Honey. It’s a substance that is pretty magical from a pretty magical insect: the bee. We spread it on our toast, stir it into porridge, or slap some in a stir fry. Yet honey has been in almost continual use since the ancient Egyptians, who recognised its power as a natural sweetener. Romans, Greeks and Egyptians all used honey to sweeten food, especially using it to make cakes: honey cakes.
In the 1200s, a group of monks in central Germany used honey for the first time to create what we now know as the lebkuchen. This type of cake might have been new, but it was a far more ancient idea these monks they were depending on. Since then, lebkuchen have been baked, year on year, using rich spices and plenty of honey to provide that special Christmas concoction of sweet and spicy, breaking with a classically hard crunch.
In spite of being such a famous biscuit, the actual meaning of lebkuchen has been lost in time. Kuchen is the German for cake, so that much is easy enough, but the actual meaning of leb is far more ambiguous. It could be taken from the Germanic for loaf (laib) or very sweet (lebbe). Or, alternatively, it could be derived from Leb-Honig, which is the type of honey taken from a bee hive. Wikipedia thinks this is the most likely. I’d like to agree with them, if anything just to think of those long dead monks being lazy enough to call the new biscuit they’d made ‘honey-cake’.
But the lebkuchen’s creation wasn’t just a neat idea about honey. The Silk Road was bringing goods pouring from various parts of Asia into European cities. The city of Nuremberg was on the crossroads of these major trade routes, and so monks began experimenting how they could use new ingredients from far off cultures to add to their bland honey bread. Lebkuchen wasn’t just another cake made by another set of bakers: it was a taste explosion that combined flavours in a fresh, new and exciting hybrid.
The lebkuchen has become a staple of Christmas in both Germany and the UK, with festive stalls selling these baked goods in their hoards. The rich, spicy smell of the biscuits is instantly evocative of this time of year and there seems something within it that tastes so German. But it’s worth remembering the history of this humble biscuit comes from a fusion that no-one predicted or expected.
I made 119 lebkuchen during December to hand out to friends as some form of Christmas present, and to satisfy my addiction to baking. I followed a recipe from the BBC Food website, which turned out well, apart from I was quadrupling all the ingredients. I’ve only had about 40 of these little chaps. I think more on the cloves front would have been a good shout. Perhaps a little more honey as well.
As a fun side note- I’d long thought lebkuchen meant ‘love-cakes’. I knew that love in German was something like leb. It’s actually liebe. Miles out.