How poet Percy Bysshe Shelley has inspired a comeback for Horsham gingerbread
PUBLISHED: 14:23 19 February 2014 | UPDATED: 14:23 19 February 2014
Horsham gingerbread is enjoying a revival, thanks to the notorious poet Percy Bysshe Shelley's sweet tooth
More than 200 years ago, a young boy sat with his aunt and cousin, munching Horsham gingerbread at Warnham pond. The boy would go on to become one of the most famous poets of his generation; the tradition for Horsham gingerbread would be all but forgotten… until now.
The charming, if precocious, 10-year-old Percy Bysshe Shelley, then living on the family’s Warnham estate at Field Place, had written to his Aunt Kate, begging a ‘fairing’ of gingerbread from a market trader for a picnic in 1803. Had the outing been made a few decades later, the children might well have received the gift of a gilded gingerbread, the delicate gold leaf picking out the illustration traditionally stamped on top of the biscuits as a special treat.
By the mid-19th century, 10 or so gingerbread makers were making Horsham famous for its fairings. But unlike Shelley, whose popularity was to grow after his death at 29, their art would be lost with the passing of the last specialist baker in 1917, their only legacy being a collection of woodcut moulds left to gather dust in Brighton – the significance of the stamps (a Southdown sheep, horse and dray, dragoon guard and clown among them) obscured by time. And that’s where the story of the lost fairings of Sussex would have ended, forever a sticky footnote to Horsham’s past, had a crumb of history not fallen into the lap of the town’s museum director Jeremy Knight.
Well-versed in Horsham’s spicy reputation for both its gingerbread and the life of its scandalous poet, Jeremy had been on a mission to celebrate Shelley’s links with the birthplace that had largely ignored him by amassing what has become the third largest collection of his writings and artefacts. But Jeremy was also intent on raising the profile of Horsham’s humble gingerbread men and when, four years ago, he came across a Shelley family manuscript containing a gingerbread recipe, the two came together in delicious combination.
Now, for the first time in 100 years, a Horsham gingerbread made using local flour from Lurgashall Mill and Indian ginger – both historically accurate – has gone on sale in the town.
“We originally wanted to recreate Horsham gingerbread for the poet’s bicentenary in 1992 but the recipe had been lost in 1917,” says Jeremy. “One person we asked said as far they knew, it didn’t include fat and tasted like cardboard, so we sort of gave up on it.”
Jeremy recognised that the Shelley recipe, for which the family afforded the luxury of butter, was much more to modern tastes, but he had no idea how to turn it into commercial reality. So when, by chance, former Horsham Cheese Shop proprietor and development chef Lesley Ward – who had been on her own culinary detective trail – phoned to ask Jeremy what he knew about Horsham gingerbread, the idea of working on it together was too tempting to resist.
“Prior to the 18th century, if you go back to the Tudor period, gingerbread was literally a bread soaked and flavoured and pressed into tins – it was recycled bread in other words – and it lasted for up to a year!” says Lesley, who immediately started experimenting with the Shelley recipe in her development kitchen in Cranleigh.
“The Horsham gingerbread makers’ recipes would have been simple and I don’t think they would have bothered writing them down – although if there is a manuscript out there we would love to see it.
“The Shelley recipe, too, was very basic, but importantly it gave the ratios. We had to add oats to stabilise the mixture and we ended up turning it into a tray bake, but who knows how far from the original Horsham gingerbread it is. They wouldn’t have been working to a universal recipe, they all had their own, so I like to think I was following the tradition by putting my own twist on it.
“Horsham Regency Gingerbread isn’t a replica, as no one knows what it was like, but we are confident we have captured the flavour and the richness of gingerbread at that time.”
Horsham became known for its gingerbread, thanks to the popularity of its fairs, from which were brought back sweet gifts or ‘fairings’. By the middle of the 19th century, specialist bakers, two of which were known to be in West Street, were competing with stallholders to produce the most popular fairings, made from gingerbread. As the competition intensified, they found a way of differentiating their biscuits by stamping them with sometimes intricately carved moulds using illustrations after the style of tiny, penny ‘chapbooks’ of popular picture stories. The most highly prized gingerbreads would have been gilded with wafer thin, edible gold.
“A fairing would probably have been a cross between a brandy snap and a gingerbread,” says Jeremy. “Licking the gold off would have been a real treat and it’s where the phrase ‘taking gilt off the gingerbread’, meaning to reveal something plain underneath, comes from.”
More than 40 of the moulds survived but while Bakewell continued to be famous for its tarts, Banbury its cakes and Bath its buns, Horsham was no longer known for its gingerbread.
“The moulds are the size of a paperback and the carvings range from little ones up to full size. A lot of the moulds were given in 1917 to the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, which later became the Brighton and Hove Museum and we’re grateful to it for lending the moulds to us so they could go on display in Horsham. We know the names of some of the bakers, but so far no one has come forward to tell us they are related to any of them,” says Jeremy Knight.
Shelley’s place in local history has a curious parallel with that of its gingerbread makers. Both were ignored by the town for decades and neither is to everyone’s taste.
“When I first came to Horsham in 1988, the only thing I knew about the town was its link to Shelley,” recalls Jeremy. “But no one was interested in him. Running the local museum, I felt that, irrespective of whether you liked him or not, he was too important to ignore. People have collected Shelley in the past for his poetry and writings but they have predominantly ignored him as a historical character in his local context. We now have what is probably the third largest collection in the country, visited by researchers from all over the world, and have been able to correct a number of errors about him.”
One fact that isn’t in dispute is that he was a gingerbread fan. Two hundred years on, others need some persuading.
“At first I got upset if people didn’t like it, either because they didn’t like ginger or because they had a perception clouded by McVities gingerbread,” says Lesley. “Now I’m more relaxed about it. I just say it’s like Marmite and those who like it, really really like it. I think the boy Shelley would...but then he wouldn’t have been expecting McVities!”
Taste of the times
Horsham Regency Gingerbread uses ingredients that would have been available to the Shelley household in 1809, including molasses, muscovado, treacle, locally milled flour and, crucially, ginger from the Indian colonies.
“Ginger is like capsicum, it has lots of different flavour strengths,” explains Lesley, who spent a year trying to recreate the recipe. “Ginger from India is more aromatic and you have to use twice as much as that from Nigeria, for instance. It makes it more expensive but it was historically correct and it was nice to tie it in with the sort of ginger the Horsham gingerbread makers would have used 200 years ago.”
She later adapted the recipe to produce a gluten-free version, which in turn led to the launch this Christmas of a gluten-free Sussex Gingerbread Thin biscuit using Horsham-grown linseed from The Linseed Farm at Barns Green.
The inspiration for the gingerbread is reflected in the packaging’s Regency wood cut image and elegant font, based on a 300-year-old design. It also includes the crest of the old Horsham Borough, a status it lost in 1939.
And the Horsham gingerbread men’s unique branding will live on.
“We couldn’t use moulds for the gingerbread because of the consistency, but we’re thinking about having new moulds made up to stamp the Gingerbread Thins,” says Lesley.
Then the history of Horsham’s gingerbread will have come full circle.
For more on the story of Horsham Regency Gingerbread visit horshamgingerbread.co.uk
The 10-year-old Shelley’s letter to his Aunt Kate, taken from Thomas Medwin’s biography, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, published 1847:
Monday, July 18, 1803.
Free P. B. SHELLEY.
We have proposed a day at the pond next Wednesday, and if you will come tomorrow morning I would be much obliged to you, and if you could any how bring Tom over to stay all the night, I would thank you. We are to have a cold dinner over at the pond, and come home to eat a bit of roast chicken and peas at about nine o’clock. Mama depends upon your bringing Tom over to-morrow, and if you don’t we shall be very much disappointed. Tell the bearer not to forget to bring me a fairing, which is some gingerbread, sweetmeat, hunting-nuts, and a pocket-book. Now I end.
I am not
Your obedient servant,
P. B. Shelley.