History in the baking
Ginger has been grown in Asia for millennia and is used fresh, sliced or minced, in all kinds of savory dishes. Its health boosting phytochemicals make it popular around the world as a tea, candy and dried and as a ground spice in baked sweets.
Historians have traced European use of gingerbread back to the Crusades in the 11th century. Medieval folk would mix together ground almonds, stale breadcrumbs, rosewater, sugar and ginger then press it into moulds. Breadcrumbs were replaced with flour, added eggs and sweeteners, resulting in a lighter product.
And I had but one penny in the world, thou should’st have it to buy gingerbread.
William Shakespeare, “Love’s Labor’s Lost”
The first gingerbread men are said to have been created for the amusement of Queen Elizabeth I. They were moulded into the image of her favourite suitors and courtiers, decorated with gold leaf then devoured at royal feasts.
By the early 17th century gingerbread men were selling at fairs across England. By 1614 Ben Jonson’s play St Bartholomew’s Fair featured a gingerbread seller.
In the North East of England it was traditional for maidens to eat what were known locally as gingerbread husbands on Hallowe’en, to ensure they would snare a real husband.