The stuff of fairy tales
Country Life UK|November 25, 2020
Gingerbread will forever be associated with that little house in the woods, but it was also a firm favourite with Elizabeth I. Inspired by a collection of extravagant moulds, Rosie Goodwin of the Ryedale Folk Museum explores the origins of a festive favourite
Rosie Goodwin

AT its best, gingerbread is still regarded as the most Christmassy of treats—decorative domiciles are all the rage at this time of year, instigated by Victorian interest in the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. But how did this foodstuff, neither quite biscuit nor fully cake, develop its association with the festive season, long before the notion of creating a gingerbread cottage caught on?

The short answer is that it was expensive. In medieval Europe, the cost of the exotic ingredients from the burgeoning spice trade —including (depending on the recipe) ginger, cinnamon, pepper and saffron—all positioned gingerbread beyond the reach of the everyday consumer, establishing its reputation as an elite and luxurious item. When it became more popularly consumed, it was for a suitably extravagant occasion, such as Christmas. The ‘heat’ of the spices may also have contributed to the baked good being viewed as a warming winter treat.

The impression given off by the gingerbread moulds in the Harrison Collection at Ryedale Folk Museum, on the edge of the North York Moors, is certainly one of decadence and wealth. Their sheer size speaks of opulence and things done on a grand scale. The largest is a pair of spectacular Dutch figures, several feet tall and with intricate carved designs, which would have been further embellished with edible gold leaf and icings. They are a long way from the childish, anthropomorphic figures with raisins or sweets for eyes more readily available today.

A likely interpretation is that the figures were created for a wedding feast: at the feet of the ‘wife’ is a small plant, starting from the ground, with a larger, healthy shoot growing beneath the ‘husband’, a symbol of marital fertility to which their extended index fingers appear to point. The connection with fertility and matrimony existed in England, too, where gingerbread men were thought to signify a girl’s future husband.

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