Gingerbread Workshop at Ye Old Sun Inn in Colton, North Yorkshire
PUBLISHED: 09:55 16 December 2013 | UPDATED: 09:55 16 December 2013
Joan Russell Photography
Santa's sticky-fingered little helpers learn how to make gingerbread houses
Children love sweets and they love building things. So just imagine how fevered their excitement becomes when they get to build something then cover it in sweets. It’s like Christmas has come early. Which, in effect, it has as Santa’s littlest, most excitable helpers gather at Ye Old Sun Inn in Colton, North Yorkshire, for their annual Gingerbread Workshop.
Ashley and Kelly McCarthy have been running the fun family event at their award-winning pub for six years, giving children the chance to build their very own festive dream home out of gingerbread, icing and more sweets than Willy Wonka could shake a sugar-coated stick at.
It has grown into something of a Christmas tradition, especially as the workshop is now followed by a sing-song round the tree, a charity raffle, mulled wine and mince pies
‘It appeals to the kid in all of us,’ said Ashley, who leads the troops in the kitchen while Kelly runs the front-of-house operation. ‘Children love to come along and get stuck in, and so do their parents. Everyone loves it because you get to make a right old mess but you don’t have to clear up after – it’s perfect.’
Families usually like to build a big house together, with everyone doing their own bit of decorating. Some even bring along their own boxes of chocolates so they can fill their house with goodies (and get one-up on the neighbours).
The joy of gingerbread house-making is that anyone can have a go. Younger children – particularly boys – can cram as many sweets as possible on their houses to the point where they look likely to collapse (the houses and the boys). While older children and – let’s be honest – most of the girls, can create their own mini palaces with a finish that wouldn’t look out of place on Grand Designs (it can surely only be a matter of time before Kevin McCloud features a Sun Inn gingerbread house on his programme).
Whatever their style of housebuilding – bodge-job or architectural perfectionism – one thing is clear; the workshop is one of the pub-regulars’ festive highlights.
‘It’s the day when we really feel the Christmas spirit start to kick in,’ said Ashley. ‘Most people have finished work and are winding down. We have carols round the tree and our charity raffle afterwards, so everybody suddenly feels really festive. It’s quite magical.’
It’s also a great way of getting children interested in food.
‘They need to get hands-on experience, and you don’t get much more hands-on than this,’ Ashley continued. ‘It’s fairly easy for them to do and lets them use their creativity. And, of course, they end up with something sweet and delicious to take home.’
The McCarthy’s own boys – Josh, Ben and Liam – have all had a go at making gingerbread houses over the years and the workshop has become an integral part of their family Christmas.
The festive season is inevitably a busy time when you’ve got a successful pub and restaurant to run, but Ashley and Kelly make sure they spend as much time as possible with their sons. They only serve one sitting on Christmas Day so they can sit down at their own festive table in the early evening. They also close completely on Boxing Day so they can catch up with the kids and raise a glass or two with their extended family.
‘We always have turkey and all the trimmings on the big day itself,’ said Ashley. ‘Although I always do another joint too, usually lamb, because, to be frank, I’m sick of the sight of turkey after serving it day in and day out throughout December, including 90 covers on Christmas Day. I let everyone help themselves to turkey then bring the lamb to the table myself to make sure I get the first – and biggest – slices.’
Perhaps not surprisingly, turkey is off the menu in the restaurant after the last drumstick has been stripped clean on Christmas Day, not returning again until at least February. It’s the same with Christmas pudding – although there are usually a few sneaky portions left over if you know where to look.
‘You’d think people would have had their fill, but we do get some customers asking if they can have Christmas pudding well after Boxing Day,’ said Ashley. ‘It’s officially off the menu, but if they really want it and I’ve got some left, who am I to stop them?’
History in the tasting
Gingerbread is believed to have arrived in Europe as far back as 992, when Armenian monk Gregory of Nicopolis moved to France, where he stayed for seven years teaching priests, among other things, how to make gingerbread. How long he’d been knocking up batches of biscuits back home remains unclear.
Another early reference comes in the records from Vadstena Abbey in Sweden which indicate that the nuns regularly made gingerbread to ease indigestion in 1444.
The link with the church continued into the 17th century when the first documented sales of gingerbread biscuits were recorded in monasteries, farmers’ markets and pharmacies (early gingerbread was praised for its medicinal properties).
It’s widely believed that while it was our own Queen Elizabeth I who introduced gingerbread men to the world as a treat for foreign dignitaries, it was the Germans who first started cutting construction shapes from hard gingerbread and making them into houses, referencing the witch’s house from Hansel & Gretel.
The modern kings of gingerbread construction, however, are the Norwegians. Since 1991, the sweet-toothed people of Bergen have built an entire city of gingerbread houses each year for Christmas. They encourage every child under 12 to make a house for Pepperkakebyen (Norwegian for ‘gingerbread city’), which they claim is the largest sweet treat of its kind anywhere in the world.
Top tips for building your dream home
:: Start small. Four walls and a roof is the best place to begin – leave the multi-storey gingerbread houses with granny annexes and roof terraces to the experts.
:: It helps to have a second pair of hands for when the sides start to split or your roof slides off at a jaunty angle, so make sure you have a chum by your side. It’s more fun that way too.
:: Make sure you’ve got plenty of time – building your dream gingerbread home takes a lot longer than you think – and plenty of space to spread out in a coolish room (unless you actually want to try gluing your walls together with runny, liquefied icing).
:: Allow plenty of time for your creation to dry before presenting it to the world (or, at the very least, your nearest and dearest). Your ta-dah! moment won’t be quite the same if you whisk away the covering to reveal a soggy pile of biscuits, sweets and icing.
:: Build your house on firm foundations. A wide, flat plate or platter is essential if you want your house to remain firmly in place (cementing it down with extra icing also helps too).
:: Take lots of pictures of your gingerbread house so you can remember the joy it brought you well after the warm glow of Christmas has passed. You might think it’s going to last for days, but turn your back for a moment and someone will have eaten the chimney and be ripping off the roof tiles for seconds.