Gingerbread is a word which describes different sweet food products from soft cakes to a ginger biscuit.
Gingerbread and the shapes it takes have a long history. An early form of gingerbread can be traced to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians who used it for ceremonial purposes.
According to the French legend, gingerbread was brought to Europe in 992 by the Armenian monk, later saint, Gregory of Nicopolis (Gregory Makar). He lived for seven years in Bondaroy, France, near the town of Pithiviers, where he taught gingerbread cooking to priests and other Christians.
It is believed gingerbread was first baked in Europe at the end of the 11th century, when returning crusaders brought back the custom of spicy bread from the Middle East. Ginger was not only tasty, it had properties that helped preserve the bread.
In the 13th century in the Polish city of Torun gingerbread began to be produced and quickly gained fame in the country and abroad, it was then brought to Sweden by German immigrants.
Gingerbread was also shaped into different forms by monks in Franconia, Germany in the 13th century.
Lebkuchen bakers are recorded as early as 1296 in Ulm and 1395 in Nuremberg, Germany. Nuremberg was recognized as the “Gingerbread Capital of the World” when in the 1600s the guild started to employ master bakers and skilled workers to create complicated works of art from gingerbread.
In 15th-century Germany, a gingerbread guild controlled production. Early references from the Vadstena Abbey show that the Swedish nuns baked gingerbread to ease indigestion in 1444. It was the custom to bake white biscuits and paint them as window decorations.
The first documented instance of figure-shaped gingerbread biscuits was at the court of Elizabeth I of England. She had the gingerbread figures made and presented in the likeness of some of her important guests.
The first documented trade of gingerbread biscuits in England dates to the 17th century, where they were sold in monasteries, pharmacies, and town square farmers’ markets. In England, gingerbread was thought to have medicinal properties.
One hundred years later, the town of Market Drayton in Shropshire, England became known for its gingerbread, as is displayed on their town’s welcome sign, stating that it is the “home of gingerbread”. The first recorded mention of gingerbread being baked in the town dates to 1793, although it was probably made earlier, as ginger had been stocked in high street businesses since the 1640s. Gingerbread became widely available in the 18th century.
Gingerbread came to the Americas with settlers from Europe. Molasses, which was less expensive than sugar, soon became a common ingredient and produced a softer cake. The first American cookbook, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons published in 1796, contained seven different recipes for gingerbread.
The tradition of making decorated gingerbread houses started in Germany in the early 1800s. According to certain researchers, the first gingerbread houses were the result of the well-known Grimm’s fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” in which the two children abandoned in the forest found an edible house made of bread with sugar decorations. After this book was published, German bakers began baking ornamented fairy-tale houses of lebkuchen (gingerbread). These became popular during Christmas, a tradition that came to America with Pennsylvanian German immigrants. According to other food historians, the Grimm brothers were speaking about something that already existed.
Gingerbread houses never caught on in Britain as they did in North America, where some extraordinary examples can be found. But they do exist in other parts of Europe.
The executive sous-chef at the New York Marriott Marquis hotel, Jon Lovitch, broke the record for the largest gingerbread village with 135 residential and 22 commercial buildings, and cable cars and a train also made of gingerbread. It was displayed at the New York Hall of Science. Another contender from Bergen, Norway made a gingerbread town called Pepperkakebyen.
In 2013, a group in Bryan, Texas, USA, broke the Guinness World Record set the previous year for the largest gingerbread house, with a 234-square-meter (2,520-square-foot) edible-walled house in aid of a hospital trauma centre. The gingerbread house had an estimated calorific value exceeding 35.8 million and ingredients included 2,925 pounds (1,327 kg) of brown sugar, 1,800 pounds (820 kg) of butter, 7,200 eggs and 7,200 pounds (3,300 kg) of general purpose flour.
The longest gingerbread was 1,052.3 m (3,451 ft 5 in) long and was achieved by Stefan Koch and Konrad Friedmann (both Germany) in Ludwigsburg, Germany, on 18 December 2009. The gingerbread was 50 cm wide and was made from single plates of gingerbread (50 cm x 72 cm), which were glued together with a mixture of icing sugar, water and lemon juice in order to form one piece.
British luxury retailer VeryFirstTo has partnered with highly regarded pastry chef Georgia Green and made the world’s most expensive gingerbread house which cost nearly $78,000. It is made with Meridian Black Strap molasses, Ceylon cinnamon, Echire Butter, Suma raw cane sugar, Duchy eggs, rubies, and pearls.