I don’t often get the chance to gratify myself with an excess of tourist pursuits but given half the chance I’ll take any excuse for a little visitor attraction indulgence…. and of course there’s plenty of tourist havens to dip in and out of up here in the beautiful Lake District.
Having never tried Grasmere Gingerbread prior to a couple of days ago when I soon managed to make up for it with a certain degree of piggish over-indulgence; I spent a wonderful couple of hours with Andrew Hunter exploring his family shop and bakery and learning more than just a little about the fascinating history behind this tasty hybrid of biscuity-cakes.
Unlike any other type of gingerbread I have tried, these were flat like a biscuit but chewy-soft and resonant of cake mixture. Whatever the consistency, both the smell emanating from the bakery at the back of the shop and the taste of them was utterly divine. Let me clarify straight off – no, this is not an advertorial and no, I have not been paid to proffer such lofty hommage to the humble gingerbread. I was just seriously overwhelmed by the gorgeous taste-sensation from such a seemingly simple recipe. But what exactly is the recipe?
And this dear Welly readers is where the story is as scrumptious as the biscuits themselves. The Hunters’ tale is one of three generations gone-by when a lady by the name of Sarah Nelson moved with her family from Lancaster to Grasmere back in the late nineteenth century. Having tragically lost a son to cholera, Sarah’s family wished to return to a healthier life in her childhood home of the Lake District.
Working at nearby Dale Lodge, Sarah and family lived in the former school house (the current-day shop) where she perfected her recipe of Grasmere Gingerbread and started selling it to villagers and tourists outside her home. Officially registered as ‘None Genuine Without Trademark’, the launch of Grasmere Gingerbread coincided with the development and expansion of the railways and the boom in Victorian visitors to the Lake District.
All fascinating stuff, but the most wonderful piece in the story for me is when Andrew (who’s wife Joanne is actually the family link), retells how both he and his wife were the only two people to have ever opened and read the ‘official’ Gingerbread recipe since it was last sealed and enterred back in 1926 in the bank vaults in Ambleside.
So, the question is, have they cashed in and sold this wonderful Gingerbread to corporations all over the world? Well no, actually. As Andrew points out, both he and his wife are now an important historical cog in the wheel of this biscuity life and it is their responsibility to ensure that, knowing the exact recipe, they stay true to its origins and act as future custodians. This of course means no changes to the original recipe nor modern-day preservatives added and with its traditional, unsealed product wrapping in specialist parchment paper, none of these factors lend themselves to lengthy logistics, department store shelf lives nor modern-day health and safety laws. Mail order is the only other distribution source they can extend to but even this is still reliant on sole production right here in Sarah Nelson’s original kitchen in Grasmere with an all-natural best before date of within 5 days.
Even while I’m standing here on a quiet mid-week morning, there’s a steady stream of customers queuing for their regular portion of Grasmere Gingerbread. It’s fantastic to see the assistants dressed as in days gone-by – a respectful nod to the time and hard work Sarah put into her original Gingerbreads.
Everyone who works here seems very jolly and all seamlessly fit around each other within the rather tight confines of kitchen and shop. Andrew tells me that they’ve tried hard to avoid seasonal workers and instead stick with full-timers who enjoy what they do and can do it inside out. There’s nobody to instruct because we all know what to do, he adds.
Of course, Grasmere Gingerbread was hit really hard with the damage and subsequent closure of the A591 following the floods last year. It was then that I also realized, contrary to my earlier introduction, just how much of their business is generated by non-tourists, as the break in infrastructure literally severed their ties with the towns of North and West Cumbria. Locals from Whitehaven, Workington and Cockermouth who had regularly traveled to Grasmere for their Gingerbread fix could no longer do so and the business barely survived. Thankfully with the mail order and optional pop-up shops around the county, they managed to cobble it together until normal service resumed but I really saw at that moment in Andrew’s eyes just what a struggle it had been.
Their iconic Gingerbread Shop also sells a variety of other products which attract shoppers from near and far. Andrew and Joanne have sourced an amazing number of weird and wonderful ginger-themed foodstuffs as well as partnering with other local businesses such as Pure Lakes to produce an array of ginger-injected beauty products and cute little tote bags.
I return home later that day with a stash of ginger-goodies and a warm, fuzzy feeling that’s resonant of the night before Christmas or a magical story once told as a child.
For as long as Joanne and Andrew Hunter shall perpetuate and honour the history and taste of one of Lakeland’s most iconic products then us Cumbrian-dwellers and visitors alike are safe in the knowledge that an important part of our history shall prevail from this century into the next. Thank you Andrew for a wonderful insight into your magical little shop – long may it continue to flourish.