A brief history of gingerbread


06 December 2023
Charlotte Soares takes us a on a seasonal look back at the story of ginger and its many uses.

As you read this, why not open a jar of ground ginger, have a slice of ginger cake or crunch on a gingernut biscuit? Let the taste and the smell be a feast for your senses. Then realise why ginger has been so popular for so long.

Ginger, the tropical plant Zingiber officinale, grows in warm climates, originally exotic Asia, then grown in the West Indies (as in Jamaican Ginger Cake.) Spices arrived in Europe via the Silk Road and then by sea routes, supplied by spice merchant traders to apothecaries from as long ago as the Roman days. The Romans used it for perfume manufacture as well as medicine and cosmetics. It was even used to stick up the back passage of a horse to make him step more lively – to ginger him up. Maybe the expression to tread gingerly has something to do with that... For a long time it was a delicacy and not generally available until Tudor times.

Baking with ginger

Ginger has an aromatic rhizome which has been used for medicine and baking for centuries. The smell is fragrant yet fiery, with a tasty kick from the ‘gingerol’ it contains that creates heat. It’s used in countless recipes, especially in the winter. As a child, ginger was associated with nights drawing in, making brandy snaps for 5 November, rolling the warm biscuits round a wooden spoon to bend them into the traditional tube. Brandy-snaps use butter, brown sugar, golden syrup, flour and ground ginger, lemon and brandy. 

November was also when we made parkin and gingerbread, which featured amazing gooey black treacle. Parkin needs butter, egg, milk, golden syrup, treacle, light soft brown sugar, medium oatmeal, flour and ground ginger. Spoonfuls of the heady-smelling ground ginger went into the Christmas pudding, also made in November, which we all stirred and made a wish. We even bought ginger marmalade from the grocer for spreading on toast.

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Continuing traditions

Things change over the years. Making parkin lapsed with the death of my grandfather, parkin had been his favourite. However I kept his New Year tradition of Scots Currant Bun, or Black Bun, going for many years. This too has ginger in it and is made in November to consume on New Year’s Eve. To my children the smell of ginger meant new-fangled continental gingerbread houses. They came in kits and are infuriatingly difficult to stand up, like a house of cards in a draught. Were these inspired by the Grimm’s story of Hansel and Gretel finding a house made of sweets? 

Winter warming drinks also use ginger, mulled wine uses various mixed spices and there’s wonderful ginger wine. After the first snow of the 1963 big freeze, we waited in vain for a bus to go to school, then abandoned going. After a long trudge down a knee-deep snow drifted lane to make sure a small child got home safely, we were rewarded with piping hot ginger wine and lemon to warm us through. Perhaps this evocative memory is why I try and keep ginger wine in the larder towards Christmas, though it is hard to find in the shops.

Gingerbread at Christmas

Christmas is a time when the cookie cutters come out for making spiced seasonally-shaped biscuits, and we now buy pepparkarka, which are Swedish ginger biscuits. Pepper cakes are also gingerbreads made in Yorkshire and known as carol singing cake. Iced gingerbread is particularly yummy, my favorite is bought in the Dumbarton Road, Glasgow, though I think the shop did not survive lockdown. Grasmere and Grantham both have famous local traditional recipes.

Text extracted from a full-length article on the history of gingerbread, published in the January issue of Family Tree magazine. Get your copy here

Charlotte Soares’s passions are writing, history, music, travel and making patchwork quilts. She has self-published family histories and undertaken trips with other people to further their research on location.