The history of ginger in English cookery and literature is similar to that of sugar – see here. Like sugar, ginger is not native to England; its origins lie in South Asia, and over time its cultivation spread to East Africa and the Caribbean. As with sugar, it is thanks to the Crusades that ginger was brought to the west. And like sugar, ginger was expensive – a pound of ginger was the same price as a sheep – though nowhere near as expensive as black pepper, which cost more by weight than gold. Used for medicinal and culinary purposes, including in wine, ginger was also commonly imported in a preserved form and made into sweets.
The only reference I found to ginger in medieval literature is in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. In The Miller’s Tale, a ‘fabliau’ tale of deception and adultery, the young student Nicholas is described by the narrator as being “as sweet as is the roote / Of licoris, or any cetewale” (ginger)” (lines 3206-3207). The fact that Nicholas smells sweet naturally symbolises his superiority as an attractive lover to Alison, who will prefer him to her other suitor, the foppish and squeamish clerk, Absolon, who has to chew on cardamom and liquorice in order to smell nice.
But when I turned to Shakespeare, the references to ginger as an edible item become increasingly frequent. In Henry IV Part 1(c. 1597) a carrier at Rochester Tavern says that he is carrying “a gammon of bacon, and two razes of ginger, to be delivered as far as Charing Cross” (Act II, Scene 1, lines 25-26); a ‘raze’ means a root of ginger. In the late play, The Winter’s Tale (c. 1611) the Clown lists the provisions he has to buy for the sheep-shearing feast: they include sugar, currants, rice, saffron, mace, dates, nutmeg and “a race or two of ginger” (IV, 3, 48-49), which incidentally he says he will be able to beg from someone, rather than buy, suggesting that ginger had become a less costly, luxurious item by the early 17th century. In neither of these references is it clear what the ginger will be used for.
However, there are two Shakespeare plays where specific reference is made to the use the ginger will be put to. In Twelfth Night (c. 1602) there is a night-time confrontation between on the one hand the hedonistic, party-loving Sir Toby Belch and Feste the jester and, on the other, Malvolio, the Countess Olivia’s uptight steward, who reprimands the pair for their late-night drinking and revelry. Sir Toby mocks Malvolio’s puritanical ways, saying “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?” (II, 3, 97-99), swiftly followed by Feste’s remark, “Yes, by St Anne, and ginger shall be hot i’th’mouth too” (II, 3, 100).
Both Feste and Sir Toby are mocking the Puritans’ (strict Protestants) dislike of revelry and feasting, a dislike that became a prohibition under the rule of Oliver Cromwell later in the 17th century. Feste exacerbates the situation by referring firstly to a saint, a figure of abhorrence to strict Puritans, and secondly to drinking alcohol (ale spiced with ginger). The actor Robert Armin, for whom Shakespeare wrote the part of Feste, apparently enjoyed drinking ginger washed down with ale, so Shakespeare’s reference, as well as being a slight to Puritan beliefs, was also a shared joke with his actor.
And then in Shakespeare’s comedy, Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1597), reference is made to a recognizable 21st century foodstuff – gingerbread. Costard, a country lad, tells the witty, Mote, the young and small page of the Spanish courtier, Don Armado, “An I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy gingerbread” (V, 1, 66-67).
Costard’s comment – and Mote’s youth – suggests gingerbread was a cheap foodstuff that children could spend their own money on, not dissimilar to the image of gingerbread men that we have nowadays.
By the 16th and 17th centuries there were a number of published cookery books, and some of these are listed in Andrew and Maureen Dalby’s The Shakespeare Cookbook which has been an invaluable source for my research. Gingerbread recipes appear in some of these books – which are also available online – and a number of them are gathered together in this blog which collates historical recipes. It includes a post specifically on gingerbread over the ages.
The recipes I consulted combine sugar and ground almonds with ginger; the sugar is made into a paste by being bound with a gum called “Gumma dragantis” – known nowadays as gum traganth – which comes from a plant grown in the Middle East and was commonly used in medieval confectionery. In one recipe the finished gingerbread is iced lightly with a mixture of sugar and rosewater applied with a feather.
This is my version of the recipe which was tried out successfully by two young tasters.
GINGERBREAD (makes 8 good-sized pieces, or 12 more slender ones)
170g plain flour
125g light soft brown sugar
80g ground almonds
2 level teaspoons ground ginger
½ level teaspoon baking powder
150g unsalted butter, melted and allowed to cool slightly.
Mix the dry ingredients into a dough with the cooled, melted butter.
Spoon into a shallow 20cm (8”) sandwich cake tin, lined with greased baking parchment, and smooth the surface.
Bake at 180C (Gas mark 4) for 30-35 minutes until golden-brown. Mark out into 8 or 12 pieces whilst still warm but leave in the tin to cool.
To ice (optional) – mix together 50g icing sugar and ½ – 1 tablespoon cold water to make a thin glace icing. Drizzle over the cooled gingerbread.
My niece and nephew were happy to try these out. Three-year old Ethan said “Yum, yum” and seven-year old Esme pronounced them “Scrumptious” – I don’t think I need any better endorsement!
 A fabliau – from the French – was a short story, usually with an urban setting, and often about sex, deception or other base and immoral matters. Fabliaux frequently involve students outwitting foolish old men, either by stealing from them or by sleeping with their wives. In The Miller’s Tale the young student Nicholas deludes his foolish old landlord, John, into believing a second Noah’s Flood is coming in order to sleep with John’s young, beautiful wife, Alison. The Reeve’s Tale and The Shipman’s Taleare also fabliaux, and Boccaccio, the early 14th century Italian writer, also included a number of fabliaux in his work The Decameron.