A Food & Travel Blog

More Christmas food traditions – Gingerbread & Mince Pies – where on earth did they come from?

07/12/2011 | By

 

The history of white settlement in Australia is a very recent one, so when it comes to traditions they can be a little thin on the ground here.  We are very blessed to live in a remarkably multi-cultural society and nowhere is this reflected better than in the growth and development of our cuisine.  We have moved from a culinary tradition based largely on conventional British dietary habits to a remarkably diverse cuisine.  Australians now enjoy a fabulously varied diet that has integrated and digested cultural ingredients from the different ethnic groups who have arrived on our shores to take up a spot at the antipodean table.   However, when I think of Christmas food traditions I think of the ones I am familiar with and which were the foods and treats that were only available for enjoying at that time of the year when I was young and – just because I can – I’m going to take a look at one or two more of them.

Image by Deror Arvi from Wikimedia Commons

Gingerbread houses start popping up like cheap property developments in bakeries and stores all over Australia at this time of the year – I’ve even been know to make one or two myself.  I adore gingerbread and those lovely little German cookies called Lebkuchen (please correct my spelling if I’m wrong) that appear a Christmas time, too, and you might like to know there is a reason for the prevalence of ginger at Yule-tide.

The Crusaders bought ginger back to Europe from their looting and pillaging in the Middle-East and it is believed that the first European gingerbread was probably baked in the 11th century.  Ginger is not just fragrant and spicy – it actually has properties which help to preserve bread.  Bakers took to cutting the gingerbread into interesting shapes and decorating it with icing and, by the 17th century, only professional gingerbread bakers were permitted to bake these treats in France and Germany.  The rules were relaxed during the Christmas period so that during that period anyone was entitled to try their hand at gingerbread baking – and a tradition was born.

Mince pies, like dark fruit cake, seem to be an acquired taste and one I didn’t come to appreciate until adulthood.  The Christmas mince pie origins are to be found in the travels of the Crusaders too, as it wasn’t just ginger they bought home with them, but a selection of  spices from the Holy Land.  Originally rectangular, mince pies contained a combination of meat and dried fruit – possibly in an effort to eke out meagre resources at an agriculturally sparse time of the year.   From the 11th century it became important to replicate the three gifts of the magi at Christmas time with the addition of three of the spices from the land of Christ’s birth – cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.  These pies were very popular until 1657 when Cromwell abolished Christmas because of it’s pagan associations and forcibly seized any Christmas food that was found (or smelled) cooking.  The pies continued to be made in odd shapes, possibly to disguise them, and eventually stepped out of the shadows again in 1660 when Charles II took the throne and reinstated Christmas.

Fortunately for us, and financial considerations aside, there are no such obstacles for us to overcome when planning our holiday feasting.  An Australian Christmas is as individual as the family celebrating it – it is just as likely to be a barbecue in the backyard or a  picnic on the beach as it is to be a hot, sit-down, roast turkey dinner for 20 – as we set about developing and evolving our own traditions.

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. Lizzy (Good Things)
    07/12/2011

    Hi Amanda, I love reading the history behind food, thanks for a lovely and interesting story.

  2. Bernadette Nagy
    07/12/2011

    Interestingly, Heston Blumenthal has released a new version of mince pies for Waitrose in UK – and they are square – BUT also in puff pastry – YUM. His other twist is that he supplies icing sugar smelling of pine needles!

  3. Amanda
    07/12/2011

    Lizzy – I’m a sucker for a good food story!
    Bernadette – I love the idea of the pine needle icing sugar.

  4. Lucas
    07/12/2011

    I’ve always liked gingerbread, but disliked gingerbread houses (mostly due to their ingredients being chosen for looks rather than taste).

    I also did not come to mince pies until adulthood (only one old lady at my Mum’s church made them & they tasted funny) but like them now, despite a tendency to eat too many of them.

    In conclusion, more food history posts, plzkthnx.

  5. Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella
    07/12/2011

    I love decorating gingerbread houses although it really hurts to tear one down after you’ve worked on it for so long!

  6. Celia
    08/12/2011

    I ADORE mince pies, but have never made them before. Reading about them has inspired me to give them a go this year, thanks Amanda! Don’t think I’ll make a meat version though.. ;-)

  7. Ann
    08/12/2011

    This is the first year for at least 12 years that I haven’t baked up to 70 large gingerbread stars or trees to take to school for the children in my kids’ classes to decorate. It is a tradition I will miss a lot!
    My last student is overseas on a student exchange program for 5 months, like yours is! She won’t be home till late January.

  8. InTolerant Chef
    08/12/2011

    I love stories on the ‘why’ of things. Ginger is certainly one of my favorite flavors- Christmas time or not!

  9. Cakelaw
    08/12/2011

    What a great post! I would never have guessed that mince pies have anything to do with the Magi, though like you, they were an acquired taste that I did not savour until adulthood.

  10. Mandy - The Complete Cook Book
    08/12/2011

    Not sure I would tackle a gingerbread house but I do LOVE mince pies and am thrilled that my mom will be baking some to bring down when they come visit in a week. Yay!
    :-) Mandy

  11. Amanda
    08/12/2011

    Lucas – glad you are enjoying the brief bits of food history.
    Lorraine – they do take quite a bit of work, don’t they!
    Celia – you’re a better woman than me, I’ll be buying mine.
    Ann – Maybe you can come to terms with smaller batches of gingerbread.
    Bec – I with you, I love ginger too.
    Gaye – It came out of left field for me too!
    Mandy – the kids used to adore the gingerbread houses, but mostly for the lollies which decorated them. The actual gingerbread was generally left littered on the board.

  12. Johanna GGG
    08/12/2011

    I love food history so this is just my kind of post – isn’t funny how those kids movies go on about outlawing christmas and it actually happened – talk about life being stranger than fiction – and I love gingerbread and mince tarts too

  13. Kate
    08/12/2011

    I do love creating our own family traditions based on the old Christmas classics like the Xmas pud has become an ice cream Xmas pud but made in the traditional shape. We do the same salads each year but this is the only time of year we make these specific ones. It makes me wonder what our grandchildren will be eating and serving at Christmases to come.

  14. cityhippyfarmgirl
    09/12/2011

    Love fruit mince tarts, although with meat in there it would be a whole new thing.
    I’m still trying to work out what family traditions we want to adopt and start. I’ve never thought of doing a gingerbread house… Maybe I could do a Grand Designs inspired one :-)

  15. Jennifer (Delicieux)
    09/12/2011

    I love learning about the history of food and where food traditions come from. Thanks for such an interesting post. :-)

  16. Hotly Spiced
    10/12/2011

    I love your post – so interesting and well researched. I made the mistake of making a gingerbread house one year and now my children INSIST it must be an annual tradition. About to start baking!

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