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The Taste of Christmas

05 December 2018

Gingerbread is one of the most talked about treats with stories about it dating as far back as ancient Greece. Even William Shakespeare wrote, “And I had but one penny in the world thou should’st have it to buy gingerbread.” (1. Shakespeare, 1597)

 

Some historians believe that its origins can be traced back to 2000 BC, when wealthy Greeks would travel to the Isle of Rhodes to buy what they called, “spiced honey cakes.” Both Greeks and Egyptians used a form of gingerbread for ceremonial purposes.

 

Later, the Romans made special, highly spiced, honey cakes cooked in a clebanus (a type of portable oven) in their dining rooms. The Romans also made their little honey cakes in the shape of hearts, associating them with weddings. They eventually became edible love tokens (2. Billingtons Gingerbread)

 

 

Gingerbread first appeared in Europe in 992, courtesy of an Armenian monk named Gregory of Nicopolis. Gregory became popular in the French countryside, attracting bourgeois and peasants alike, to whom he would offer his Eastern hospitality, “finishing the meal with a cake that he made himself, according to a recipe from his country, and comprising of honey and spices, in the fashion of his far away homeland in Armenia.” (3. Liana Aghjanian, 2014).

 

With the establishment of the Silk Road, a network of trade routes between Asia and the Mediterranean between the 15th and 17th centuries, spices were more widely introduced to a fascinated Europe, where they were a sign of wealth and sophistication.

 

 

During this time, gingerbread took many forms; soft, crisp, or as a warm, thick cake served with lemon sauce. Queen Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1558 to 1603, is credited by many historians with the invention of the gingerbread man.While gingerbread had been a hallmark of Medieval fairs across Europe, Queen Elizabeth I’s version was different: She had the biscuits cut to resemble her suitors, decorating them with edible features and outfits, and serving them to guests, to eat their own likenesses (4. Michael Tabb, 2017).

 

 

The city of Nuremberg became associated with the treat and while popular all year round, it became especially ubiquitous at Christmas time. Vendors in Nuremberg became known as “pepper sacks,” referring to the inclusion of spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and white pepper in German recipes. Gingerbread houses first began here, inspired by the witch’s edible house in the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel.” These houses were sometimes referred to as “hexenhaeusle” (witches’ houses) and are also called “lebkuchenhaeusle” or knusperhaeuschen” or ” houses for nibbling at.” As for decorations, houses became more and more intricate as techniques evolved (5. Jeff Westover, 2014) 

 

Along with the Christmas tree and the chocolate Yule log, gingerbread biscuits were made popular in Great Britain as a festive treat by Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert. The Christmas tradition is now entrenched in the British psyche and many households now leave out a plate of gingerbread for Santa on Christmas Eve – after all, gingerbread is his favourite treat!

 

Sources:

  1. Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act V, Scene 1, by William Shakespeare, 1588-1597
  2. http://www.billingtonsgingerbread.co.uk/the-history-of-gingerbread
  3. http://www.ianyanmag.com/how-an-armenian-monk-brought-gingerbread-to-the-west
  4. https://qz.comquartzy/1161865/gingerbread-men-were-invented-by-queen-elizabeth-i-to-represent-her-suiters
  5. https://mymerrychristmas.com/christmas-tradition-of-gingerbread

 

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