For over 200 years this rich, exotically spiced and crisp gingerbread, has been celebrated for its dunking delights by the farmers' wives and people of Market Drayton. The famous gingerbread fingers have always been enjoyed dunked into a cup of tea, coffee or glass of Port.
This may seem like an obvious question. After all, generic ginger biscuit people are a familiar sight in supermarkets and coffee shops around the country. However, rather curiously one of the earliest English recipes for gingerbread written in the fifteenth century contains no ginger whatsoever:
Take a quart of hony, & sethe it, & skeme it clene; take Safroun, pouder Pepir, & þrow ther-on; take gratyd Brede, & make it so chargeaunt þat it wol be y-leched; þen take pouder Canelle, & straw þer-on y-now; þen make yt square, lyke as þou wolt leche it; take when þou lechyst hyt, an caste Box leaves a-bouyn, y-stkyd þer-on, on clowys. And if þou wolt haue it Red, coloure it with Saunderys y-now.
'Harleian MS 279' in Thomas Austin (ed) Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books (London, 1888)
Or, in modern-day English:
Take a quart of honey, boil it and skim it clean. Add saffron and powdered pepper; add grated bread to make it thick enough to slice. Take powdered cinnamon and sprinkle it on; then make it into a square like you would have it sliced; when you slice it, add box leaves, stuck on with cloves. And if you would like it red, colour it with sanders now.
Another key difference from modern-day gingerbread is that the medieval variety is made with honey and breadcrumbs. These were mixed with saffron and pepper to form a stiff paste which was formed into a square, sprinkled with cinnamon and decorated with box leaves secured with cloves. Sometimes it was also coloured red by adding sanders – the finely ground bark of the red sandalwood tree.
HoneycombIn the early part of the 20th century, the small town of Market Drayton had four gingerbread bakers. The smell of the spicy little finger would have wafted around the town. The first recorded mention is Roland Lateward, maltster, who was baking gingerbread in 1793.
It was probably made earlier. There were already large stocks of ginger in High Street businesses in the 1640's and 1680's. Gingerbrede, the oldest cake bread in the world, arrived in this country with the Crusades. The earliest recipe dates from 1390.
Billington's, from 1817, is the oldest surviving brand. Its history is proudly displayed on their packaging as an unbroken chain of bakers around the trunk of a tree, whose branches extend to markets all over the world.
In 1987, John and May Hayward Hughes of Cheswardine celebrated 60 years of their family making the gingerbread to the secret recipe. They turned the handle of the antiquated iron African Biscuit Machine for the umpteenth time. As in Billington's Golden Age, they had re-started the exports. Back in the town, Terry and Theresa McCarthy carry on the tradition with the original machine in The Cake Box.
From 1850 to 1937, Chester's made a similar gingerbread. Boughey and Cox carried on the Chester's Prize Gingerbread until 1964. Their recipe and machine alas are now lost. Griffith's strong men who piped the gingerbread dough through forcing bags are no longer and the business was sold by Mr Hiscock in the 1980's. Joseph Master's of Longford (once a Billington apprentice) sold his gingerbread under the Buttercross. Until her death in1986, you could buy her father's creation from May Martin at the W.I.
It was not until 1985 with the publication of Under the Buttercross by Meg Pybus that the town again became famous for its spicy biscuit. Once more the traditional product was being "dunked", when a newly-baked gingerbread man leapt out of a local oven. Fairy Tale Gingerbread, founded by Tim and Sarah Hopcroft, created gingerbread men for all seasons and celebrations, novelty animals and gingerbread houses. Their products are distributed all over the country.