Gingerbread has been an established European food tradition for over 800 years. Known in Roman times as a vehicle for the exotic spices from the east, the tradition gradually spread to the rest of Europe.
Celebrated as a festive food, in the form of cakes, balls (and nuts), biscuits and pieces (used to make elaborate designs such as houses), gingerbread is whatever you want it to be. There is sufficient evidence to show that clever cooks took advantage of the myriad ingredients to produce big and small culinary masterpieces.
The base for gingerbread was honey (and still is in many countries) combined with a variation of six spices – cardamom, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, pepper and ginger, dried and ground into a powder.
The clever cooks of Slovenia and Sweden in particular do not regard gingerbread as a mere food item. For them it is more, a warehouse of hard and soft biscuits to be erected and decorated, adorned with creams and icings and nuts and candied sweets. For them gingerbread and its adornments are bricks and slabs made with butter, cream, flour, honey or molasses, milk, nuts, peel, soda, spices and sugars, mortar and plaster made with butter, cream and sugar in much the same way that a real house is filled with beauty, creativity and love, a gingerbread house is filled with flavour, creativity and all things sweet and unctuous.
Elsewhere in Europe gingerbreads are celebrated with creations that are simple, such as the spice nuts of the Netherlands, or with creations that are complicated, such as the gingerbread biscuits and cakes of Germany.
In Switzerland they make gingerbread without ginger!
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Gingerbread Cake ENGLANDThis is an old English recipe adapted from the imperial measurements. Moisture is the secret to the success of these spongy gingerbread cakes, so expect to make several attempts to get it exactly right. We used Chinese stem ginger soaked in syrup. The flour is soft wheat anything around type 450.
Pepparkakor SWEDEN gingersnapsCrispy pepparkakor are known in Europe as gingersnaps despite being more like ginger breads than ginger biscuits. Another product of the monastic life, pepparkakor got their name because ground ginger was believed to be a member of the pepper family. They made a good travelling food, eventually making their way into Sweden in the 13th century. Adopted as a traditional treat, they became associated with Saint Lucia during the end of year festivities. Originally made with flour, honey and ginger, they evolved to include cinnamon and cloves, raising agents and softeners like butter and cream. The round shape gave way to numerous shapes, from christmas trees to hearts and stars, while the old rounds and squares were made thicker to be used as building blocks for the construction of gingerbread houses. The gingersnap was flavoured with all kinds of spice, fruit essence and coated with icing. They are crushed in cheesecakes and trifles, served with cream cheese and smoked salmon and stacked with cream fillings. Gradually the recipe evolved, molasses or syrup or treacle, butter, egg and sugar replaced the honey, and other spices were added.
Pepparkakor modern versionCream or milk started to replace butter, ginger came to the fore, soda was used to give the biscuits a lift and the dough was rested before rolling.
Kruidnootjes NETHERLANDS ginger nutsA freshly ground sweet spice mix is the starting point for these aromatic nuts. It can be bought ready packaged but home grinding and grating whole spices gives a fresh kick to these nuts. Traditionally the spice mix is 2:1 cinnamon to each of cloves, ginger and nutmeg with a lesser amount of white pepper. Intrepid bakers also use cardamom, coriander, fennel and anise.
Lebkuchen GERMANY gingerbreadsThese gingerbreads are neither one thing nor the other anymore. Traditionally made into a sticky dough with candied fruit, eggs, nuts, honey and spices, and associated with Nürnberg (in 1643 the city’s gingerbread bakers formed a guild), lebkuchen are baked throughout alpine Europe, with countless variations that have nothing in common. Even the traditional spice mix is missing from some versions. Other versions omit ginger, some are known to contain cream, and several use spelt instead of wheat flour. This version remains faithful to the honey, nut and spice content. It includes all of the spices that were known to 11th century bakers, and suggests the wild flower honey that made them irresistible to children of all ages through the generations.
Basler Läckerli SWITZERLAND gingerbread biscuitsThe Basler Läckerli is a small, rectangular gingerbread biscuit (without the ginger), thin glazed and dusted with icing, a much harder bite than the Belgian and Dutch variety. It is one of several Swiss variations of gingerbread that began when oriental spices arrived in 11th century monasteries. Läckerli is believed to mean ‘to lick’.
FEATURED ARTISANAL PRODUCT
Tarhana / Tarkhana
Claimed by the Turks (Armenia has a slightly different version), tarhana (pronounced tra-hana) is a popular fermented cereal food associated with ancient Asian cooking and regarded as an essential source of proteins, minerals, acids and vitamins.
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FEATURED STREET FOOD
Calentita / La Farinata de Ceci / L‘oro di Pisa / Panelle (chickpea fritters)
Famous as street food in the shape of lozenges, rectangles and squares, these golden fritters are more than a snack, they are history and tradition. Called panelle in Palermo, l‘oro di Pisa in Genoa and calentita on the rock of Gibraltar, it is hard to believe that a mixture of four ingredients – chickpea flour, olive oil, salt and water – could be cooked differently to produce the same result.
In Genoa the method is more precise, with roughly one third chickpea flour to water, black pepper, salt and sesame oil. The mixture is poured onto a tray covered with a heavy layer of olive oil and baked in a hot oven for 50 minutes, until the edges take on a golden red colour.
In Gibraltar two methods are employed. Some cooks use less water and put much more olive oil in the baking tray. Other cooks use a ratio of four parts water to one part flour but finish the cooking under a grill to enhance the colour. The calentita are cut into squares, sprinkled with cumin seeds and served with harissa.
In Palermo salted chickpea flour is mixed with sufficient water to make a thick batter, heated and poured onto parchment to cool, rolled thin, cut into desired shapes and fried in olive oil.
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Science in the Kitchen and
the Art of Eating Well
Here at Fricot we have food heroes who need to be known. Among those we place in the cathedral of culinary excellence is Pellegrino Artusi. In 1891 he published a cookbook, and changed the world.
Born in Forlimpopoli in 1820, prejudice led him to Florence where he re-established himself as a banker and became a man of leisure in his later years.
In 1880 at the age of 60 he set up an experimental kitchen at his home in the Piazza D’Azeglio. Then he spent ten years compiling anecdotes, ideas and notes about the authentic recipes of Italy’s diverse regions and with the assistance of cook Marietta Sabatini and housekeeper Francesco Ruffilli tested them to perfection.
After an unsuccessful search for a publisher, he published his book at his own expense, giving it away to friends until it caught on and went through numerous editions. The 13th had 790 recipes compared to the 475 in the first, self-published edition.
‘Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well’ changed the way Italians thought about their food.
His book is unique. Hardly anything published since has surpassed it for its simplicity and fidelity. Of the 790 recipes in the book almost all are regarded as the templates for the modern versions.
His book is reviewed here.
FEATURED TRADITIONAL DISH
The Turks took these delightful Assyrian meatballs to their hearts (and stomachs) a very long time ago, and now produce numerous variations on the very old original recipe. In Istanbul the proliferation of Syrian restaurants has increased the competition to produce the best icli köfte among chefs.
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FEATURED TRADITIONAL BREAD
Lepinje / Pide / Pita / Pitta flatbreadsPita bread is associated with middle Eastern and north African baking and with kebab shops who stuff meat and salad into the flat pouch. Despite its origins in Arabian countries, pita is an integral aspect of European bread making. Known as pita in the Balkans and Greece, pizza in Italy and pide in Turkey, the common denominator for a successful flatbread is a hot airy oven. Not as well known is the flatbread of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, a deliciously soft pouch made with milk called lepinje.
- 1 kg strong white wheat flour
- 500 ml lukewarm milk / yoghurt
- 150 ml lukewarm water
- 30 g salt
- 20 g yeast
- 15 g sugar
Put yeast, sugar and one tablespoon of flour in 75 ml warm water. Stir and leave to rise, about half an hour depending on the heat in the kitchen. Sift the flour into a bowl, add yeast mixture and milk, knead for 10 minutes. Leave to rise for an hour. Make into eight balls, leave for ten minutes. Shape with palm of hand into long teardrops. Cut squares into the dough. Wash with warm water, cover and leave for half an hour. Heat oven to 250°C. Sprinkle each pouch with black sesame seeds and dust with flour. Bake in batches, until the breads have puffed and turned a red-brown colour, about 13 minutes.
The Swiss make up to 300 different breads. Baked daily among these are the iconic small breads, known as brötchen or brötli. Our book features small breads from across Europe.
For more on the small breads of the alps go here.
Brothers Nik and Simon Buchs run 16-Art-Bar-Restaurant on Mittelgässli in Saanen, Switzerland. Nik cooks, Simon fronts. Their homely place is sensational. Local produce dominates the menu, usually 13 daily items. Pasted into a large book, some are repeated. Gradually the menu changes. Guests peruse the book for inspiration. In 16-ABR the chefs are encouraged to experiment. ‘A recipe is a mixing of ideas using quality ingredients with taste,’ says Nik, understating the obvious sentiment about good food.
The diners benefit. On the menu today, veal is prominent. Veal liver with carpaccio beetroot, sage leaf, a balsamic and cranberry sauce, and sweet potato crisps. Veal chop cooked on the bone, carved and served with puréed potato, vegetable strips and veal jus with pepe aromatizzato. This was the treat.
And so was this!
FEATURED FOOD PLACE
With its 15th anniversary in sight, Carlow’s food marketeers have cause to celebrate. During its short existence it has presented a strong image to town and country, at its height attracting a turnover of half a million euros.
Founded in August 2004 as the direct result of a local enterprise scheme to energise the community, John Hayden, the local rural resource worker put in charge of the project, had posed the question: ‘Would you be interested in a food-only / producer-only market, with handicrafts once a month?’
Consumers and producers alike said they would.
It was agreed there should be two stallholders each of bread, fish, meat and vegetables – for variety and competition – because these foods were seen to be essential to the success of a food market. There were 16 stallholders.
It got off to a good start. The town council adopted a hands-off approach. The original stallholders became Carlow Farmers Community Market, took out collective and individual insurance to indemnify the town council against claims (there have been none).
They registered as a group with the revenue commissioners, acquired licences from the Health Service Executive to trade in the space provided by the council in the centre of the town. In turn the council passed a bye-law to allow the group to trade on a Saturday between 9 am and 2 pm. Local businesses supported the market.
Then the mood changed.
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THE GREAT EUROPEAN FOOD ADVENTURE
Charlie Chaplin’s Shoes
Are Made of Chocolate
They really are, go here and then go here.
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Indigenous produce | artisanal products | traditional recipes … with news, features, interviews and stories about Europe’s traditional food culture, including reviews of fairs, festivals and markets, cafes, diners and restaurants, cookery, food and recipe books, descriptions of local produce and value-added products, profiles of artisans and producers, bakers and specialists, cooks and chefs — creative sustainable food security for the 21st century … the FRICOT PROJECT