Christmas in France is all about food and at this time of year you see supermarket shelves and market stalls groaning with piles of delicious festive specialities. One of these, found at no other time of year, is pain d’épices. This tasty pâtisserie comes in various guises, but what exactly is it? Literally translated, it is “spice bread”, though it’s often described in English as gingerbread.

pain d'épices

Origins of Pain d’Epices

Pain d’épices (also spelled pain d’épice in singular) has ancient origins dating as far back as Antiquity. The Egyptians, Romans and Greeks all had versions of honey bread though today’s version has more in common with a bread made with honey and aromatic plants from 10th century China. The Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries brought the recipe to Europe in particular Germany and north-east France with the first mention of a “pain d’espessez” in 1372 and “pain d’épices” in 1530. 

pain d'épices

Pain d’Epices in France today

Pain d’épices these days in France is sort of a cross between bread and cake, and a little different from gingerbread as we know it in the UK and USA. In its most basic form it is baked as a loaf, made from very few ingredients and is quite dry. However, it also comes in festive shapes, such as stars, hearts and figures. In this case there are more ingredients, it’s softer, less dry and often sweeter.

chocolate dipped and iced pain d'épices

Let’s look at the traditional loaf first which consists of rye flour, honey, baking powder and spices (star anise, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and pepper). That’s it, no eggs or fat, the honey provides the liquid. This version, traditionally from the town of Reims, is often eaten sliced with foie gras, the controversial duck or goose fattened liver that is such an integral part of many a festive meal in France. 

foie gras and pain d'épices

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

For a sweeter, more cakey pain d’épices it can be made with the above ingredients plus egg, butter and ground almonds.  This version is often shaped into stars, hearts, Saint Nicolas, Christmas trees, Santa etc and decorated with icing sugar or dipped in chocolate. It is more like gingerbread as found in other parts of the world and especially resembles German lebkuchen.  Like this it is very popular at Christmas markets and produced mainly in Alsace.

christmas market stall with gingerbread

Pain d’épices, gingerbread, lebkuchen, Polish piericzki, Swedish pepparkakor and so on are all variations of a similar festive treat, popular in many places around the world. Have you eaten pain d’épices and do you have a favourite version of this spicy, gingery cake? I’d love to hear about your Christmas food specialities.

chocolate cakes from Alsace

Find out more about food at Christmas in France:

13 Desserts: Christmas in Provence

What is Bûche de Noël?

Vin Chaud – a Festive Winter Drink

How to Make Galette des Rois, Traditional Epiphany Cake

School Christmas Dinner in France

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French gingerbread pain d'épiceschocolate iced spicy cookies

 

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