Thursday, September 20, 2018
Cooking

A trip to Strasbourg, France, brings back memories of a Christmas gingerbread tradition

When I was quite young, I discovered Alpha-Bakery Gold Medal Children's Cookbook in my elementary school's library. This magical book was filled with illustrations of sweet treats and savory snacks, and I believed it was the perfect tool to rival my baking fiend of a mother.

The cook-by-the-alphabet book contained simple recipes that tasted delicious to my juvenile palate: A was for apple crisp, B for banana bread, C for chocolate chip cookies, and so on. There was something tasty for every letter, though I'd argue the "Xtra-Special Celebration Cake" was perhaps not the best way to reinforce spelling and reading skills.

I renewed the book each time it was due so that I could work through the recipes. Finally, my father, flouting copyright laws, photocopied the thing cover to cover. My once black-and-white version on legal-sized paper is now yellowed, folded and crinkled from nearly 30 years of use. (Miraculously, the book is still for sale on Amazon.) Fudgy brownies made from melted semisweet chocolate chips, butter and sugar is one of two specialties I learned and continue to make to this day.

The other is spicy gingerbread cookies, rich with dark, gooey molasses.

I loved these soft, chewy cookies punctuated with ginger and allspice. I made them every year for Christmas and often added a thick smear of homemade cream cheese frosting. That sweet, tangy topping perfectly complemented the spice of the cookie, and I did not think it was possible the treat could get any better.

Then I went to France.

Oh, how wrong I had been. How utterly clueless about what true gingerbread could smell like, look like and taste like. My dark brown, sugar-by-product-filled excuse for gingerbread couldn't live up to the golden, intensely spiced, chewy chunks of true gingerbread I tasted abroad.

It never occurred to me that one could make gingerbread cookies without molasses, which is how they are made over there. Then I learned that what I experienced in France was not a gingerbread cookie in the classic sense, but rather their version of gingerbread, pain d'epices.

Sweets in Strasbourg

On a summer stop in Strasbourg, France, a guide led us along the winding, cobblestone streets of the historic city center. Strasbourg is a city heavily shaped over the centuries by its French and German conquerors. It borders the Black Forest of Germany in the Alsace region of northeastern France along the Rhine River. (Read more about Strasbourg at tbtim.es/strasbourg.)

As we ooh'ed at the half-timbered houses and aah'ed at the lively history of this UNESCO World Heritage Center, I smelled it before I saw it: sweet cinnamon, the fruity heat of cloves, earthy nutmeg, tangy ginger and a hint of citrus. The aroma wafted down the narrow street and drew us closer with its warm, mouth-watering fragrance.

"This is the very best place for gingerbread, I have to say, in Strasbourg," said our guide, Rafaella Minvielle.

Minvielle had steered us to a tiny shop, the sign above the large front window draped with an arrangement of white wooden hearts, white flowers, green vines and white woven scrolls. Stone cherubs and a trumpeting angel completed the elaborate spray. Beneath it in script read: Pain d'Epices, Mireille Oster.

Gingerbread is a local specialty in this area, and Minvielle explained that Mireille Oster, in addition to making one of the best versions in the city, travels the world to both share Alsatian spice bread with others and be inspired by ingredients from elsewhere. Oster's Seven Spices bread is a classic, featuring a proprietary blend of cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, anise, cloves, nutmeg and other spices that has been handed down through multiple generations of her family. (We share a similar, but not exact, recipe here.) She also offers more exotic variations, such as Nuit de Chine, or China Nights, with rice wine and goji berries, and Pain de Soleil, or Sunshine Bread, with banana and rum.

A hallmark of Alsatian spice bread is honey.

"There is a lot of honey," Minvielle said, "so it melts in your mouth."

Our group squeezed into the shop for a tasting.

The cream walls were lined with honey-colored wood shelves, and bouquets of white or cream silk flowers stood in vases or hung from the ceiling. The shelves were stacked with the various flavors of gingerbread, wrapped in clear cellophane and tied with gold ribbons. Warm light reflected off the wrapping, making the whole place feel as though it were shimmering in a haze of golden honey, cream and spice. Small cherub statues lounging on surfaces here and there enhanced the feeling that I had, indeed, stepped into heaven.

We tasted the classic Seven Spices bread and the Pain des Agnes, or Angel Bread, which featured orange blossom honey and candied oranges. Both variations were cut into bite-sized cubes of moist bread with a hint of sweet glaze on top. They were each so infused with flavor that I needed time to sit and savor them.

Alas, the tour continued on, and I had to wait two days before I could return with more time. During my second visit, the shop was free of visitors and my fellow travelers, and I found a white-haired gentleman sitting at a wooden table in the back, swirling a small wine glass filled with a dark red. He smiled and shook his head when I asked a question in English. Fortunately, Oster swept into the room, and humored her non-French-speaking visitor by making her best attempts at English.

She explained that only three regions in France have traditionally produced gingerbread: Dijon, Reims and Strasbourg. Each region's signature recipe varies, she said.

The origin of spice bread in France goes back centuries, and began as a combination of flour and strong, dark, buckwheat honey from Brittany, according to Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat's A History of Food. Interestingly, a secret to the French tradition was to let the dough rest, sometimes for years, in a cool place so that the honey would ferment, adding to the delicious sweetness.

My more familiar version with molasses didn't appear until around the time of the Restoration (in the 1600s) and was more of an English approach to the recipe, writes Toussaint-Samat.

This Christmas, I am resigning myself to lesser versions of gingerbread cookies than the heavenly versions I tasted in France: my classic Alpha-Bakery Gold Medal Children's Cookbook cookie and a recipe from Google that comes close to Oster's magic mixture.

Then again, I could always make another trip to Strasbourg. I hear they have a world-famous Christmas market, and pain d'epices is the star of the show.

Ashley McKnight-Taylor is a recent graduate of the Digital Journalism and Design master's program at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

 
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