One of the items I see regularly in my research is gingerbread. The Moreton family of Little Moreton in Cheshire regularly shopped for ingredients that suggest they were making gingerbread for when they entertained, with purchases of ginger, cinnamon and pepper. The gingerbread they would be making is not the type we are used to today, which is a biscuit, but instead would consist of breadcrumbs soaked in red wine and honey with added spices, including the unusual addition of pepper which adds to the fiery taste. Spices at the end of the meal were thought to be good for digestion and so it would be a regular feature of a banquet (or sweet course) at the end of an early modern meal – provided you were rich enough to be able to afford the spices of course.

The photo above shows my ‘Tudor gingerbread’ made for the Leeds Food Symposium a couple of years ago and the recipe itself is from Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife of 1615. It is actually a combination of three recipes from this collection, however, I confess I haven’t tried it with the liqourice Markham calls for. The three recipes I use and combine are as follows:

153. To Make Course Gingerbread

Take claret wine and colour it with turnsole, and put in sugar and set it to the fire; then take wheat bread finely grated and sifted, and liqourice, aniseeds, ginger, and cinnamon beaten very small and searced; and put your bread and your spice altogether, and put them into the wine and boil it and stir it till it be thick; then mould it and print it at your pleasure, and let it stand neither too moist nor too warm.

162. To Make Course Ginger Bread

To make course gingerbread, take a quart of honey and set it on the coals and refine it: then take a pennyworth of ginger, as much pepper, as much liquorice; and a quarter of a pound of aniseeds, and a pennyworth of sanders: all of these must be beaten and searced, and so put into the honey: then upt in a quarter of a pint of claret wine or old ale: then take three penny manchets finely grated and strew it amongst the rest, and stir till it come to a stiff paste, and then make it into cakes and dry them gently.

188. Coarse Gingerbread

Take a quart of honey clarified, and seethe it till it be brown, and if it be thick put to it a dish of water: then take fine crumbs of white bread grated, and put to it, and stir it well, and when it is almost cold, put to it the powder of ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and a little liqourice and aniseeds; then kneed it, and put it into moulds and print it: some use to put to it also a little pepper, but that is according unto taste and pleasure.

Two of the recipes mention moulds and prints and while I let mine set into neat cubes, the same mix could be put into moulds and left to dry out and stiffen up. Ivan Day showed the results of this with his amazing gingerbreads and moulds he brought to the Leeds Food Symposium in 2019 – as shown in the photo above – and which featured in the Food and Feast exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge the same year. These look a lot more biscuit-like despite using the bread paste method.

Serving gingerbread was a symbol of wealth and easy access to spices and, as with the moulds of William and Mary above, could also express political allegiance. It was regularly given as gifts and therefore to procure reciprocal gifts or favours from recipients. And it was seen as a healthy way to finish a meal, demonstrating a hostess’s desire to provide her guests with the necessary digestive aids and show concern for their physical comfort.

Gingerbread has changed considerably over the years but even towards the end of the 17th century, the recipes I have looked at for gingerbread hadn’t varied that much. In 1665 Robert May, in The Accomplisht Cook, instructs his readers to mix breadcrumbs with ground almonds and the usual spices and sugar, but with the liquid element being rosewater instead of wine and/or honey. He also says to dry out the gingerbread in the stove. Hannah Woolley, in her Queen-Like Closet of 1672, has a very similar recipe to Gervase Markham, with wine, sugar and spices, but she advises to mould it freehand on the table, dusted beforehand with sugar and spices.

However, in 1747 Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy was published and her gingerbread recipe is quite different:

To Make Gingerbread:

Take three quarts of fine flour, two ounces of beaten ginger, a quarter of an ounce of nutmeg, cloves, and mace beat fine, but most of the last; mix all together, three quarters of a pound of fine sugar, two pound of treacle, set it over the fire, but don’t let it boil; three quarters of a pound of butter melted in the treacle, and some candied lemon and orange peel cut fine, mix all these together well; an hour will bake it in a quick oven.

The wine, pepper and breadcrumbs have all gone and flour has been introduced to create something quite different. I will be trying this version shortly by way of comparison.

As with all aspects of early modern food, there are various ways in which we can investigate different elements of early modern life from a starting point of gingerbread. Whether that is its presence in plays such as Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, to potential subversive use of gingerbread in a religious context, to the source of the spices that went into the mix (particulary pepper). The Moreton’s of Little Moreton included members of the family who travelled to the East Indies in the 1610s and early 1620s to trade for pepper, bringing back packages to sell and give as gifts but which also no doubt flavoured some of the dishes the Moretons could offer their guests.

Alongside my work and ongoing PhD research, the following shed further light on these connections, together with references for the recipes used here and more gingery context. The presence of gingerbread in Bartholomew Fair was highlighted in a fascinating paper by Taylor Parrish at the Oxford Food Symposium (which took place online) in the summer of 2020. I look forward to the publication of the papers from this symposium in due course:

Avery, V. and Calaresu, M. (eds). Feast and Fast: The Art of Food in Europe 1500-1800. University of Cambridge/Fitzwilliam Museum. Bloomsbury. 2019.

Brears, P. Cooking and Dining in Tudor and Early Stuart England. Prospect Books. 2015.

Day, I. Lady Barbara Fleming’s Gingerbreads. Historic Food website.

Day, I. Block Gingerbread. Food History Jottings website.

Day, I. Gingerbread. In Avery, V. and Calaresu, M. (eds). Feast and Fast: The Art of Food in Europe 1500-1800. University of Cambridge/Fitzwilliam Museum. Bloomsbury. 2019.

Glasse, H. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. 1747.

Markham, G. The English Housewife. 1615.

May, R. The Accomplisht Cook. 1665.

Wareham, E. Radical Object: Gingerbread. History Workshop Radical Objects online series. 2020.

Woolley, H. The Queen-Like Closet. 1672.

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