In conjunction with our latest chocolate creation 'Midnight Ginger' (which I confess is less 'creation' and more classic, winning combination of rich dark chocolate encrusted with jewels of fiery crystallised ginger, delicious), we delved into the background of this fascinating plant to bring you a few interesting facts.
In the West, ginger has been widely used in medicine for over 2000 years, however the Chinese have used it for over 4000 years, in fact, as far back as 500 BC the great Chinese philosopher and teacher Confucius himself insisted ginger be present at the table during every meal as it was known to aid digestion. From its origin to the present, ginger is the world’s most widely cultivated herb.
Initially exported to Ancient Rome from India and used extensively by the Romans, it almost disappeared from use when the Roman Empire fell, at which time the Arabs took control of the spice trade from the east, and ginger became quite costly - in the Middle Ages, 500 grams of ginger (roughly equivalent to half a bag of sugar - UK) cost as much as a live sheep! However, after Marco Polo’s trip to the Far East, ginger came back into favour, especially amongst European herbalists, possibly due to ginger's warming and healing effects on the body which were especially welcome in the typically cold weather of the British Isles. The upper classes were also known to indulge in excessive quantities of fine cuisine, so ginger tea, and biscuits were often served to guests at dinner parties to settle aching stomachs.
The word ginger comes from the ancient Sanskrit singabera, meaning 'shaped like a horn', and is a member of a plant family that includes cardamom and turmeric, even bananas and plantains are distant relatives to ginger. But unusually for most plants, it does not grow in the wild and can’t be grown from seed, but must be cultivated by dividing the root. Its origins are uncertain, but it grows well in fertile soils at high altitudes with plentiful rainfall, with pesticides rarely needed as it has few natural enemies (as a general rule), however this isn’t always the case. Jamaican ginger is renowned throughout the world and prized for its aromatic and pungent flavor, but in the 1990’s Jamaica’s ginger production fell to an all time low due to agricultural diseases (including rhizome rot), and led to the decline of the island’s ginger industry. At present, India is the greatest producer of ginger in the world, but with current efforts, it’s believed that Jamaica will again become a major supplier of the world’s ginger.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that Jamaican ginger is not to be confused with ‘Jamaica Ginger’ (commonly known as ‘Jake’) originally a medical preparation. During prohibition, alcoholic beverages could not be readily obtained, but alcohol was present in many medicinal products, ‘Jamaica Ginger’ being one of them. When the US government realised it was being excessively consumed for ‘recreational’ purposes, it insisted all Jamaica Ginger formulations retain a certain percentage of solid matter e.g. chunks of ginger root, making the product taste bitter and less palatable to even the most hardcore of drinkers.
To check that manufacturers were upholding this new regulation, the government would test the composition of the products by evaporating off all the water and alcohol and then weighing the solid matter that remained. Manufacturers tried to get around this by adding other materials that would mimic ‘solid matter’ but tasted better e.g. oils, molasses, however a pair of bootleggers tried to do exactly this with disastrous consequences. Thinking a compound called tricresyl phosphate (TCP) was safe, they added copious amounts to their ‘Jamaica Ginger’ product, to later discover that it was a potent neurotoxin, which reportedly caused up to 50,000 people to loose function in their limbs. That also spelled the end of Jamaica Ginger since the effects were so serious that nobody could trust the product.
By the 11th century, ginger was well known in Britain and was even once recommended to King Henry VIII to treat the black plague. By the time of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (c1500) ginger plants were carried on ships to the New World colonies of the Caribbean where it could be easily grown and cultivated for the domestic market at a cheaper price. Its use in foodstuffs then became widespread, and was often imported in a preserved form for use in the cooking of meats, biscuits, cakes, and confectionary. It is said that Queen Elizabeth I invented the gingerbread man, small, sweet baked figurines given as gifts to Royal courtiers at Christmas. Gingerbread men were also used to decorate Christmas trees and in festive holiday scenes with accompanying gingerbread houses, gingerbread animals and trees decorated with sweet icing. German gingerbread Christmas decorations dating back to the 16th century were traditionally elaborate and made popular by Grimm’s Fairy Tales, in particular the story ‘Hansel and Gretel’. In the 17th century Nuremberg became the Gingerbread Capital of the World thanks to the elaborate gingerbread scenes that city bakers would create and display in their shop windows.
Our love affair with gingerbread figures persists today and forms a part of many traditional Christmas celebrations, including the seasonal centrepiece for Disney's 'Grand Floridian' hotel in Orlando, Florida. Made with 1,050 lbs of honey, 140 pints of egg whites, 600 lbs icing sugar, 700 lbs of chocolate, 800 lbs of flour, 35 lbs of spices (plus plenty of Disney magic and pixie dust of course :))!
Long studied for its antibacterial, antifungal, pain-relieving, anti-ulcer, antitumor, and ability to quell motion sickness, ginger has been proven to be effective in treating travel sickness, inhibiting the growth of certain cancer cells, used in Burma to prevent flu and in Japan to strengthen the heart, arteries and capillaries and improve blood circulation.
The peeled ginger root can be preserved by boiling in sugar syrup, but centuries ago, crystallised ginger was refined by far more primitive methods and the yield was much smaller and variable, so much so that it was only enough to supply the Emperor Ming, who liked it so much that the manufacture was performed by his appointment only. Crystallised ginger slices then became known as “Ming” ginger because it was Emperor Ming’s favourite.
The ginger jar first originated as a simple means for storing spices ranging from salt to more specialized herbs, including ginger. When ginger became a chief export to the Western world, these jars were also ideal for transport and became known as ‘ginger jars’. Although originally intended as basic storage objects, they often embodied rich colours and vibrant patterns and as time passed, their beauty was increasingly celebrated, and by the 19th-century ginger jars were more renowned for their design than their storage purpose. Today antique Chinese ginger jars can be found in museum collections, as well as in modern living rooms.
Every September the Shōga Matsuri, or Ginger Root Festivals, are held at the Shiba Daijingu Shrine in central Tokyo, and at Ninomiya Shrine in Akiruno. During the festivals, open-air stalls are filled with fresh ginger roots, with stall-holders shouting proclamations of “protects against evils” or “if you eat ginger, you’ll be free from colds” to festival-goers and potential customers.
Traditional ginger beer is a naturally sweetened and carbonated, usually non-alcoholic beverage. Alcoholic ‘brewed’ ginger beer originated in Yorkshire (England) in the mid-18th century, as a result of spice trading with the Orient and the sugar producing islands of the Caribbean. However, excise laws in 1855 limited alcohol content to 2%, but despite this it grew in popularity throughout Britain, the USA, South Africa and Canada, possibly due to the popularity of cocktails based on it, such as the 'Moscow Mule' and the 'Dark N Stormy'. Most manufactured ginger beers are still predominantly non-alcoholic.