The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, December 4, 2009


Ginger, a delicacy of the past and source of tasty traditions

“Had I but a penny in the world, thou shouldst have it for gingerbread.”

- William Shakespeare,
Love’s Labour Lost

This season of pumpkin pie and gingerbread houses highlights the wonderful spice we call ginger and invites us to explore the intriguing world of gingerbread.

The ginger tuber has been a delicacy since ancient times, eaten fresh and used for flavoring food and beverages as well as for medicinal purposes. Today we use dried ground ginger in pies, soups, curries, beverages and baked goods, and serve thin slices of fresh ginger with sushi. The spice is a natural remedy for stomach upsets, including morning and motion sickness, and also diarrhea. Ginger ale, gingersnaps, ginger tea and candied ginger are useful for these ailments. Ginger ale, a drink that stirs memories from days of illness as well as celebration, originated in 19th-century England where pub keepers kept a shaker on the counter so patrons could add it to their drinks.

The modern name “ginger” comes from the Middle English word “gingivere” while the Latin “zingiber” means horn-shaped in Sanskrit, referring to its antler-like tubers. True ginger is thought to be native to Malaysia and unrelated to the North American “wild ginger” (Asarum canadense) which has a similar aroma and is considered a possible carcinogen.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) belongs to the same plant family as turmeric and cardamom. This reed-like perennial with lance-shaped leaves can reach three to four feet in height and has a creeping underground rhizome with gnarly, tan, tuberous joints. The tops die back at the end of each growing season. It is the underground tubers that are harvested.

First cultivated in India and China at least 7,000 years ago, today ginger is widely grown in subtropical areas and is frequently used as a landscape plant. The prime commercial ginger comes from Haiti and Jamaica.


The Greeks and Romans used ginger mostly for medicinal purposes but around 2000 B.C. wealthy Greeks ate ginger-spiced honey cakes. The winter solstice was celebrated in pre-Christian Europe with little gingerbread cakes decorated with symbols of the sun. Then, after the fall of the Roman Empire, ginger almost disappeared.

The spice was re-introduced to Europe when 11th-century crusaders brought it back from the Middle East. They also carried citrus fruits, almonds and spices that would later become ingredients in various forms of gingerbread. Ginger became highly coveted after Marco Polo’s trip to the Far East in the late 13th century.

The meaning of the word “gingerbread” has varied, depending on the place and time. In medieval England, it simply meant preserved or candied ginger. Around 1300, flour and bread crumbs were added to the candied spice. By the 15th century, “gingerbread” came to mean a cake containing treacle (a form of molasses) and ginger. In 1444, Swedish nuns were baking gingerbread to “ease digestion.” Once the preservative effect of ginger in baked goods was understood, its use increased and many versions were created.

Medieval ladies gave gingerbread cakes to their favorite knights. Queen Elizabeth I may have created the gingerbread person; she gave special guests gingerbread made to look like them. It became so popular that there were “gingerbread fairs.” Bakers made shapes appropriate to the season, like flowers in the spring, as well as some with special meaning, like the heart to ward off evil. By the 17th century there were also fancy shapes like lords, ladies, castles and soldiers. Some European cities, such as Nuremberg, Lyon and Prague, had gingerbread guilds where it was baked in elaborate molds.

Germany has the most lasting tradition of shaped, flat gingerbread. Autumn fairs today feature stalls of gingerbread hearts decorated with colored frosting and tied with ribbons. The heart, of course, has evolved into a symbol of love and caring.

Now, gingerbread most often refers to a baked cake or cookie made with flour, ginger and other spices, sweeteners such as brown sugar, molasses, honey, corn syrup or combinations thereof, and other ingredients. There are thin, crisp cookies like round snaps; Scandinavian pepparkakor, which are cut into hearts or other shapes; and German lebkuchen, which are thicker and softer.

Houses and villages

In the 19th century, the Grimm brothers published a collection of German fairy tales which included the story of Hansel and Gretel – two children who came upon a witch’s house made of gingerbread and candy after their destitute parents left them in the forest. Hansel dropped a trail of breadcrumbs so they could find their way back home (a reference to the ingredient in early gingerbread?). Gingerbread houses soon became popular in Europe and America. Interest increased further near the end of the century when Englebert Humperdink (the original) composed an opera based on the story.

Gingerbread houses are made from shaped and baked cookie dough, then mortared and decorated with royal icing. This confection, made primarily with powdered sugar and egg white, hardens quickly. It holds the parts of the house together and also keeps candy and other decorations in place. The name comes from its use by the English royalty to keep wedding cakes, essentially fruitcakes, moist and fresh. Today royal icing is still used to decorate cookies and special cakes.

During the winter holidays, families in some German villages make gingerbread models of their homes for a miniature village. To celebrate the New Year, children break the houses apart and eat them. Here and in Europe there are competitions, some with cash prizes, to see who can build the fanciest or most unusual gingerbread house. An Internet search on “gingerbread house competition” shows numerous displays and competitions this season, including several in the Boston area.

According to the Guinness World Records, the largest gingerbread house to date was built in 2006 at the Mall of America outside of Minneapolis. It was 67 feet high and made with 14,250 pounds of gingerbread and 4,750 pounds of icing, and decorated with more than a ton of candy. ∆

Gingersnaps from Sally Zielinski

Swedish Ginger Cookies (Pepparkakar)

© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito