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Behind every simple and unassuming pepparkaka (Swedish gingersnap cookie) is a long and complex history, which we've helpfully simplified into some fun tidbits to discuss with friends and family over a mug of glögg and (you guessed it) a few pepparkakor.
To begin with, no, pepparkakor are not special to Sweden or even Scandinavia. Plenty of other cultures claim gingerbread/gingersnap cookies as their own, and gingerbread was probably imported to Sweden from Germany around the 1300s.
Though historical records show that gingerbread cakes and cookies featured at Swedish royal events starting in the late Middle Ages, the average person was most likely to consume pepparkakor that had been baked in convents by nuns and sold for medicinal purposes in monastery pharmacies. The cookies were thought to cure illnesses like indigestion and depression, produce a calming effect, and even improve sex drive.
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Pepper was once a common ingredient in pepparkakor, hence the name. Photo: Gorm Kallestad/NTB scanpix/TT
Then there's the curious case of the word pepparkakor itself. As any student or speaker of Swedish will note, the Swedish word peppar most certainly does not translate to the English word ginger, but rather means pepper. So, if the Swedish word for ginger is ingefära, why aren't they called ingefärakakor?
First, it seems that pepper was once a prominent ingredient in pepparkakor recipes along with other spices like cardamom, anise and fennel, none of which are common in more modern recipes. In addition, the Swedish word peppar was at one time closely associated in the more general sense with spices, and even the term gingerbread originated as a broader term for a highly-spiced cake or cookie.
Which brings us to how pepparkakor made the jump from holy medicine to Christmas favourite. Pepparkakor fortunately managed to survive the Protestant reformation that took place in Sweden in the 1500s, which eliminated the Catholic convents and monasteries where they were baked and sold. By the 1700s, pepparkakor recipes had begun appearing in Swedish cookbooks, making the cookies increasingly accessible to the population.
Still, some of the spices in pepparkakor were relatively expensive, and even ingredients we now consider common – such as flour and sugar – were not always readily available, making the cookies something of a delicacy. So although pepparkakor were enjoyed year-round, by the 19th century, they had become a popular favourite at Christmastime, when the festivities justified the extra expense.
Today, countless modern recipes for pepparkakor can be found in cookbooks and online, but for those who want a taste of the past, the Nordiska Museet's website features four pepparkakor recipes (in Swedish) that appeared in Swedish cookbooks in the years 1755, 1879 and 1945.
A mother and children making pepparkakor in, probably, the 1950s. Photo: Pressens Bild