In Jane Grigson’s English Food there are two recipes for Grasmere Gingerbread. The imaginatively named Grasmere Gingerbread I, and the darker Grasmere Gingerbread II. Neither is the recipe used to create the celebrated Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere gingerbread, Grigson doesn’t appear to like Sarah Nelson very much. She introduces both her own recipes with this withering put down:
“If you have ever tasted the ‘celebrated Grasmere gingerbread’ you will see the following recipes produce a different, better result”
No love lost there.
I made a couple of versions of Grasmere gingerbread for the September edition of Band of Bakers. The theme of regional bakes brought forwards a table laden with all shades of muted browns (spare the odd dot of jam and cream). Britain’s regional bakes are not a colourful bunch.
The first version I made was Grasmere gingerbread II, exactly as described in English Food. The second was an attempt at recreating the Sarah Nelson’s recipe by the team at Jamie Oliver.
Grasmere gingerbread II was a doddle. Things required: Ingredients, bowl and wooden spoon. Mix, press into tray, bake. The result? Dark and spicy. Gingerbread that crumbles apart rather than snaps. Rough, ready and not at all refined.
The Jamie Oliver version uses a few more ingredients – not all of which are easy to get your hands on – and one of which is a packet of shortbread biscuits. The method was more involved and required a food processor (a tool not commonly associated with kitchens in small 19th century cumbrian cottages).
Crystalised ginger is not an easy find in the supermarkets of Croydon, and I love the deep caramel flavours of softer sugars, so I made a few tweaks to the recipe. Subbing in soft brown sugar for half the demerara and using stem ginger in syrup rather than crystalised pieces. As with any recipe containing powdered ginger, I erred on the side of recklessness to guarantee some heat.
I removed the tray from the oven after 15 minutes, not 10, and then sprinkled it with the reserved crumbs as instructed. Once cooled, the cakes firm up to a beautiful bendy snap at once crisp and chewy.
Which of these gingerbreads would I make to revive a crowd after a long walk in the hills? The one with the bowl and the spoon or the one with the food processor and the syrups and the chopping up mixed peel?
Which of these gingerbreads, from start to finish, speaks of Grasmere and the Lakes and a history of British baking?
In this tale of two gingerbreads it is clear that there’s more to food than judging success by the criteria imposed by TV critics and Instagram prettiness. In a world where recipes, ingredients and technique have history and context there is great pleasure in following a tradition and its story. One gingerbread recipe here isn’t better than the other. One is a log fire and the other is central heating. Use them as required.
Grasmere Gingerbread II from Jane Grigson’s English Food
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 cake/roasting tin
3. In a bowl mix flour, bicarbonate of soda, cream of tartar and ginger
4. Rub in the butter, then stir in sugar and golden syrup.
5. Press the mixture into the tin
6. Bake for 45-50 minutes, until golden brown.
7. Mark out the biscuits as soon as the tin comes out of the oven, then leave to cool.
Eat with a cup of tea.
As here, with tweaks mentioned above. If you are feeling committed then do make your own shortbread, although it does seem a faff just to blend them back to crumbs.