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Gingerbread: History, Folklore, and Health Benefits

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Gingerbread Men

Healthy Gingerbread

I find it fascinating that the spices included in this amazing confectionery item were popular centuries ago and yet many are still popular today in many countries.  There are very few food items that I know of which were used in ancient cultures and yet recipes are still around today. Gingerbread is one of those items. It seems safe to assume that one of the reasons it has remained so popular is due to the health qualities of the ginger root, one of the ingredients in gingerbread.  The combination of spicy ginger, bold molasses, cinnamon, and citrus create a robust aroma that permeates throughout your entire house.

I also find it fascinating that despite the fact that many of the ingredients in gingerbread such as molasses, honey, cinnamon, and cloves, were used for medicinal purposes, that somehow throughout the years, for some reason, gingerbread seems to be primarily associated with Christmas.  Many websites say pretty much the same thing, word-for-word.  However, although my first sentence resembles all those other websites (because I wanted to show how many years gingerbread has been around), after that sentence, as I normally do, I took a totally different approach.  I hope you find this article interesting.

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Ginger is native to Asia where it has been grown for more than 4,000 years and was widely used throughout Asian, Indian, and Arabian civilizations because of its medicinal qualities.  Ginger apparently traveled to Western Europe by crusaders as they returned to their homes throughout Europe.  It can be traced to Franconian monks whose pfefferkuchen (pepper cake) or honigkuchen (honey cakes) morphed into the gingerbread that we know today.  Nuremberg, Germany became known for lebkuchen ( listen) primarily due to the city’s location along ancient trading and spice routes of the Rhine, Main, and Danube Rivers and was also where the best known bakers’ guild was located.  As honey was the most coveted sweetener in that era, bakers worked with the beekeepers of the Zeidler guild, whose beekeeping and bee breeding thrived in the forests around Nuremberg.  This made all of the ingredients that are in lebkuchen and gingerbread easily available and the rest is history.  The secret gingerbread recipes are still used today with the oldest written gingerbread recipe, which dates back to the 16th century, are kept in the German National Museum, in Nuremberg.

The quality of the Nuremberg guild’s lebkuchen was so high that it was even used as currency for paying city taxes.  It was also considered a gift worthy of heads of state and royalty. Lebkuchen gingerbread is still sold in Nuremberg today.

Some of the spices that are used in gingerbread are: allspice, aniseed, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, ginger, mace, spiced or candied orange or lemon peel, and a variety of nuts.  However, the United States uses fewer spices in gingerbread recipes.

Gingerbread became popular around the world:

United Kingdom: gingerbread is in the form of a biscuit and often is in the shape of a gingerbread man

Germany: Lebkuchen is a more firm form and popular at carnivals street markets, and associate with Christmas Markets

Nordic Countries: Baltic Countries: Estonia (piparkoogid), and  Latvia (pipūrkukas)

Scandinavian Countries: Denmark (brunkager), Finland (piparkakut), Iceland (piparkokur), Norway (pepperkaker), Sweden (pepparkakor)

Poland: piernik: the dough for staropolski is best when it has been kneaded 4-6 weeks prior to Christmas.  Pierniczki nadziewane is gingerbread that has been stuffed with jam or chocolate

Switzerland: biber: from the Appenzell region, this gingerbread is made from honey dough, filled with light almond paste, and formed in a variety of shapes and sizes.

The Netherlands: peperkoek: pepper cake that was made from breadcrumbs and leftover bakery items that were pressed to create a “cake” and then sealed with pepper.  Pepper was one of the most valuable trading items of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company). Ontbijtkoek (breakfast cake) and kruidkoek (spice cake).

Belgium: speculaas: a spiced shortbread biscuit. Just for fun, check out the largest gingerbread cookie in the world.

Russia: Tula gingerbread: imprinted gingerbread.

Gingerbread House

Gingerbread is healthy

My point in all of the above is to show that gingerbread not only has been around for centuries; however, it is still very popular in many countries and regions.

In 1893 composer Engelbert Humperdinck wrote the fairy tale opera that became known as Hansel and Gretel (I found an animated version of the story) by the Brothers Grimm, which caused gingerbread houses to become popular as bakers replicated the fairy tale witch’s house.

Although gingerbread houses never became popular in all countries, they certainly did in the United States as German Settlers brought the lebkuchenhaeusle (Gingerbread House) to New America.  Enjoy both the Nuremberg recipe and an American style recipes.

I worked in a children’s hospital for 9½ years and one thing that happened every year was the “Gingerbread House Contest”.  Each department or service formed teams and each team got the current year’s instructions and criteria that had to be followed along with a cardboard base.  There were gingerbread houses, castles, farms, villages, etc.  The winner of the contest was decided by the children who went through the showroom where all gingerbread submissions were on display and they put a paperclip in the 3 entries that they liked the most.  When the day was finished and all the kids who wanted to go through the display room had been through it (Nurses also pushed hospital beds around the room for the kids who could not get out of bed) the paperclips were all tallied and that’s how 3rd place, 2nd place, and 1st place winners were chosen.  It was lots of fun and a great team building exercise.

In fact, some places provide extraordinary examples such as at Walt Disney World.  During a family vacation in 2006, we saw whole villages of extremely detailed gingerbread house villages.  I want to share several photos that we took of the gingerbread houses.  These two were taken at Disney’s Yacht Club.

Disney Gingerbread Village

Disney Gingerbread

In addition to the fun side of gingerbread, there are also the health benefits of gingerbread; however, I am working on an article about the health benefits of many herbs and spices that will be published next year.

Care to share?  Have you ever built a gingerbread house?  Or made gingerbread people or animals or Christmas trees?

 

Do you know why gingerbread seems to be hooked to the Christmas holiday?  I have not found out yet why that seems to be the case.

 

Regards,

Traveling Nana

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References: Although I hyperlinked the websites from which I found information about gingerbread for the different countries on the actual name of gingerbread in the different countries, I began with Wikipedia.  From that point, I simply searched the different countries’ websites to find the websites that discussed gingerbread made in their country (after translating the pages).

NOTE: I checked all websites referenced and linked below in Norton SafeWeb to ensure that there were no computer threats, identity threats, or annoyance factors.  All links were safe at the time I wrote this article (December 2015).,

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