Hansel & Gretel and the History of Gingerbread

Who doesn’t love a gingerbread house?!  The glorious smell of baking it, the fun decorating it with colourful sweets and sticky white icing and the anticipation of eating the delicious gingerbread afterwards is surely a winning combination!

Flat lay image of Hansel and Gretel dressing up tabards surrounded by cardboard stars, leaves, twigs and gingerbread house made of ginger biscuits and mini fairycakes

The Story of Hansel & Gretel

The gingerbread house is synomynous with Hansel and Gretel, which is one of the most well known of the fairytales collected by Brothers Grimm.

It’s the story of two young children, a brother and sister, abandoned in a forest by their parents who are no longer able to afford to feed them.

Whilst in the forest, the children come across a house made of bread, cake and sweets. Food often features in fairytales in a number of different ways which I look at in my blog on Food in Fairytales.

And who wouldn’t be tempted by such a sight?! Even more so when very hungry, like the children were!

Unfortunately the delicious edible house is not what it seems. It belongs to a witch who, unbeknown to the children, uses her delicious and edible house as a trap.

Once she entices them inside, she puts Hansel in a cage to fatten him up before eating him. Gretel is set to work in the kitchen to produce food with which to feed Hansel.

Thanks, however, to Gretel’s guile, it is the witch who ends up in the oven not her brother.

On escaping, the children gather up the witch’s treasures from her house and, with the help of a little bird, they find their way through the forest and back home to their father. They all live happily ever after (except for the witch!)

Hansel and Gretel was published in 1812. This coincided with the popularisation of the tradition of decorated gingerbread houses in Germany.

Some researchers believe the story inspired gingerbread bakers to craft houses which became popular particularly at Christmas time.

Baked gingerbread people, stars, hearts and circles on a wire cooling rack.

History of Gingerbread

Ginger root was first cultivated in southern China about 5,000 years ago. People believed it to have both medicinal and magical properties.

Today, ginger is still associated with relieving nausea, inflammation and helping with cold symptoms.

During Roman times, ginger was one of the first goods to travel the early global trade routes. The Romans used ginger in medicine, perfume and food.

The exact origins of gingerbread are not known and there are differing opinions as to the date of the first known gingerbread recipe.

Food historians link it to both ancient Egypt and ancient Greece and there are records of honey cakes (with ginger) in Roman times too.

It is also traced back to an Armenian monk, Gregory of Nicopolis, who is believed to have travelled to France in to 992 AD and taught Christian bakers how to make gingerbread.

By the middle ages in Europe, gingerbread became more as we know it today.

Honey was traditionally used to sweeten it. Other spices alongside ginger were used, such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and cardamom.

In the 16th century, a couple of developments in the West Indies had an impact on ginger and gingerbread in Europe.

The Spanish took ginger to Jamaica in the first half of the 1500s, where it grew well.

This in turn increased the amount of ginger which came back to Europe and made it cheaper to buy.

Secondly, the production of sugar there also had an impact on the affordability gingerbread.

Honey and dry sugar were expensive but the by product known as treacle/molasses was much cheaper. People started to use this instead of honey as a sweetener.

With both ginger and sugar much more affordable, gingerbread became much more widespread from the 17th and 18th centuries onwards.


Here are some interesting facts about gingerbread!

  • The word for ginger comes from the Sanskrit word ‘srngaveram’. This is derived from ‘srngam’ meaning ‘horn’ and ‘vera’ meaning ‘body’.
  • In the Middle Ages, ginger was expensive. 500 grams of ginger cost the same price as one sheep!
  • There are records of Swedish nuns baking gingerbread to alleviate indigestion in 1444.
  • It was believed that Henry VIII used a ginger preparation to protect himself against the plague.
  • In 1547,the year King Henry VIII died, almost 2, 500,000 lbs of ginger was exported from Jamaica to Europe and England.
  • It is said that Queen Elizabeth I came up with the concept of gingerbread people, after serving her guests with figure-shaped gingerbread biscuits made in their likeness.
  • In the 1600s, in a number of European countries gingerbread baking was considered a profession of its own . Apparently only professional gingerbread bakers had permission to bake gingerbread, apart from at Christmas and Easter when anybody was allowed to do so, such was its importance!
  • In 1600s Dutch children used gingerbread letters to learn their alphabet!
  • Gingerbread is unique in that it uses honey and treacle/molasses as the sweetener rather than sugar.
  • Ginger comes from the same family as cardamom and turmeric.
  • Gingerbread is often flavoured with ginger, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon.
  • The term gingerbread is used to describe a variety of foods ranging from the hard biscuits used to make gingerbread houses to soft loaf cakes more reminiscent of bread.
  • To be considered gingerbread, the recipe must include ginger as the key spice and be sweetened with either molasses or honey.
  • India is now the largest producer of ginger in the world.
Gingerbread house decorated with white icing and colourful sweets

Baking a Gingerbread House

I love baking a gingerbread house! I think part of the magic is the wonderful combination of artistic creativity and baking something delicious to eat afterwards!

My favourite gingerbread recipe is by Rachel Allen. I’ve included it in my Baking Blog. It’s enough for about 40 gingerbread people or a gingerbread house.

It’s a great activity to do with children as there’s a lot they can help with, from measuring ingredients, mixing, kneading and, in my opinion, the best bit, decorating the house.

Oh and, of course, eating it afterwards!


Creative Ideas & Activities

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