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).


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
175g butter
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!


Monkey Gland said...

Reading your site makes me realise how bad my british geography is...truly appalling!

AnnaW said...

Hi MG. Well it was only through doing this particular posting that I finally realised that the Lake District is on the west of the country not the east... So it is not just food that I am learning about! If you are ever foxed by British geography (like me), check out the link from my site to a Ordnance Survey map of the country - very useful (and you can print it out and colour it in!).

Anonymous said...

Fantasic website. Having been to the Lake District and visited the gingerbread shop in Grasmere, your website brings back happy memories. Not to mention the mouth-watering recipes. Cannot wait to try out your recipe. Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

Just perused through your blog and must say that this is a terrific site. Who knew baking could be so enchanting. Inspired to bake more and return to the Lake District one day. Looking forward to reading more! Love the photography, too.

Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

Thanks for the recipe. I tried Grasmere Gingerbread for the first time the other night, and I was pleasantly surprised.

I was initially put off, as isn't a cake, like you'd normally expect gingerbread to be - but it was very nice.

Apparently, Sarah Nelson, who invented the original Grasmere Gingerbread died of exhaustion.

Anonymous said...

What a lovely site and very informative, sadly though the rushbearing gingerbread was never sarah nelsons gingerbread it is a totally different recipe and is a soft sponge type of cake made and stamped by the local ladies of grasmere and then first made commercially by the dixon family on langdale road in Grasmere in 1745

AnnaW said...

Is there any Dixon family recipe available? I have not come across a Grasmere gingerbreag recipe that produces a sponge cake rather than a biscuit. Thanks for the information.

Artisan-food said...

Lovely site and great photography. I hope you don't mind I have referred to your blog in our discussion about Grasmere Gingerbread, a hot topic at the moment in Grasmere.

If we track down a Dixon style recipe I'll let you know. I know one of the people who have commented on our blog ( used to make "Rushbearing" style gingerbread, I think this was based on the Dixon recipe. - Martin

Anonymous said...

We were just in Grasmere three weeks ago on a tour to see Wordsworth's homes, grave, etc. We loved Sarah Nelson's gingerbread!!! I tried a recipe we bought there on a postcard, but it turned out more like candy. We used fine oats - but I think they were still too coarse. And we did not add any flour. I'll try the half-and-half version you describe here. Thanks for a lovely reminder of our trip!

Amanda said...

We detour to this little shop each year, on the way back from which ever bank holiday destination we've been to. Fantastic shop, usually have to queue outside when it's peak tourist season!

Lovely, unusual, gingerbread.

Locksmiths Cumbria said...

I visited the gingerbread shop in Grasmere a while back and the food was incredible, I can’t wait to give this recipe a go one day, thank you for the memories and for the great recipe.

Anonymous said...

Recently made a recipe very similar to your second one; it was good tasting, too sweet for me and earned the name "Tasty Tooth Snappers" from my son.
He has strong teeth and enjoyed the ginger taste, so am looking forwards to trying your recipes with hopefully less hard results.
Maybe add more Ginger to your first recipe.

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We detour to this little shop each year, on the way back from which ever bank holiday destination we've been to. Fantastic shop, usually have to queue outside when it's peak tourist season!

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Anonymous said...

Oh deary me - Whitehaven and Milnthorpe (not far from Grasmere) are on the North West coast - not the North East!

Williams said...

I was in Grasmere this afternoon and bought some of the gingerbread, it was delicious! I was going to go back and buy some more but instead I think I'll try your recipe. The second one sounds more like the gingerbread i bought today so, thank you so much for the recipe!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing will try to make this for my parents who are from Cumbria this Christmas. Just a note, Whitehaven is on the West coast of England not the East coast as stated in this article.