Getting Medieval on Gingerbread: The Short Story Of A Long-Loved Treat

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Soft and Spicy Orange Gingerbread Cookies

“An I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy ginger-bread…” – William Shakespeare

To me, few flavors compliment a brisk turn of weather more perfectly than gingerbread. It’s the ideal counterpoint to the chilliness of starker seasons, like the edible equivalent of warming yourself by the golden-orange glow of a fire. Its dark, warm, enticingly complex spiciness gives it a taste that seems to me to go beyond old fashioned, into downright feudal – and this time, that’s not just romantic food fancy on my part. Gingerbread’s historical roots dig deep, right into the heart of the middle ages. Even The Bard couldn’t resist tipping his pen to the stuff.

Soft and Spicy Orange Gingerbread CookiesDivine Intervention
A lone Armenian monk, Gregory of Nicopolis, is credited with introducing gingerbread to Europe. Amid Byzantine strife and with a Persian army hot on his heels, he relocated to Bondaroy, France in 992, bringing with him a method for making honey-sweetened ginger and spice cakes. He was kind enough to share his skills with the French locals, who were pretty much blown away by gingerbread’s divine deliciousness. A 10th century manuscript recalls that “his guests, on tasting the cake, believed they were experiencing all the delights of Heaven.” Righteous.

Gregory’s recipe quickly spread (quick for the Middle Ages, anyway), and over the next centuries, gingerbread blazed a spicy trail across Europe. It became a popular offering at fairs and festivals, and was sold by monasteries, pharmacies and farmers’ markets – but really came into its own during the chivalrously violent heyday of medieval European court culture.

picture courtesy Dalhousie UniversityKnight Moves
Medieval folks could buy gingerbread shaped and decorated to resemble a variety of fanciful things, including flowers, animals, birds…and armor. The era of the knight was in full swing, and gingerbread was the sexy snack du jour. Smithsonianmag.com has it that medieval gals often gave their favorite knights gingerbread treats to bring them luck in jousting tournaments. Hopefully it worked. And women received plenty of gingerbread, too. According to straightdope.com, elaborate gingerbread biscuits, often adorned with real gold leaf, were popular gifts among lovers, much as the ubiquitous box of chocolates is today.

Unattached ladies of the day indulged in a tasty little superstition – eating a man-shaped gingerbread biscuit, or “gingerbread husband,” in hope it would help them land the real thing. Eating your future spouse in effigy…those were the days. And speaking of eating people in effigy, Elizabeth I must have fairly blown the minds of her honored guests when she presented them with gingerbread likenesses of themselves in the late 1600′s.

photo by Andrew KelsallGingerbread Gets Grimm
Over the next centuries, gingerbread remained wildly popular, and the practice of forming it into interesting shapes continued. Germans, however, took this to the next level – the gingerbread house. Inspired by Hansel and Gretel, the Grimm Brothers’ charming 1812 tale of attempted cannibalism and sugar craft, they started making gingerbread into three dimensional houses, decorating them lavishly with frosting and candies to resemble the witch’s tempting bungalow of doom. Incidentally, her name in the original story was Frau Pfefferkuchenhaus, which roughly translates to “Mrs. Gingerbread House.”

Thankfully (I’m thankful, anyway), the sinister symbolism of the gingerbread house has largely faded away, and now they’re simply enjoyed as a cute holiday tradition. Not something Eat Healthy is likely to try anytime soon, since coating stuff with candy and frosting isn’t really my thing, but maybe I’ll figure out a healthy update sometime.

Soft and Spicy Orange Gingerbread CookiesEverything Old Is New Again
So what set me off on all this gingerbread madness? Well, I’ve come up with healthier versions of the classic gingerbread cookie recipe, just in time for fall and the coming holidays. One has a fraction of the sugar usually added in gingerbread cookie recipes, and the other adds no sugar at all. Both have the deliciously dark and spicy flavor gingerbread aficionados adore, but with a kick – a bright splash of fresh orange. It was an experiment gone incredibly right, and I hope you find Soft and Spicy Orange Gingerbread Cookies as addictive as I do.

The recipe’s located a short internet jaunt away, at Eat Healthy Holidays, our new express site for holiday recipes. Just click on the pic to visit Eat Healthy Holidays and get the recipes for Soft and Spicy Orange Gingerbread Cookies. Don’t just eat them – get medieval on them.

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