“Maybe my passion is nothing special, but at least it’s mine.”
― Tove Jansson, Travelling Light
I’m guessing I’m not alone in adoring gingerbread. Spicy, warming and irresistible, it also comes with a raft of great stories, often intertwining themes of love and death. Fine medieval ladies offered their jousting knights gingerbread favours, sometimes pressed into heart shapes. In German fairytale, Hansel & Gretel were lured by the cannibalistic witch’s gingerbread house. And America gave us the Gingerbread Boy who ran away from the old couple who’d made him, but who would also eat him. Why the link between gingerbread and cannibalism? If there’s a psychoanalyst in the house, please make yourself known.
As befits a foodstuff that’s been with us since the middle ages, there’s quite a range of recipes. We have gingerbread: the cake and gingerbread: the biscuit. And before that we had gingerbread: the pressed mix of ground almonds, breadcrumbs, honey and spices (or just some of the above), from which the pre-impalement knightly nibbles would have been constructed. Here’s a nice article about some of the oldest gingerbread, complete with recipes. Different nations and regions have boasted gingerbread superiority. It’s a wonder we don’t need a dedicated Gingerbread Council at the United Nations.
For the past decade or so I’ve been making the biscuit kind of gingerbread for my own family at Christmas time. I may be in denial, but it’s my observation that it engenders a simple pleasure response from my nearest and dearest and very little, if any, conflict. Sometimes I go to town and ice the gingerbread to hang from the Christmas tree. Sometimes I just leave it plain for eating right away, warm from the oven. It’s got to the point where Christmas doesn’t feel quite right without a batch, the scent of the spiced baking suffusing the house. Mince pies I could do without, but I would really miss gingerbread. This is a little curious because it wasn’t something my own mother made.
This year’s batch was plain and simple, and my youngest helped stamp out the shapes.
Another thing that I’ve fallen for over the past decade or so is the Moomin books of Tove Jansson. I didn’t encounter them as a child, but my own kids have loved having them read to them. Besides a pleasing blend of cosiness and adventure, and a variety of quirky characters, there is an extraordinary emotional honesty within those books which is rare in children’s literature. If you’d like to know more, there’s a wonderful documentary about Tove Jansson currently viewable on BBC iPlayer. I’ve only recently discovered that she wrote books for adults too; reading them is one of my least onerous new year’s resolutions.