If you’re a keen baker, and interested not only in British baking recipes but in the history behind them, Regula Ysewijn’s Oats in the North, Wheat from the South: The History of British Baking, Savoury and Sweet is a book for you.
In the meantime, enjoy this recipe for traditional Grasmere Gingerbread, shared with permission from Murdoch Books.
Grasmere is a small picturesque village in the hilly landscape of the Lake District in the north of England. Its surroundings are poetic, so it is not surprising that the poet William Wordsworth took up residence here to write. His sister, Dorothy, wrote in her diary in 1803 that she was going to buy gingerbread for her brother in Grasmere.
Fifty years later in 1854, Sarah Nelson started baking her version of Grasmere gingerbread, which she sold from her little gingerbread house–like stone cottage just a few yards from the final resting place of William Wordsworth. Now, more than 150 years later, you can still buy gingerbread in the same little house. The name Grasmere gingerbread has since been given a trademark and no other gingerbread can carry the Grasmere name. This led to a gingerbread war about ten years ago, because Sarah Nelson was not the only one selling her biscuits in the area and gingerbread had clearly been made in Grasmere before she began selling it. In the village, there is talk of the Dixon family, who sold gingerbread in the 18th century, and in a book from 1912 I discovered that in the church a few metres from Sarah’s shop, gingerbread was given to the children as early as 1819. They called it Rushbearers gingerbread. (‘Rushbearing’ is an old English church ceremony for which bundles of grass are collected to cover the rough earth floor of the local church. The bundles had to be replaced every year; this usually happened on the name day of the church and was called ‘Wakes Day’. In Britain, there are many bakes connected to these ‘Wakes Days’.)
The same 1912 book says that the Walker family baked gingerbread in their small shop, and that in 1912 a Mrs Gibson ran a gingerbread store after a Mrs Mary Dixon had been the gingerbread maker there for years. Strangely enough, Sarah Nelson is not mentioned in this book. What is special is that it seems that baking gingerbread was a women’s task, while at that time bakers were mainly male.
- 225 g (8 oz) plain (all-purpose) flour
- 115 g (4 oz) soft brown sugar
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- ¼ tsp ground nutmeg
- ¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
- pinch of sea salt
- 115 g 4 oz butter, at room temperature butter, for greasing
- flour for dusting
For a 20 cm (8 inch) square cake tin.
Preheat your oven to 180°C (350°F).
Prepare the cake tin: Apply a thin layer of butter with a folded sheet of paper towel and divide it nicely into the corners of the tin. Apply a strip of baking paper in the tin that covers two sides and protrudes slightly above the top of the tin so that you can remove the cake more easily after baking. Dust the lined tin with flour, hold the tin above your workbench or sink and tap on the bottom to remove the excess flour.
Put all the dry ingredients in a bowl and rub the butter into the mixture until it is the consistency of breadcrumbs. This is best done in a food processor or blender. The dough won’t come together as with other cookie doughs – it will remain as crumbs.
Weigh 70 g (2½ oz) of the crumb mixture and set it aside. Press the remaining crumb mixture into the cake tin, using a mini rolling pin or a sheet of baking paper to push the crumbs down firmly. Spoon the reserved crumbs over the top and press very lightly to distribute the crumbs over the surface of the dough.
Lightly score the top of the gingerbread, first dividing it into four squares and then dividing each square in half.
Bake the gingerbread for 25 minutes, then immediately remove it from the oven. Cut the gingerbread into portions along the marked lines while it is still hot.
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Kavey Eats received a review copy of Regula Ysewijn’s Oats in the North, Wheat from the South from publisher Murdoch Books. Photography by Regula Ysewijn. Available on Amazon UK at time of review for £17.70 (RRP £25).