Sunday, November 20, 2005
Grasmere Gingerbread from Cumbria
Today is 'Stir-up Sunday', the traditional day for making your Christmas pudding to give it time to mature. I shall be in Portugal this Christmas, so will not be making a pudding this year (not that it is an annual event in this household). Instead I will be making something sweet and spicy, just the thing for a frosty day in London.
Grasmere is a small town within the very beautiful English Lake District, in the county of Cumbria. Cumbria was formed in 1974 from the old counties of Cumberland and Westmorland, and parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The food heritage of Cumbria is therefore also that of these older regions.
On the north-east coast not far from Grasmere are the ports of Whitehaven and Milnthorpe. From the 16th and 17th centuries both were involved in trade with the Caribbean. In the 18th century Whitehaven was the third largest port in Britain, only London and Bristol were larger. Spices, unrefined sugars and rum were brought to port, and these commodities became ingredients in the food of the region. Gingerbreads are made throughout the north of England, but what makes the gingerbread of Grasmere different is that it resembles a crumbly biscuit rather than a cake (or bread).
In 19th century Grasmere gingerbread was used as a payment to rush bearers (usually children) who furnished the local church of St. Oswald with rushes to cover the unpaved floor. When the floor was finally paved there was no longer a need for the rushes, but they were still brought into the church for decoration and for display at festivals. The gingerbread likewise became associated with special events in the church calendar, such as the feast of St. Oswald on August 5th.
The poet William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, lived in Grasmere during the first years of the 1800s. Dorothy Wordsworth records in her journal a trip to buy gingerbread (an old-style blog!). The gingerbread for sale locally was available in either thin or thick forms; the Wordsworths set off to buy thick, but could only find thin (just an excuse to eat twice as much by my reckoning).
In 1854 a Grasmere lady by the name of Sarah Nelson started making her own version of gingerbread based on Lancashire recipes. She needed to boost her family's income, and decided that baking was the way forward (how right). Her (top-secret) recipe was a run away success and is still baked today and sold in the shop that Sarah set up. Sarah Nelson's name has become a trademark, and her gingerbread is probably the biscuit which most people think of when they think of Grasmere gingerbread. Even Tom Cruise has eaten it.
The oldest recorded recipes for Grasmere gingerbread make use of oatmeal or ground oats (a locally grown cereal). I am going to bake two batches of gingerbread - the first will follow the older form of the recipe and include oatmeal and flour in equal measure. The dry ingredients are mixed with melted butter and it is sweetened with light brown soft sugar. I have decided to make this into a thin biscuit.
The second recipe uses flour only, into which butter is rubbed. This recipe includes a small amount of golden syrup, which means that the recipe can only date from the 1880s when golden syrup was first produced as a by-product of sugar refining. The gingerbread also uses a dark brown sugar so the biscuit will have a darker colour than the first. I am going to make this second gingerbread thicker than the first.
Both recipes are from Jane Grigson's 'English Food' book (pp340-341).
RECIPE NO.1 :
250g plain flour or fine oatmeal (or 125g of each - which is what I did)
125g pale soft brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
150g lightly salted butter
1. Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4.
2. Line a oblong tin with baking parchment - mine was roughly 19.5cm by 29.5cm and was as deep as a swiss-roll tin.
3. Mix the dry ingredients together.
4. Melt the butter and add to the dry ingredients.
5. Spread the mixture over the tin in a thin layer, pressing it down lightly.
6. Bake until golden brown - about 30/35 minutes.
7. Mark into squares/rectangles as soon as you have taken the tin from the oven, but allow to fully cool in tin before removing gingerbread.
250g wholewheat flour
1/2 teaspoon each of bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar
3 generous teaspoons of ground ginger
150g soft dark brown sugar
1 dessertspoon of golden syrup
1. Preheat oven to 160C/325F/Gas mark 3.
2. Line a square cake tin - mine was approx. 21cm sq.
3. Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda, cream of tartar and ground ginger into a bowl.
4. Rub in the butter, then add the sugar and the golden syrup.
5. Press the mixture into the tin (the mix is fairly dry and crumbly looking but don't panic!).
6. Bake for 45-50 minutes, until golden brown.
7. As above, mark out the biscuits as soon as the tin comes out of the oven, but then leave to cool. Both sets of biscuits harden as they cool.
The resulting biscuits were quite different. Recipe no.1 produced a biscuit (on the left in the image below) which was very buttery with a subtle ginger flavour. The biscuit was crisp and the texture was quite open and crumbly. I liked the inclusion of the oatmeal, and felt that this added to the consistency of the biscuit. Very nice.
The biscuit from recipe no.2 (on the right in the above image) was much denser, with a slightly chewy centre. The flavour was deeper, with the fireyness of the ginger coming through strongly. I found that this biscuit dried out too much around the edge of the tin, so the baking time could have been reduced slightly. I prefered the 'bite' of the first biscuit, and the simplicity of the recipe will certainly ensure that I bake it again! Both biscuits would be just the thing after a long day hiking around lakes or up a mountain or two, or tucked into a lunchbox to enjoy halfway through the journey. My journey today was from the kitchen to the sofa, but that didn't dent my appreciation!