I was recently introduced to a wonderful food history book called First Catch Your Gingerbread by Sam Bilton. It was published in November despite the unique challenges presented by a global pandemic. Though the author laments not being able to visit gingerbread museums and markets due to travel restrictions, she overcame these limitations and crafted a true gem of a book written for foodies like me!
First Catch Your Gingerbread is part of Prospect Books’ series called The English Kitchen, which includes some other great titles I will read someday. The book is divided into two distinct sections: Part I: The Story of Gingerbread and Part II: The Recipes. If I were to ever write a food history book this is exactly the layout I would use!
Part One covers the history and evolution of gingerbread and the main ingredients, including the ancient uses of spices and honey and the later addition of treacle/molasses. The history is organized by theme rather than chronology, with six chapters on topics such as medieval confections, gingerbread moulds, Victorian fairs and the ebbs and flows of the treat’s popularity.
What struck me the most about this section is the author’s accessible writing style and creative use of historical anecdotes and stories (some would call them “micro-narratives”) to introduce each chapter or theme, and also peppered throughout the book. I learned a bit about Mithridates the ancient “Poison King,” the Great Molasses Flood of 1919, and Tiddy Doll the “flamboyant gingerbread vendor” of London. Each chapter is very interesting and makes for pleasant, casual reading.
Part Two is an impressive collection of 150 or so recipes organized by type, including biscuits and wafers, bread and cakes, savouries, and desserts and sweetmeats. Bilton does not limit herself to traditional English and German recipes either. There are recipes for Polish Piernik, Caribbean Toto, Indonesian-dutch Lapis Legit, Roman Dulcia Piperata, Indian gingerbread biscuits, Jewish Lekach and others. The wide variety of options guarantees that even someone who doesn’t typically enjoy gingerbread will find something he or she likes.
Because the author’s recipe list is quite inclusive, some of these recipes are not exactly “gingerbread” but use the same flavor profile. There are also a number of delicious-looking savory recipes that either use some kind of ginger sauce or are accompanied by gingerbread. For example, “Potted Mackerel with Rhubarb Chutney ” is served with pig-shaped gingerbread biscuits called parkins. Some recipes have detailed introductions with historical notes, others include suggestions on how best to serve them. Bilton specifically notes that the recipes are “based on or inspired by” historical sources and adapted for the modern palate. Perhaps not all of the recipes are replicated exactly as they appear in early cookbooks, but they do illustrate how many regional variations are out there and the surprising ways that gingerbread has changed over the centuries.
The book’s content and the author’s charming writing style are obvious strengths here, but I also have to point out how much I personally appreciate the diligent and thorough research and citations. I actually do regularly read endnotes, believe it or not. Everyone should! Sam Bilton’s great attention to attribution and detail says a lot about her reliability as a professional historian and scholar, as well as her integrity as a writer.
And of course no book review would be complete without sampling some of the recipes! I would honestly be more than happy to try every dish in this book but for the purpose of completing this review in a timely manner, I narrowed it down to just three.
This Scottish oatmeal gingerbread recipe is found in The Scots Kitchen: Its Traditions and Lore, with Old-time Recipes by Marian McNeill, which was first published in 1929. “Broonie” as it is known, is apparently the first recipe McNeill collected in Orkney. Sam Bilton’s recipe is about as faithful to the original as you can get, and the result is very wholesome and delicious.
Maple Syrup Gingerbread
This recipe is adapted from RJ Lynch’s Win the War Cook Book (1918) as an example of American wartime food rationing. I would not be exaggerating to say that this is easily the best gingerbread cake I’ve ever had. I have family visiting from out of town and the vote was unanimously in favor. The recipe doesn’t call for powdered sugar; I added it to make the pictures look pretty. The cake tastes great with and without it!
This recipe for “small gingerbread” biscuits was written by 18th-century Swedish cookbook author Anna Christina (Cajsa) Warg and translated into English by Maud Ekblad. I haven’t yet explored the world of Swedish food history, and I was intrigued by the unique spice mix containing cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg and grains of paradise.
These are very pleasant biscuits with a nice strong spice flavor, not unlike crispy gingersnap cookies. They would be excellent served with tea or even ice cream.
A final note about the recipes: If you are in the United States or you do not use the metric or imperial system, just be aware that you’ll need to do some measurement conversions! Don’t let this stop you, there are a lot of online resources that can help you. Myself included!