Pain d'épices: A Wonder of French Patisserie
To anyone who might assert that pain d'épices (literally ‘spice bread’, sometimes translated as ‘ginger bred’) is a well-loved, traditional Christmas cake in France, I answer that it so much more! This sweet treat is so well-loved that it is, in fact, eaten year-round in France and in certain other European countries..There is really no good reason to go without it, as it is low in fat and has long been ascribed a host of digestive, taste and even curative qualities! As Henry IV's physician once wrote: "Women from Lyon, Arvènes, Champagne and most especially ladies from Reims, after having regularly consumed this bread, have been made beautiful, with a lovely complexion and hardy, exquisite bodies."
So, ladies, what are you waiting for? It's time for some pain d'épices! After all, the art of eating well goes hand-in-hand the art of living well!
For anyone who has not had the fortune of tasting this delicacy in their youth, this exquisitely flavourful cake is best savoured with coffee or tea, or as an afternoon snack, but still has lots of surprises in store. Made using flour, honey and spices, this confection is said to resemble Mekong honey bread, consumed by the Chinese since the 10th century and subsequently by Arab populations. It is also a perfect pairing for foie gras, salmon and cheese.
It is used in a host of stunning recipes, among them: foie gras and pain d'épices toast, salmon and pain d'épices millefeuille, pain d'épices roasted quails, Époisses or Munster cheese and pain d'épices toast, cod with pain d'épices crumble, shrimp and pain d'épices risotto, venison tenderloin with pain d'épices sauce, and many more!
It may also be cooked with Armagnac, and paired with a glass of Bourgogne, Graves, Collioure, Pacherenc wine, wine from Savoie, or a glass of Champagne…
Pain d'épices mustard, Pain d'épices black tea and Pain d'épices liqueur for use in cocktails are all available for purchase.
Not only is its "sweet, mellow and smooth" flavour (Dictionnaire des sciences médicales, 1819) sublime, but it is wonderfully aromatic — its aromas are widely used as the basis for pain d'épices candles and also as flavour references during wine and beer tastings (e.g. "a mellow beer with aromas of pain d'épices").
The French Ministry of Agriculture quotes the great French chef Bernard Loiseau, who states that "pain d'épices is a masterpiece: when it is sweet, it beautifies and sweetens your existence, while its savoury incarnations are an excellent pairing for cheeses, meats, foie gras and the most sophisticated butters available. Pain d'épices is the ally of all cooks."
In France, the art of highlighting tastes using spices dates back to the Middle Ages. Seen at the time as luxury products originating from a mythic Orient and evocative of the Garden of Eden, the flavourful ingredients were once a symbol of prestige, wealth and social distinction. For example, pain d'épices was served at the wedding of Catherine of Medici and Henry II in 1533.
Pain d'épices was originally made in convents, and then "pain d'épices makers" called "Lebkuchler" in Alsace organised themselves. They separated from white bread bakers and created in Reims a corporation that was officially recognised under Henry IV.
Once spices became much more affordable under the Old Regime, they went somewhat out of fashion. Pain d'épices nevertheless retained a cachet of aristocratic sophistication. This gift, offered to kings during the coronation in Reims, would long remain a gift worthy of presenting to the highest dignitaries. In the present day it is still considered a special gift, and a small bear made of pain d'épices is always offered to children on St. Nicholas' Day.
Pain d'épices has existed since Antiquity. Brought back to Europe by crusaders returning from the Holy Land, it is said to have been introduced to France in the 15th century by King Philip the Good, who tasted a honey biscuit in Flanders.
As of the latter 17th century, this confection was sold in fairs throughout France. As the status of this sweet treat grew, pepper was eventually removed from its recipe.
Three French towns established themselves as the capitals of pain d'épices: Reims (Champagne region), Dijon (Burgundy) and Gertwiller (Alsace). For its part, Paris has its pain d'épices fair. A pain d'épices tradition is rooted in the Jura and Loiret (the confrérie du pain d’épices de Phitiviers).
Reims: This town produces an exquisite pain d'épices which enjoyed the greatest renown in the entire kingdom.
King Henry IV's physician wrote the following: "In Reims, there are lovely pains d'épices made from rye flour, honey and a little bit of pepper or cinnamon…"
According to La Grande Encyclopédie (1885.1902), Dijon is home to a version of pain d'épices that is the "most renowned for its delicacy", which contains wheat flour rather than rye flour. As such, it is closer to the pastry of which Marguerite of Flanders was very fond and that she introduced to Burgundy.
The traditional method of making pain d'épices is very demanding. There are very few establishments remaining that maintain ancestral baking methods and expertise:
- In Reims: Traditionally made pain d'épices from Maison Fossier (since 1756)
- In Dijon : Maison Mulot & Petitjean (since 1796)
This establishment specialises in making nonnettes — small pain d'épices cakes with anis icing and filled with jam, lemon curd or chocolate.
Our favourite pain d'épices is made by French artisanal bakers and cheese makers using pure French honey (e.g. Domaine Apicole du Pillardon, in Bassoues d'Armagnac.
Pain d'épices Etiquette Tips
Use the edge of a dessert fork to cut the pain d'épices, as you would for a cake.
The hostess slices the pain d'épices according to its shape. She cuts it in advance to serve with tea.
When shaped like canapés, pain d'épices is eaten using one's fingers. Given that it is sweet and a bit sticky, a small napkin is handy.
Pain d'épices, in any of its many shapes, makes a lovely, delicious and very trendy gift to give to friends when being invited for dinner.
Don't forget small heart-shaped pain d'épices for Valentine's Day and for weddings, inscribed with the name of the bride and groom and the wedding date.
For Chinese New Year: Carré Pain d'Epices in Singapore makes special tangerine-flavoured pain d'épices
Try an Egg Benedictine on a slice of pain d'épices and taste different pains d'épices flavoured with aniseed, chocolate, prunes, lemon, candied lemon, dates, figs, almonds, orange peel, nettles, apricot and candied fruits.
*The art of making Pain d'épices in North Croatia was registered on the World Heritage List in 2010.