Friday, December 4, 2020


Molded, gilded, & colored medieval-style
gingerbread in the form of a Tudor Rose.

Gingerbread by Tammy Crawford; Photo from
Gingerbread Men.  Photo by
alcinoe (originally from en.wikibooks,
transferred to Wikimedia Commons)
Cornish fairings.  Photo by foodista,
originally posted on Flickr
There are a combination of spices that so-called "First World" countries associate with the winter holidays, such as Thanksgiving (in the U.S.) and Christmas.  If you are American, Canadian or British, you likely know what they are. They include ginger, cinnamon, black pepper and cloves.  Nutmeg, mace, and allspice later joined the list as Western explorers discovered them in Indonesia and the Caribbean.  

Today, these combinations of spices are associated in our minds with the flavor of pumpkin pie, spice cakes, and ... gingerbread! Gingerbread turns out to be a very changeable concept, assuming different forms in different periods.

During the high Middle Ages, gingerbread was not a bread, cake, or cookie.  It was a kind of sticky candy made with honey and bread crumbs, and flavored with the "holiday" spices we still use today.  The topmost photograph to the left above shows a molded shape made from this sort of "gingerbread".  Yet ginger came to Europe through Asian trade with the Mediterranean; it was already known and used in Ancient Rome, and certainly predates the Middle Ages.  Ginger was originally cultivated in Southeast Asia, and is believed to exist only as a cultigen, and not in a wild form.  So tracing the travels of ginger across the world doesn't really pin down how long "gingerbread" has existed, or even what forms it may have.

Nowadays, "gingerbread" might be a cookie, a hard biscuit, or a cake, and the various nations of Europe, as well as the English-speaking world, have their own characteristic forms of gingerbread; Wikipedia names a few of them here. American varieties often use molasses, a common sweetener in the United States that is a byproduct of the sugar cane processing process. 

Gingerbread cake with mountain cranberries
Photo: Johan Bryggare
(Wikimedia Commons)
But there is a lot of overlap between the forms of gingerbread, as I discovered when searching the Internet for information about ginger snaps the other day.  I think of "ginger snaps" as a hard crunchy cookie, that can range in form from wafer-thin to as much as a quarter-inch thick.  When I think of ginger snaps I think of a cookie made and sold in the Philadelphia area under the brand called Sweetzels.  Sweetzels actually sells similar cookies as "ginger snaps" and "spiced wafers"; the spiced wafers are easier to find where I live.

To my surprise, I learned that a type of cookie identical in appearance to the Sweetzels cookies is known in the United Kingdom as a "Cornish fairing" (see the second picture to the right).  A "fairing" is a treat sold at a country "fair", and fairs existed (and may still exist?) all over the United Kingdom.  The thick, ginger-flavored biscuit was characteristic of fairings sold in Cornwall in particular.

Much the same assortment of spices as have been used in gingerbreads have long been the key ingredients in pumpkin pie.  Nowadays these "pumpkin pie spices" are added to all kinds of foods, ranging from cereals to lattes.  That's done for one simple reason.  People like them, so they sell, or at least they sell in the fall and winter.  That likely means that gingerbread will never quite go away, because it has a similar flavor and invokes similar thoughts of celebration and holiday.  Meanwhile, I am planning to make a "gingerbread" cake for Christmas, in my slow cooker.  Sometimes, the more things change the more they remain the same.

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