nuremberg Lebkuchen obtained European Protected Designation of Origin status in 1996 and it must be produced within the boundaries of the city.

Lebkuchen can vary from spicy to sweet and come in a variety of shapes with round being the most common. The ingredients usually include honey, spices such as aniseed, coriander, cloves, ginger, cardamom, and allspice, nuts including almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts.

Gingerbread Bakers in Europe

Besides Nuremberg, Pulsnitz and Ulm in Germany, some of the most popular bakers of gingerbread were Toruń in Poland; Tula, Vyazma, and Gorodets in Russia; Pest in Hungary; Pardubice and Prague in the Czech lands; Lyon in France.

In Poland gingerbread is called piernik, in Russia it is called prianiki, the Czech Republic call it perníčky and mézeskalács in Hungary.

The History of Gingerbread Houses

Though the decorating of gingerbread cookies and creating different gingerbread shaped items had become a growing trend, the activity of creating gingerbread houses, was inspired by the publishing of Hansel and Gretel, a fairy tale of German origin by the Brothers Grimm in 1812.

Hansel and Gretel illustration by Arthur Rackham
Hansel and Gretel illustration by Arthur Rackham
Hansel and Gretel are a young brother and sister kidnapped by a witch living deep in the forest in a house constructed of gingerbread, cakes and candy.

After the fairy tale was published, German bakers began baking houses of Lebkuchen which are spicy cakes traditionally made from honey, a variety of spices including ginger and nuts.

The tradition of building houses, became popular particularly during the festive Christmas season as the bakers employed artists and craftsmen to decorate them.

The Tradition of Gingerbread Houses

In the colorful Norwegian city of Bergen, schools and kindergartens contribute every year in making a miniature version of Bergen, all with gingerbread cookies during Christmas. This is considered as the world's biggest gingerbread city, which includes miniature houses, trains, cars and ships made from real gingerbread. The residents of Bergen have contributed to this community tradition every year since 1991.

Decorating a gingerbread house called 'pepparkakshus' is considered an essential part of the build-up to Christmas in Sweden. The gingerbread houses are prepared on the Feast of Saint Lucy, celebrated on 13 December.

 White House replica made of gingerbread
White House replica made of gingerbread
The tradition of building gingerbread houses was brought to America by the German immigrants. In America, gingerbread houses covered with a variety of candies and icing, are popular Christmas decorations, often built by children with the help of their parents.

In 2013, a group in Bryan, Texas, USA, broke the Guinness World Record for the largest gingerbread house when it unveiled its edible 2,520 square-foot house in aid of a hospital trauma center.

Recommended Reading

The Spice Trade : History of the Ancient Treasures of the East

References

De Re Coquinaria, translation by Joseph Dommers Vehling

Early Exchange between Africa and the Wider Indian Ocean World by Gwyn Campbell

The Arthashastra by Kauṭalya

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