• There's more to French gingerbread, pain d'épices, than meets the eye. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
French gingerbread, pain d'épices, is one of Europe's finest and most famous gingerbread varieties. But in its ancient, most authentic recipe exists a shocking truth: it doesn't contain any ginger.
Yasmin Noone

14 Dec 2018 - 8:26 PM  UPDATED 14 Dec 2018 - 8:26 PM

'Tis the season to indulge in gingerbread dreams and eat as many varieties of European gingerbread men, houses, cakes and cookies as you can handle in one merry sitting.

French gingerbread, also referred to as pain d'épices in French, is a global favourite. Although there are many regional versions of this spice bread throughout France, none is as famous as pain d'épices from Dijon, Burgundy.

Dijon tour guide, Hélène Coche, tells SBS that the true Burgundian pain d'épices recipe is famed the world over because it's so old and dates back to ancient times.

As the legend goes, gingerbread first appeared in China around the tenth century. It wasn’t a pastry – it was a food staple, a wheat flour-based bread made with honey called ‘mi-kong’.

“It seems that the European crusaders who [were in Jerusalem fighting religious wars in the Middle Ages] took this recipe for gingerbread and brought it back to Europe.”

In the thirteenth century, gingerbread was also used as a combat ration for Genghis Khan’s army. The honey-based food product later made its way to the Middle East.

“What first existed in China and the Middle East many years ago does not look anything like what pain d'épices is now,” says Coche.

“It seems that the European crusaders who [were in Jerusalem fighting religious wars in the Middle Ages] took this recipe for gingerbread and brought it back to Europe.”

The Crusaders also returned to Europe with candied fruits, spices and almonds. Coche explains that spice was a rarity of the time that could be used as a form of wealth.

“The recipe for pain d'épices at that time was still bread made with honey. It was later improved by Europeans with the addition of spice.”

Will you marry me...and my Belgian pastry? 

The next major event of note on the Dijon gingerbread timeline occurred when Marguerite de Flandre (Margaret III Countess of Flanders from modern-day Belgium) married Philip the Bold (Philip of Rouvres), a Duke of Burgundy in the 1300s.

Coche says texts first mention that Margaret III Countess of Flanders brought a pastry made from wheat flour and white honey from Belgium to Burgundy when she got married to the duke. 

“It seems that the recipe for the gingerbread we have today originally comes from this lady.”

Margaret III Countess of Flanders, Coche explains, is also locally remembered as being the person who brought running water to Dijon.

It's thought that at some point towards the end of the middle ages, pain d'épices became spicy. The gingerbread later became a delicacy throughout France.

No ginger in Burgundy's famed gingerbread: is it true?

Although Dijon is now famous for pain d'épices, Reims is the city that was first regarded as the French capital of gingerbread. The title moved to Dijon towards the end of the 19th century, where it has remained ever since.

“But there’s one thing to note about pain d'épices de Bourgogne – the gingerbread of Burgundy,” explains Coche. “The name is only written with one ‘s’ because it is only made with one type of spice, which is anise. There is no other spice used in the recipe.”

That means that even though the phrase ‘pain d'épices’ directly translates to gingerbread in English, an authentic version of Burgundy’s spice bread does not contain any ginger.

To go a little deeper and check this French gingerbread finding, SBS spoke to staff from Burgundy’s most famous gingerbread brand, Mulot and Petitjean. Founded in 1796, the house of Mulot & Petitjean is regarded as the only heir to a long tradition of gingerbread makers in Burgundy.

Christine Snoeckx, museum space manager at the Gingerbread Factory Mulot & Petitjean (La Fabrique de Pain D’Epices Multo & Petitjean) confirms that an authentic pain d'épices does not contain ginger.

She adds that most regional gingerbread varieties in France do not contain ginger, although some feature cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg or cloves.

“Pain d'épices from Burgundy only has anise,” says Snoeckx. “But its name in English is still gingerbread.

“During the Middle Ages gingerbread was made with a lot of spices and then people have made it less spicy as time has moved on. More recently, it has more sugar. The gingerbread of Dijon is made with jam and fruits."

“Pain d'épices from Burgundy only has anise. But its name in English is still gingerbread."

Ingredients revealed

Mulot & Petitjean currently produces more than 500 tones of pain d'épices every year.

According to gingerbread ingredients listed on Mulot & Petitjean’s website, an authentic pain d'épices includes:

-wheat or rye flour or a mixture of these two flours;

-sweetening materials like honey, sugar, sucrose and/or glucose syrup; and

-spices and/or aromatics.

-Other ingredients includes may include dried fruits, jams, chocolate, milk and egg yolk. 


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