The Great Medieval Gingerbread Mystery

My medieval gingerbread. The orange color comes from sandalwood, which also lent a delicate flavor.

The Case of the Missing Ginger

There’s a recipe for Gyngerbrede in a 15th-century collection in the British Library (Harley MS 279). Like any baker, a person making this recipe will scroll through the ingredients first to make sure they’re on hand:

Hony (honey) – check.

Safroun (saffron) – check.

Pepir (pepper, but I used grains of paradise) – check.

Grated brede (bread crumbs) – check.

Canelle (cinnamon) – check.

Saundrerys (sandalwood) – check.

Mix them together, press the mass into a square, and slice it.

But wait! Where’s the gynger?! Who ever heard of a gingerbread recipe without ginger in it?

Lebkuchen, the most popular German gingerbread.
Moving Moment, Zwei glasierte Lebkuchen. Shutterstock, with permission.

The prevailing theory: The scribe did it

The missing ginger in this recipe hasn’t gone unnoticed The most popular explanation for the missing ginger – the one offered by the British Library and by my eatmedieval cooking class – is that the scribe copying the recipe probably just made a mistake and omitted it. Scribes made mistakes all the time. Because it makes sense that recipe titled “gingerbread” had ginger in it, most cooks following the recipe add it back in.

My personal theory is that someone played a nice, medieval joke on the baker. I can imagine some snickering in the scriptorium: Hey Roger – do you think the baker would notice if I don’t list the ginger in the gingerbread recipe?

You can find Lebkuchen hearts at any German festival. Image from Pixabay.

The Real Medieval Gingerbread Mystery

Perhaps the real gingerbread mystery is how this delicacy became so widespread with so many variations. Gingerbread men are attributed to Queen Elizabeth I and are found throughout the English-speaking culture. Lebkuchen and its little cousin Pfefferkuchen are popular in Germany. The witch’s house in the Grimm Brothers’ original Hansel and Gretel was a Lebkuchen house. Every German fair has a stand where you can buy decorated Lebkuchen hearts with love messages on them. The French have their pain d’épices and the Czechs their perník, iced gingerbread cookies.

Polish Toruń gingerbread.
Marcin Floryan, CC BY 2.5 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Gingerbread was already popular in the Middle Ages. The Bishop of Hereford, whose menu we followed in my eatmedieval cooking class, had gingerbread in his 1289 feast. Poland has been producing Toruń gingerbread since the 13th century. In Sweden, gingerbread is documented in 1444.

Perník! A gingerbread shop in the Czech Republic.
islavicek, Shop window in Cesky Krumlov, Shutterstock, with permission.

The original gingerbread might be Asian. A 10th-century manuscript in France apparently records how an Armenian monk named Gregory Markar made spiced cookies like those from his homeland. His gingerbread tradition developed into the La Confrérie du Pain d’Epices de Saint Grégoire de Nicopolis (The Brotherhood of Gingerbread of Saint Gregory of Nicopolis), which still exists today.

References on point:

Liana Aghajanian, “How an Armenian Monk Brought Gingerbread to the West,” ianyan mag (December 23, 2014)

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Duck with Sawse Madame

My duck with sawse madame, stuffed with quince and pears and decorated with oranges, fresh grapes, and chervil from my garden.

Sawse Madame

Galangal and poudre douce….

On the fourth day of Chrismas, in my attempt to create a memorable Christmas in the midst of a corona lockdown, I tackled yet another medieval dish: Goose with Sawse Madame.

A page from the Forme of Cury. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

To make sawse madame, one of the most popular sauces of the Middle Ages, the cooks in our eatmedieval course married recipes from English and French cookbooks. The Forme of Cury, a 14th-century cookbook for the royal kitchen of King Richard II, contains a recipe for goose (I used a duck) with “sawse Madame.” After roasting a stuffed bird, the cook should heat the stuffing and some wine in a pot, and add

thereto powdour of galyngale, powdour douce, and salt and boyle the sawse.

Richard II. Westminster Abbey, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Thereafter the goose is dressed in the sauce.

Here’s my sawse madame. I didn’t dress the goose with it. Instead we served it at the table as a gravy.

Poudre douce

Poudre douce (sweet powder)was a medieval spice mix, and our cook turned to the French La Ménagier de Paris (1393) for the list of ingredients:

ginger, cinnamon, sugar, cloves, and grains of paradise.

Sometimes I get an allergic reaction to cloves, so I substituted allspice.

Quince and pear filling

Quince — the queen of fruit, fit for a king’s dish.

The Forme of Cury suggests a fruit stuffing for the goose:

Take sage, parsley, hyssop and savory, quinces and pears, garlic and grapes, and fill the goose therewith….

Quince – the golden fruit with the silver skin and a heavenly fragrance – can be hard to come by in winter. I was lucky enough to source fresh, organic quince through delicado48. The resulting stuffing was delicious.

I made honey-glazed carrots, wine, elderberry, and carob-glazed shallots, buttered cabbage, and roast potatoes to round off the meal.

Honey-glazed carrots.
And shallots.

Have you ever cooked with quince before? What did you make?

Joyeux Noël!

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Medieval Flavorings

Some medieval flavorings, clockwise from the top: verjuice, grains of paradise, galangal, long pepper, hyssop, and sandalwood.

Spices, spices spices!

Sour and hot, the two flavor directions of the medieval cuisine, brand the food as distinct. Gaining a working acquaintance with unfamiliar medieval flavorings was far and away the best part of my online cooking class with eatmedieval.

A number of the dishes we learned create the hot flavors with grains of paradise, long pepper, galangal, ginger, juniper berries, and regular black and white pepper. The first three were new to me. Wine, vinegar, and verjuice lent the sour flavor. The latter was new to me and the most intriguing. Vintners make verjuice by pressing unripe grapes. That makes for a highly acidic juice that was popular in the Middle Ages. It’s still used in French and Middle Eastern dishes and is enjoying a comeback in Australia. Verjuice is not so popular in Germany, but I’m lucky enough to have a verjuice vintner in the region, Magdalena and Roland Grimm in Bietigheim-Bissingen. (It’s called verjus in German.)

Other medieval flavorings we worked with were sandalwood (also used as a coloring) and hyssop.

Venison Steaks with Medieval Flavorings

Venison steaks with a medieval sauce.

We married the verjuice with juniper berries and grains of paradise to spice up these venison steaks. The recipe is taken from a mid-15th century English collection (British Library, MS Harleian 279). I made these venison steaks with Muskat-Trollinger Rosé and paired it the medieval flavorings we learned in the course. I served the steaks with with broccoli rabe and potatoes.

Haghof in Kirchheim am Neckar

Jillian Gamnitzer in the Haghof store.

I like to purchase my produce at the Haghof. This organic farm also runs a family grocery store with regional organic produce. It’s my go to place for vegetables, fruit, flour, honey, and all sorts of other goodies.

Jillian (Jill) and Roland Gamnitzer have been running the Haghof for almost 39 years. Although they’re retiring at the end of the month, they’ll still live on the farm. Thank goodness the new farmer taking over will keep the store open. Jill’s from England and speaks both German and English and it’s fun to chat with her in both.

The Haghof welcoming committee, Gerritt (right) and Gerlinde.

I can’t talk about the Haghof without mentioning Gerritt and Gerlinde, the Haghof’s pet geese, who always give me a warm welcome. Over the years, they’ve come to know me, and if they’re not locked in their stall, they’ll wait at the grocery store door for me to come out, knowing I’ll offer them some treats. If they’re locked in, I’ll feed them bread in the stall. Gerritt will eat out of my hand.

Gerlinde will, too, but only if Gerritt isn’t looking. It’s a goose thing. He sees it as his job to protect her, and no one gets to the goose without going through the gander. I respect that to remain friends with him, but Gerlinde sometimes sneaks a few nibbles from my hand.

Have you ever tried verjuice, grains of paradise, or any of the other medieval flavorings mentioned?

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King Wenceslaus and a Czech Twist on my Medieval Feast

Bohemian napkin dumplings — a recipe from my Czech grandmother.

Good King Wenceslaus looked out, on the Feast of Stephen, when the show lay round about, deep and crisp and even.

Now I’m steering my time machine to Bohemia. Dec. 26 is the Feast of Stephen, and I have an added reason to take a closer look at King Wenceslaus today: We share a heritage. I’m half Czech. King Wenceslaus is not only the most revered Bohemian, he’s its patron saint. For that reason, I’m giving my medieval Christmas feast a Czech twist today.

King Wenceslaus

Good King Wenceslaus. Engraving by Brothers Dalziel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Wenceslaus (ca. 907-935) is to the Czech culture what St. Martin is to the German culture – an official who went out of his way to care for the poor. He had a reputation for his generosity, like the carol Good King Wenceslaus relates.

My Czech grandparents must have liked him, because they gave one of my uncles the middle name Wenceslaus (I’m looking at you, Uncle Jerry). Prague has a Wenceslaus Square (Václavské Náměstí, a Wenceslaus monument, and a statue of Wenceslaus in the St. Vitus Cathedral. The Saint Wenceslaus chorale (Svatováclavský chorál) is one of the oldest Czech songs, dating back to the 12th century, and is still so popular today it was considered for the Czech national anthem. Wenceslaus’s feast day on September 28 is a national holiday in the Czech Republic. And then, of course, there is the St. Stephen’s Day carol, Good King Wenceslaus.

My favorite picture of my Czech grandmother, Růženka (Rose).

Some Czech Dishes to Round Out Our Medieval Feast

Today we ate the leftovers of our boar’s head from yesterday along with some Czech goodies my grandmother Růženka (Rose) used to make: knedlíky (the Bohemian dumplings) red cabbage, and apple strudel. The dumplings require an excellent gravy, and the Cumberland sauce and boar’s head gravy from yesterday do the trick.

The Czech dumplings, pared with gravy and stuffing left over from the boar’s head, which we ate yesterday.

We finished the meal with the Vánoční koleda (Czech Christmas carol) Půjdem spolu do Bethéma (Let’s Go to Bethlehem).

Have you ever tried Czech food?

If you’re interested in taking an online class on medieval cooking, check out Eatmedieval.

Hezky Vánoce, or Merry Christmas!

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Boar’s Head for Christmas

Our boar’s head, bedeck’d with a garland of laurel, rosemary, and sage. The rosemary and sage are fresh from our garden and the laurel came from a neighbor. Thank you, Frau Spies!

The boar’s head, as I understand
Is the rarest dish in all this land
Which thus bedeck’d with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico.

Thus goes the Boar’s Head Carol, and to explore this traditional Christmas dish, let’s set the dials on our time machine to 13th-century England. Boar’s head featured in the 1289 Christmas menu the Bishop of Hereford. Following the instruction in the online cooking class A Taste of Christmas Past, I took on challenge of filling and roasting one at home. Descriptions of the pig’s cheeks as the best bacon of the entire animal convinced me it could be worth it, despite the reservations of some family members. (“A pig’s head? On the table? Mom!)

The Boar’s Head in England

Serving up the Boar’s Head at The Queen’s College, Oxford, on Christmas Day. The Graphic, 1873, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Not only was the boar’s head a highlight of a medieval Christmas feast, it also has a connection to Queen’s College at the University of Oxford. According to myth, a student was once attacked by a wild boar. He could fight it off and kill it by hitting it with books of Aristotle. This led, apparently, to a traditional Yuletide feast featuring a boar’s head. That explains the carol’s next verse:

Our steward hath provided this
In honor of the King of Bliss;
Which, on this day to be served is
In Reginensi atrio (In the hall of Queen’s).

The recipe for the boar’s head was loosely based on Chiquart’s Du fait de cuisine (1420) and the filling on the Forme of Cury.

My husband went hog wild over this dish. “Who knew the snout had sooo much meat?” he said as he dissected my servings. “It has truffles and saffron!” My sons, who had their initial reservations, dug into the stuffing with gusto.


Our wassail bowl.

My menu backfired, however, when I served my family wassail, or hot spiced cider. I thought it would be nice to talk to my German husband and sons about the wassailing tradition so they’d better understand the carol, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”  — the exchange of wassail for figgy pudding, and the servants singing Christmas blessings on their master before receiving their holiday treats. (I know January 6 is the traditional date for wassailing, but we are going Mexican that day.)

We looked at the lyrics to the Gloucestershire Wassail (one of my favorite Christmas songs), but when it came to singing it, one of my sons threw up his hands in protest. “I had no idea servants had to beg their masters for food for Christmas!”

“Wassailing was just for fun,” I said. “Of course the masters would have given their servants food for Christmas whether they wassailed or not.”

But he felt like the songs romantized the poverty of the servants. He used to like ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” he said, but decided he doesn’t anymore.

Dang it. Can anyone help me out on the history here to convince him wassailing doesn’t romanticize the downside of servanthood?

Figgy Pudding

Our figgy pudding.

Of course I had to finish up with figgy pudding – something the entire family relished.

Metzergei Stollsteimer

Martina Kurz, who works the counter, and Thomas Stollsteimer in Metzgerei Stollsteimer (Gemmrigheim, Germany)

Obtaining a pig’s head and having it deboned is not an easy thing, so I want to take a moment to thank my butcher, Thomas Stollsteimer, who not only sourced the pig’s head, but unusual items like venison, wild boar, pig’s blood, and duck for the upcoming recipes.

Tomorrow we’ll explore a little of the Bohemian Christmas culture.

If you’re interested in taking an online class on medieval cooking, check out Eatmedieval.

Merry Christmas!

Have you ever tried a boar’s head before?

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