I’m back to work on Monday having enjoyed an entire 2 weeks of Christmas holiday (perks of being a teacher!) and, well, I’m not sure I’ll be going back. No real reason, it’s just I’ve become so used to only wearing pyjamas and eating chocolate for every meal that I don’t think I can remember how to be a functioning adult, let alone a functioning adult in charge of the future generations of this country. I’ve also had a cold all Christmas and I am pretty sure that if part of your holiday is spent lying on the sofa being poorly instead of lying on the sofa drunk on mulled wine, then you’re allowed to redo the whole thing. I mean, I need to double check it, but I’m fairly certain the law is on my side with this one.
Anyway, in an effort to prolong the festivities I decided to make some gingerbread. This is actually something I’ve wanted to do for ages and every year I tell myself that I’ll make one of those gingerbread houses and decorate it with smarties and jelly tots just like a Hansel and Gretel fever dream. And yet every year I never get round to it. Eggnog always seems to happen instead. So I thought my first dip into the pantry of history could be one that fulfils my wish for a biscuit house and gets post number 1 done in one go!
Except… it turns out that 15th century medieval cooks didn’t quite go in for candy cane picket fences and soft snap biscuit walls. In fact, their whole concept of gingerbread was totally different to ours. For a start: no ginger was needed. In gingerbread. Gingerbread. I actually did some research into this recipe and from what I can gather it was either left out because the other ingredients were believed to fulfil the job of the ginger (more on that in a second) or because the author just forgot to add it in. He had one job! Either way, we aren’t sure why a recipe daring to call itself ‘Gyngerbrede’ would so boldly flout the trade descriptions act, but there we go.
The actual ingredients are honey, powdered pepper, saffron, cinnamon and bread. Always helpful, the author of this recipe didn’t really specify any quantities other than a ‘quart of hony’ which is roughly equivalent to a modern day litre. This is absolutely outrageous decadence for a recipe written at a time of famine, war and plague, so this recipe must have been aspirational and only for the rich (as if the presence of spices hadn’t given that away). I substituted a quart for 250ml instead.
First, I had to take my honey and boil until a scum formed, then skim this scum off. This was pretty easy and smelled quite good. There was minimal scum to get rid of because I guess modern day honey manufacturing methods have taken out a lot of the impurities for us, but I sort of swirled a spoon around the pan for the spirit of the thing.
Then I added powdered pepper, (which I hand ground in a pestle and mortar that I found in the cupboard that neither myself or my husband bought but which I’ve learnt is one of those things that all kitchens must generate themselves, like cinnamon sticks and batteries) and stirred it. This was a bit trickier because there were no quantities given in the recipe so I just put in a teaspoon of ground peppercorns and hoped for the best. Then I added a few strands of saffron (did you know that saffron was so highly prized that in 15th century Germany, merchants who cheated their customers by adulterating their stock could be arrested and executed?) and gave it all a quick stir.
Next I risked my marriage by grating a quarter of a loaf of white bread all over the kitchen counter less than 15 minutes after my husband had lovingly tidied and wiped down all the surfaces and swept the floor. I suppose if I was doing this properly I would have made my own medieval loaf, but as it was I couldn’t be arsed and my toddler was now very curious about the pan of bubbling honey, so I just used a plain wheat loaf instead. Ordinary medieval peasants would only have access to rougher grains for their breads, for example rye, as wheat was a ‘cash crop’ and usually only for the wealthy. However, given that I’d already established this recipe was written by a lunatic who presumably had enough cash to sink a litre of honey and saffron in one go, I assumed using a simple shop bought cottage white loaf would be close enough to the fine wheat bread of the wealthy medieval classes. I grated the bread into as fine breadcrumbs as I could using a cheese grater because the curious and slightly insomniatic (is this a word?) toddler was now in bed in the room above the kitchen so using the food processor to make breadcrumbs was out of the question, and tipped the mass into the honey mix.
It all began to smell very medieval. Sort of ferment-y and sweet and musty. I stirred it all together until it was basically a thick paste and tipped it into a dish to squidge down. It had a grainy texture, like homemade fudge. At this point the recipe suggested adding sandalwood for a red colour, and I can see why; once I had patted it into all the edges and smoothed it down it resembled less cookie-cutter house of dreams and more regurgitated cat food. The author must have thought the same because he practically begged me to add evergreen leaves and cloves for
Realised at this point that I’d forgotten to add the cinnamon, which by medieval standards would have been a big no-no. Remember I mentioned earlier that one possible reason for the lack of ginger in this recipe was because it was believed the other ingredients would have done ginger’s job for it? Medieval people believed in the theory of the 4 humours – that the human body was made up of 4 essential liquids: blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. Illness was caused when the humours became corrupted or misaligned and because each humour shared attributes with the 4 elements (hot, cold, wet, dry) a sick person could have their humours realigned by taking a medicine with elements in it which would generate more of the humour they were lacking, or cause them to purge some of the humour they had too much of. Ginger, with its spicy kick, was associated with the element of heat and therefore would have been seen as a medicinal ingredient for those whose illness was caused by a lack of bile and who needed to create more by warming up their insides. Other ingredients with similarly spicy qualities, such as cinnamon, did the same, which is why a medieval person using this recipe as more of a medieval version of a chakra cleanse rather than a sweet treat might have been distraught by my forgetfulness. Although the teaspoon of pepper, another spicy addition to the recipe, may have made up for it. Either way, whoever the author was they must have really been lacking in yellow bile…
After a couple of hours in the fridge I cut it into slices and sprinkled on some of the forgotten cinnamon. It didn’t taste as bad as I thought it would! It’s not as painfully sweet as I expected but is very sticky and kind of nougat like. I had chilled mine in the fridge before cutting it because I’m a sucker for an anachronism, and I think that made it more palatable. A teaspoon of pepper is maybe too much as it definitely had a kick to it, although that may also have been overeager cinnamonning at the end. All in all I definitely wouldn’t call this gingerbread, but I can see why someone who had the misfortune to live before chocolate and gummy bears were invented might think it was a decent treat.