A Month of Christmas: Gingerbread

Hungary – Michel #5663 (2013)

My mother was a remarkable cook. She particularly shined during the period between American Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, putting together awesome meals and delectable treats. Mom was a generous soul and our friends and classmates benefited from her culinary talents as she baked for endless school activities and neighborhood gatherings. As my birthday was smack-dab in the middle of the holiday season, I always got a special-request dinner (invariably her “famous” soy sauce-marinated steak with baked potato). Of the myriad of deserts and snacks she would labor over, I miss her gingerbread cookies most of all. When I saw the design of Hungary’s Christmas stamps five years ago featuring such confectioneries, I got an instantaneous craving.

The category of baked goods referred to as gingerbread contains foods typically flavored with ginger, cloves, nutmeg or cinnamon and sweetened with honey, sugar or molasses. Gingerbread foods vary, ranging from a soft, moist loaf cake to something close to a ginger snap. Originally, the term gingerbread (from Latin zingiber via Old French gingebras) referred to preserved ginger. It then referred to a confection made with honey and spices. Gingerbread is often used to translate the French term pain d’épices (literally “spice bread”) or the German terms Pfefferkuchen (“pepper cake”) or Lebkuchen (of unclear etymology).

Gingerbread men, trees, reindeer, and snowflakes

An early medieval Christian legend elaborates on the Gospel of Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. According to the legend, attested to in a Greek document from the 8th century, of presumed Irish origin and translated into Latin with the title Collectanea et Flores, in addition to gold, frankincense, and myrrh, given as gifts by three “wise men from the east” (magi), ginger was the gift of one wise man (magus) who was unable to complete the journey to Bethlehem. As he was lingering in his last days in a city in Syria, the magus gave his chest of ginger roots to the Rabbi who had kindly cared for him in his illness. The Rabbi told him of the prophesies of the great King who was to come to the Jews, one of which was that He would be born in Bethlehem, which, in Hebrew, meant “House of Bread”. The Rabbi was accustomed to having his young students make houses of bread to eat over time to nourish the hope for their Messiah. The magus suggested adding ground-up ginger to the bread for zest and flavor.

Records of honey cakes can be traced to ancient Rome. Food historians ratify that ginger has been seasoning foodstuffs and drinks since antiquity. Gingerbread, as we know it today, descends from medieval European culinary traditions and is claimed to have been brought to Europe in 992 CE by the Armenian monk Gregory of Nicopolis (also called Gregory Makar and Grégoire de Nicopolis). He left Nicopolis (in modern-day western Greece) to live in Bondaroy (north-central France), near the town of Pithiviers. He stayed there for seven years and taught gingerbread baking to French Christians. He died in 999.

In the 13th century, gingerbread was brought to Sweden by German immigrants. It is believed gingerbread was first baked in Europe at the end of the 11th century, when returning crusaders brought back the custom of spicy bread from the Middle East. Ginger was not only tasty, it had properties that helped preserve the bread. Gingerbread was also shaped into different forms by monks in Franconia, Germany. Lebkuchen bakers are recorded as early as 1296 in Ulm and 1395 in Nuremberg, Germany. In 15th-century Germany, a gingerbread guild controlled production. Nuremberg was recognized as the “Gingerbread Capital of the World” when in the 1600s the guild started to employ master bakers and skilled workers to create complicated works of art from gingerbread. Medieval bakers used carved boards to create elaborate designs. During the 13th century, the custom spread across Europe.

Painting depicting gingerbread sold at illuminated market stalls at the Kirchweih. Oil on canvas by Konstantin Stoitzner (1863–1933).
A batch of gingerbread people photographed on December 17, 2011.

Early references from the Vadstena Abbey show that the Swedish nuns baked gingerbread to ease indigestion in 1444. It was the custom to bake white biscuits and paint them as window decorations. Gingerbread figurines date back to the 15th century, and figural biscuit-making was practiced in the 16th century. The first documented instance of figure-shaped gingerbread biscuits is from the court of Elizabeth I of England: she had gingerbread figures made in the likeness of some of her important guests.

The first documented trade of gingerbread biscuits dates to the 17th century, where they were sold in monasteries, pharmacies, and town square farmers’ markets. In medieval England gingerbread was thought to have medicinal properties. One hundred years later, the town of Market Drayton in Shropshire, England became known for its gingerbread, as is proudly displayed on their town’s welcome sign, stating that it is the “home of gingerbread”, twinned with Pézenas and Arlon. The first recorded mention of gingerbread being baked in the town dates to 1793, although it was probably made earlier, as ginger had been stocked in high street businesses since the 1640s. Gingerbread became widely available in the 18th century.

In the 17th century only professional gingerbread bakers were permitted to bake gingerbread except at Christmas and Easter, when anyone was allowed to bake it. In Europe, gingerbreads were sold in special shops and at seasonal markets that sold sweets and gingerbread shaped as hearts, stars, soldiers, babies, riders, trumpets, swords, pistols and animals. Gingerbread was especially sold outside churches on Sundays. Religious gingerbread reliefs were purchased for the particular religious events, such as Christmas and Easter. The decorated gingerbreads were given as presents to adults and children, or given as a love token, and bought particularly for weddings, where gingerbreads were distributed to the wedding guests. A gingerbread relief of the patron saint was frequently given as a gift on a person’s name day, the day of the saint associated with his or her given name. It was the custom to bake biscuits and paint them as window decorations. The most intricate gingerbreads were also embellished with iced patterns, often using colors, and also gilded with gold leaf. Gingerbread was also worn as a talisman in battle or as protection against evil spirits.

Full-size gingerbread house made by Milda, a margarine and cream products producer, seen at front in Stockholm Central Station. It was made of 648.1 pounds (294 kg) flour, 202.8 lb (92.0 kg) margarine, 221.3 lb (100.4 kg) sugar, 14 imperial gallons (64 l; 17 US gal) Golden syrup, 4.8 pounds (2.2 kg) each of cinnamon, cloves, ginger and 8.1 lb (3.7 kg) baking powder.) Photo taken on November 20, 2009.
Gingerbread shop in Strasbourg, France. Photo taken on (rue du Maroquin, près de la cathédrale, on September 11, 2010.

Gingerbread was a significant form of popular art in Europe; major centers of gingerbread mould carvings included Lyon, Nuremberg, Pest, Prague, Pardubice, Pulsnitz, Ulm, and Toruń. Gingerbread moulds often displayed actual happenings, by portraying new rulers and their consorts, for example. Substantial mould collections are held at the Ethnographic Museum in Toruń, Poland and the Bread Museum in Ulm, Germany. During the winter months medieval gingerbread pastries, usually dipped in wine or other alcoholic beverages, were consumed.

Gingerbread came to the Americas with settlers from Europe. Molasses, which was less expensive than sugar, soon became a common ingredient and produced a softer cake. The first American cookbook, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons published in 1796, contained seven different recipes for gingerbread. The German-speaking communities of Pennsylvania and Maryland continued the gingerbread mould carvings tradition until the early 20th century. The tradition survived in colonial North America, where the pastries were baked as ginger snap cookies and gained favor as Christmas tree decorations.

The tradition of making decorated gingerbread houses started in Germany in the early 1800s. According to certain researchers, the first gingerbread houses were the result of the well-known Grimm’s fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” in which the two children abandoned in the forest found an edible house made of bread with sugar decorations. After this book was published, German bakers began baking ornamented fairy-tale houses of lebkuchen (gingerbread). These became popular during Christmas, a tradition that came to America with Pennsylvanian German immigrants. According to other food historians, the Grimm brothers were speaking about something that already existed.

Swedish gingerbread house being prepared. Glaze is put on the walls.
Gingerbread house with double doors

In Germany, Christmas markets still sell decorated gingerbread before Christmas. Lebkuchenhaus or Pfefferkuchenhaus are the German terms for a gingerbread house. Making gingerbread houses is still a way of celebrating Christmas in many families. They are built traditionally before Christmas using pieces of baked gingerbread dough assembled with melted sugar. The roof tiles can consist of frosting or candy. The gingerbread house yard is usually decorated with icing to represent snow. A gingerbread house does not have to be an actual house, although it is the most common form. It can be anything from a castle to a small cabin, or another kind of building, such as a church, an art museum, or a sports stadium, and other items such as cars, gingerbread men and gingerbread women, can be made of gingerbread dough. In most cases, royal icing is used as an adhesive to secure the main parts of the house, as it can be made quickly and forms a secure bond when set.

In England, gingerbread may refer to a cake, cookie or biscuit made with ginger. In the biscuit form, it commonly takes the form of a gingerbread man. Gingerbread men were first attributed to the court of Queen Elizabeth I, who served the figurines to foreign dignitaries. Today, however, they are generally served around Christmas. This crisp brittle type of gingerbread is now represented by the very popular commercial version called the ginger nut biscuit. Parkin is a form of soft gingerbread cake made with oatmeal and treacle which is popular in northern England.

In the United States, this form of gingerbread is sometimes called “gingerbread cake” or “ginger cake” to distinguish it from the harder forms. French pain d’épices is somewhat similar, though generally slightly drier, and involves honey rather than treacle. Originally French pain d’épices did not contain ginger.

Soft gingerbread with mountain cranberry
Gingerbread with royal icing

In Germany gingerbread is made in two forms: a soft form called Lebkuchen and a harder form, particularly associated with carnivals and street markets such as the Christmas markets that occur in many German towns. The hard gingerbread is made in decorative shapes, which are then further decorated with sweets and icing. Traditionally, gingerbread men were dunked in port wine.

In the Netherlands and Belgium, a soft and crumbly gingerbread called peperkoek, kruidkoek or ontbijtkoek is popularly served at breakfast time or during the day, thickly sliced and often topped with butter. In the Nordic countries, the most popular form of ginger confection is the pepperkaker (Norwegian), pepparkakor (Swedish), brunkager (Danish), piparkökur (Icelandic), piparkakut (Finnish) and piparkūkas (Latvian) or piparkoogid (Estonian). They are thin, brittle biscuits that are particularly associated with the extended Christmas period. In Norway and Sweden, pepperkaker/pepparkakor are also used as window decorations (the pepperkaker/pepparkakor are a little thicker than usual and are decorated with glaze and candy).

In Switzerland, a gingerbread confection known as biber is typically a two-centimeter (approximately ¾ of an inch) thick rectangular gingerbread cake with a marzipan filling. The cantons of Appenzell and St. Gallen are famous for biber, and are artfully adorned with images of the Appenzell bear or the St. Gallen cathedral respectively by engraving or icing.

Tula pryanik is a famous type of imprinted Russian bakes sweet from the city of Tula. Usually, Tula pryanik looks like a rectangular tile or a flat figure. The pictured Tula gingerbread is imprinted with the caption Tulsky (the adjective form of Tula) and the city’s coat of arms.
Toruń gingerbread (Polish: pierniki toruńskie, German: Thorner Lebkuchen) a traditional Polish gingerbread produced since the Middle Ages in the city of Toruń in northern Poland.

In Russia, a gingerbread maker was first mentioned in Kazan cadastres in 1568. Gingerbread confections are called pryaniki, derived from the old Russian word for ‘pepper’. Historically three main centers of gingerbread production have developed in the cities of Vyazma, Gorodets, and Tula. Gingerbreads from Tver, Saint Petersburg and Moscow were also well known in the Russian Empire. A classic Russian gingerbread is made with rye flour, honey, sugar, butter, eggs and various spices; it has an embossed ornament and/or text on the front side with royal icing. A Russian gingerbread can also be shaped in various forms and stuffed with varenje and other sweet fillings.

In Poland, gingerbreads are known as pierniki. Some cities have traditional regional styles. Toruń gingerbread (piernik toruński) is a traditional Polish gingerbread that has been produced since the Middle Ages in the city of Toruń. It was a favorite delicacy of Chopin when he visited his godfather, Fryderyk Florian Skarbek, in Toruń during a school vacation. Kraków gingerbread is the traditional style from the former Polish capital. In Romania, gingerbread is called turtă dulce and usually has sugar glazing.

A variety of gingerbread in Bulgaria is known as меденка (“made of honey”). Traditionally the cookie is as big as the palm of a hand, round and flat, and with a thin layer of chocolate. Other common ingredients include honey, cinnamon, ginger and dried clove.

Hungary – Michel #5663-5665 (2013)

Hungary released three shaped self-adhesive stamps to mark the Christmas holiday on November 5, 2013 (Michel #5663-5665). The stamps were printed by Codex Értékpapir Nyomda using offset lithography and portrayed gingerbread cookies — the 85-florint value depicts a Christmas tree, the 110-florint stamp shows a shooting star and the 140-florint stamp pictures an angel. The imperforate stamps were issued in sheets of 50.

The Hungarian word for gingerbread is mézeskalács; the Hungarian version of gingerbread cookies contains more cinnamon than ginger and are also known as honey cookies or honey cakes. They are beautifully decorated and often seen at the holiday markets in Hungary. The capital of Tolna county in Hungary, Szekszárd, includes the Mézeskalács Museum.

Hungarian mézeskalács
Mézeskalács Museum in Szekszárd, Hungary

The reign of King Matthias (1458–1490) was a high point in Hungarian history, for both culture and food. Through his Italian wife, Queen Beatrice, King Matthias brought Italian cooking to Hungary. During this period, cooking was raised to a fine art. When the Turks invaded Hungary in the sixteenth century, they brought their cooking customs with them. These included the use of the spice paprika and a thin, flaky pastry called filo (or phyllo) dough. They taught the Hungarians how to cook stuffed peppers and eggplants and introduced coffee to Hungary.

Austria’s Hapsburg monarchy gained control over Hungary from the seventeenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century. Under Austrian rule, German and Austrian cooking styles influenced Hungarian eating habits. During this period, Hungary became famous for its cakes and pastries. Instead of the honey and nuts used in Turkish pastry, the Hungarians filled phyllo dough with their own ingredients to make a dessert known as strudel. Strudel fillings include apples, cherries, and poppy seeds. The first documented trade of gingerbread biscuits dates to the 17th century, where they were sold in monasteries, pharmacies and town square farmers’ markets.

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