Friday, December 23, 2011

The History of Gingerbread

by Gillian Bagwell

Here in America, we associate gingerbread with Christmas, in the form of gingerbread men and decorated gingerbread houses. But gingerbread has a long history. The word "gingerbread" comes from the Old French word "gingebras", which comes from the Latin word "zingiber", meaning preserved ginger. Eventually gingerbread came to mean either biscuits or cake made with ginger and other spices.

The first documented trade of gingerbread biscuits was in the sixteenth century, where they were sold in pharmacies, monasteries and town square farmers' markets. In Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labor’s Lost, Costard, the country fool tells little Moth, “And I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy gingerbread.” Some early recipes had more of a kick than we’re used to, calling for pepper or mustard. In Part One of Henry IV, Hotspur mentions “pepper gingerbread.”

The town of Market Drayton (then Drayton) in Shropshire, England became famous for its gingerbread biscuits, which were traditionally eaten dipped in port. Possibly gingerbread (and perhaps port!) were responsible for the Great Fire of Drayton in 1641. It started in a bakery and raged through the half-timbered buildings with thatched roofs and destroyed seventy percent of the town.

The other type of gingerbread traditional in England is a dense, moist cake, usually baked in a square shape or loaf. It is traditionally eaten on Bonfire Night, the Fifth of November's annual commemoration of the foiling of the plot by Guy Fawkes and his accomplices to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605.

Perkin or parkin (both diminutives of the name Peter) is a kind of gingerbread typically made with oatmeal and molasses, originally made in Northern England. It keeps well, and is traditionally not eaten fresh.

Below are two quite different English gingerbread recipes. The first is from Sir Hugh Platt’s Delights for Ladies, published in 1608, for gingerbread biscuits. The original and updated recipes are from A Taste of History: 10,000 Years of Food in Britain. The second recipe, from October 1907, is the parkin variety of moist gingerbread cake. The Guardian newspaper printed it in 2007 and noted “Back then parkin sold for eight old pence a pound.”


To make gingerbread: Take three stale Manchets and grate them, drie them, and sift them through a fine sieve, then adde unto them one ounce of ginger beeing beaten, and as much Cinamon, one ounce of liquorice and aniseedes being beaten together and searced, halfe a pound of sugar, then boile all these together in a posnet, with a quart of claret wine till them come to a stiff paste with often stirring of it; and when it is stiffe, mold it on a table and so drive it thin,
and print it in your moldes; dust your moldes with Cinamon, Ginger, and liquorice, beeing mixed together in fine powder. This is your gingerbread used at the Court, and in all gentlemens houses at festival times. It is otherwise called drie Leach.


2 cups (225 g.) fresh white breadcrumbs
1 tsp. (5 ml.) ground ginger
1 tsp. (5 ml.) cinnamon

1 tsp. (5 ml.) aniseed
1 tsp. (5 ml.) ground liquorice (if available)
¼ cup (2.5 g.) sugar)
½ cup (150 ml.) claret

Dry the breadcrumbs under the grill or in the oven (but without browning), and add to the remaining ingredients in a saucepan. Work the mixture over a gentle heat with a wooden spoon, until it forms a stiff dough. Turn the dough out onto a wooden board dusted with ground ginger and cinnamon and roll it out to about ¼ inch (5 mm.) in thickness. It may then be impressed with a small stamp, a 1 inch (2.5 cm.) diameter butter press being ideal for this purpose, and cut into small circles, using a pastry cutter. If antique gingerbread molds are available, then they should be dusted with the ground spices before the slab of dough is firmly impressed into their designs. Then, after the surplus has been trimmed off with the knife, the gingerbread can be removed by inverting the molds, and gently knocking their edges down onto the table. Like most early gingerbreads, this version released its flavors gradually, the gentle aniseed being slowly overwhelmed by the fiery ginger.

Neither of the recipes mentions baking, but I think this might be a mistake. Based on modern recipes, I would bake the gingerbread at 375F/190C for about 8-10 minutes.


2 cups (225g) plain flour
3½ tsp ground ginger
¾ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
A pinch of salt
1½ cups (125g) medium oatmeal
½ cup (100g) unsalted butter, softened
2/3 c. cup (125g) light soft brown sugar
Zest of ½ lemon
¼ cup (100g) treacle or molasses
3 tablespoons (75g) golden syrup or corn syrup (or you could use all molasses)
3 ½ tablespoons (50ml) milk
¼ cup (50g) mixed peel, finely chopped

Butter a deep, 8 inch (20cm) square cake tin and line the base with nonstick baking parchment. Heat the oven to 350F/180C (160C fan-assisted/gas mark 4). Sift the flour, spices, soda and salt into a bowl, then stir in the oatmeal. In another bowl beat the butter, sugar and zest until light and fluffy. Add the treacle and syrup, beat again until creamy and smooth, then add the milk and the
dry ingredients, and beat quickly until smooth once more. Fold in the mixed peel, then spoon the mixture into the tin. Cover the top with foil, bake for 40 minutes, then remove the foil and bake for a further 20 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean.


The Guardian newspaper


A Taste of History: 10,000 Years of Food in Britain, Brears et al., published by English Heritage in association with British Museum Press, 1993

Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary, Alexander Schmidt, 1902, reprinted by Dover Publications, Inc., 1971

Gillian Bagwell is the author of The Darling Strumpet, The September Queen, and the forthcoming My Lady Bess. For information about her books, and links to other articles and the blogs of her research adventures, please visit her website.


  1. Thanks ladies. Very interesting and timely. I made thin crispy little men tonight first gingerbread recipe I've done in a long time.
    merry Christmas to all!

  2. Thank you Gillian for an excellent article, my curious daughter asked this question not an hour a go and now I can point her straight to it.
    Regards Gregory House

  3. I made Parkin at Hallowe'en a couple of years ago. It was delicious served fresh with applesauce or later with syrup.

  4. We'll try these recipes! So far Peter has made peanut butter thumb prints, ginger cookies and some thin lebkuchen so hard they could be used as miniature roof tiles. The problem, we believe, was in the thinness and resultant over baking. This mishap from a fellow with a cake cookbook out. A caution regarding recipes that urge rolling the dough very thin.

  5. That was really interesting - thank you ... didn't know any of that!


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