Thursday, October 7, 2021

Gingerbread for the Fisher King

In Chrétien de Troyes’ mediaeval Arthurian romance Perceval ou le Conte du Graal, he gives a list of “the rarest fruits” served at the meal offered by the legendary Fisher King to his knightly guest Perceval. 

We may assume two things about this list: that it comprised choice things thought of as rich and luxurious by his aristocratic 12th century readers, which they would recognise and approve; and that it may also include elements of a symbolic nature.

The list is: “dates, figs, nutmegs, cloves, pomegranates, electuaries, gingerbread of Alexandria, aromatic jelly and so forth. Afterwards they had many draughts of piment without honey or pepper, of mulberry wine and clear syrup.”

Note that all these are prepared by the squires, not by the kitchen staff, suggesting also a haughty and ritual aspect. The viands are all exotic, from farther lands (and therefore costly); grapes, for example, grown in France and Burgundy and even in Southern England in those days, are not mentioned. The meal also does not include any flesh or fish, equally freely available, and perhaps thought insufficiently spiritual.

So, although the Fisher King’s own realm is famously a Waste Land, his table is still fruitful and full of rare delicacies. We might wonder what this signifies. A mystical interpretation might be that although the material world may be dreary and barren, we may still find intense joy and wonder through courtesy, ritual, gentility and the other qualities exemplified by the Fisher King and his squires.

Another view might look to the legends of fairy fruit in Celtic myths. Wanderers who stray into the realms of faery and eat the fruit there may not leave this land for a given period, and, when they do. they find that centuries have elapsed in the mortal world in their absence. There may be some affinities to these sorts of tales but yet the significance of the fruits of the Grail feast remains elusive.

One phrase caught my attention in the list. What was gingerbread of Alexandria? This fine term seems to be found nowhere else, in no other source, but it is used by Chrétien as if it would be quite familiar to his courtly audience. We should first note that medieval gingerbread does not mean the same thing as the modern biscuit as used, for example, in ‘gingerbread men’. It was a sweetmeat of warm honey, thickened with breadcrumbs and flavoured with spices.

I suspect it was known to Chrétien as “of Alexandria” because these spices came to Europe from the East via that city, a great trading entrepot for the Silk Road and the Spice Road. Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales refers to what was no doubt something similar as ‘roial spicerye of gyngebreed’. A similar mediaeval recipe is given in Two 15th c. Cookery-Books by Thomas Austin (1888), compiled from 15th century manuscripts:

"Gyngerbrede.--Take a quart of hony, & sethe it, & skeme it clene; take Safroun, pouder Pepir, & throw ther-on; take grayted Bred, & make it so chargeaunt that it wol be y-lechyd; then take pouder Canelle, & straw ther-on y-now; then make yt square, lyke as thou wolt leche yt; take when thou lechyst hyt, an caste Box leves a-bouyn, y-stykyd ther-on, on clowys. And if thou wolt haue it Red, coloure it with Saunderys y-now."

Essentially, warm the honey and steep the breadcrumbs in it, and then add the mystic spices, in this case Saffron, Pepper and Cinnamon (‘Canelle’), and presumably Ginger, though this is not mentioned, and redden if you wish with Sandalwood. Shape and stiffen it into slices, and decorate with Cloves and Box Leaves. 

Now you too can try at home a delicacy fit for the Fisher King and his guest Sir Perceval. 

(Mark Valentine)