Summary York Mayne Bread
Embossing images on bread dough with the aid of moulds has been a common technique since the earliest days of agriculture. It is an easy way of turning something edible into a sacrificial offering or something special for a festive occasion.
It is still customary all over the world today, albeit only regionally. An inherently remarkably stable, brilliant white dough is used in southern Germany to produce a special type of bread called a ‚Springerle‘, which is baked in an embossing mould. The result looks like an intricately carved piece of art, rather than something edible. During her investigations into the reasons for its singular properties, the author discovered a hitherto unknown fact. The designs embossed in the ‚Springerle‘ withstand the baking process so well due to the lavish use of sugar, whose hygroscopic nature causes the surface of the dough to dry so rapidly that it cannot possibly lose its shape.
During her research on other iconic breads in Europe, the author happened upon ‚York mayne bread‘, a speciality known since medieval times. The aldermen of the City of York used to present this bread to high-ranking visitors and passing royalty as a gift of honour. In 1595, when the making of this bread threatened to go out of fashion for reasons not specified, the aldermen ordered it to be baked, and even made the secret baking of its banned rival ’spiced bread‘ (known as ‚Lebkuchen‘ in Germany) punishable by imposing a fine. Nevertheless, all knowledge regarding this special bread, of which the aldermen had even boasted that it „was never used in any part of the kingdom“, was still lost over the years.
In 1950, the City of York endeavoured to rediscover the forgotten recipe for its iconic bread. However, as the recipe as such was not particularly distinctive, there was also no resultant flurry of baking activity.
Only the most recent findings regarding the recipe for German ‚Springerle‘ finally shed some light on the issue: It is almost identical to the recipe for York mayne bread; the only difference being that it uses aniseed instead of caraway seeds. The City of York may therefore almost certainly be considered to be the cradle of ‚Springerle‘, which were not elevated to their iconic status in Germany until the Biedermeier era after the end of the Napoleonic wars.
In this respect, one aspect worth remembering is the following: In those days, locally produced honey was the only commonly used sweetening agent. Although sugar made from imported sugar cane and with a much stronger sweetening effect was much sought after, it was also excessively expensive. Precisely for that reason, it was initially used at court for reasons of prestige. It may well be that the rich trading nation England experimented with pure sugar doughs very early on in history, even before the discovery of America, and the citizens of York came up with this perfectly shapeable dough in the process. However, England soon had access to copious amounts of sugar cane originating from its own colonies, and York was able to present this exceptional bread, exceptional because it was so beautiful, to distinguished visitors.
Its unaccountable loss in popularity is likely to be down to the fact that the fat-free dough quickly turns as hard as stone; it must also have been extremely expensive to make at the time.
The publication closes with a description of how the original dough may be made with contemporary ingredients to ensure that it can be safely baked in moulds without losing its shape, as only a bread that is as richly embossed with ornamental decorations and pictures as the original may rightfully be called York mayne bread.