The Austrian great-aunts of my childhood friend, Gaylord Ansell, brewed ginger cordial and kept it in dark bottles under the kitchen sink. It was a potion that left a fiery taste on the tongue and a craving for more.
Ginger is native to India and China. It takes its name from the Sanskrit word stringa-vera, which means “with a body like a horn”, as in antlers. Ginger has been important in Chinese medicine for many centuries and is mentioned in the writings of Confucius. It is also named in the Qur’an, indicating it was known in Arab countries before 650 CE. It was one of the earliest spices known in Western Europe, in use since the 9th century. It became so popular in Europe that it was as common as salt and pepper. In the 19th century English tavern keepers put out small containers of ground ginger for people to sprinkle into their beer – the origin of ginger ale.
Ginger is a herbaceous plant with knobbly underground stems called rhizomes. Young fresh ginger is pale in colour and has thin skin which does not require peeling. It can be diced, chopped, grated and julienned. Mature fresh ginger, which is the most widely kind found in supermarkets, has a tougher skin and does require peeling. Ground (or powdered) ginger is produced by cleaning, slicing, drying and grinding fresh ginger. When it has not been kept at the back of cupboard for too long, it is more potent than fresh ginger and can be used as a substitute at the rate of one part ground to 6 parts fresh. Crystallized ginger is made of young and tender strips impregnated with sugar and stored in syrup. This versatile form can be eaten on its own, added to desserts, eaten with an espresso, or used in cakes and cookies.
Dried, sliced ginger tends to be used in fruit dishes, gingerbread, gingersnaps and many savoury dishes (e.g. soups, curries and meat dishes). Many traditional European and Middle Eastern dishes specify dried ginger as this form was the only way that ginger could be transported over long distances. Preserved, or candied, ginger has been peeled, cooked and then preserved in syrup. It is commonly used in confectionery or as an ingredient in desserts. Pickled ginger is a form of ginger popular in the Far East, particularly in Japan where it is known as gari. It is commonly used between courses to cleanse the palate.
So much for the edible variety. There are also ginger wines, beers and cordials. The first documented appearance of Ginger Wine occurred with the foundation of “The Finsbury Distilling Company” based in the City of London in 1740. The Gin Act 1751 prohibited gin distillers from selling to unlicensed merchants, eliminating small gin shops and placing distribution in the hands licensed retailers. The Finsbury Distilling Company had to build a retail network, which included one Joseph Stone, grocer of High Holborn. An important customer, his name was given to their fortified Ginger Wine. In 1832, sales were boosted by a cholera epidemic and a widely held belief that ginger offered protection against the disease. It is also claimed to aid digestion and to be an effective aphrodisiac.
There are many ways of producing the more innocuous ginger cordial made by my friend’s great-aunts. The following recipe works well. Take: 1/2 lb root ginger, peeled, washed and finely grated; 1½ litres of water; 4 cups (rock sugar or pure cane sugar); one egg white and the egg shell (used to clarify the ginger syrup); red or green organic food colouring.
Add the water to the grated ginger, mix well and leave to steep. Strain through muslin. Leave aside until ginger sediment forms at the bottom of the bowl. Gingerly pour the liquid into a stainless steel or enamel pot without letting in any of the sediment. Add the sugar to the liquid. Bring to the boil, stir until the sugar dissolves and then add the egg white and the crushed egg shell. Simmer gently for about 40 minutes. Strain through muslin into a jug and add the food colouring if used. Bottle when cool and store in the fridge. Enjoy!