The village of Grasmere literally straddles the River Rothay in the middle of northwest England’s Lake District and figuratively the perilous line between quaint and twee, between historic detail and modern invention meant to charm tourists into spending money. Over the years, the cluster of stone cottages has been repurposed into tearooms, gift shops, and B&Bs to serve the hordes of visitors who come to roam the region’s hills, dales, and waterfalls (known locally as fells), just as the village’s most famous resident, the poet William Wordsworth, did 200 years ago.
Wordsworth deserves the credit — or blame — for turning Grasmere into a tourist attraction. People came to visit him when he was alive and even more came after he died in 1850. The Great Man is buried in St. Oswald’s churchyard in the middle of town, along with his wife, children, and sister Dorothy. If you wander past the poet’s grave and then through a field of daffodils behind the graveyard, planted in honor of his best-known poem (you know the one: “I wandered lonely as a cloud”) and then circle back toward the main road, you’ll pass through a breeze that smells like butter, sugar, a tinge of lemon, and sweet, sharp ginger.
The smell comes from Grasmere Gingerbread Shop, located in a small white stucco cottage next door that was originally built as a schoolhouse in 1630. Inside, it’s full of dark Victorian paneling, doilies, gingham, and the ubiquitous daffodils. The shop assistants wear striped high-necked dresses and ruffled pinafores and mobcaps. It’s twee as hell, and it’s impossible it was this cute in 1854 when Sarah Nelson, an ambitious domestic worker with a killer recipe, lived here and began selling gingerbread to tourists who had come to lay daffodils on Wordsworth’s grave in the cemetery next door (where her husband Wilfred worked part-time as a gravedigger). “The Daily Telegraph thought we pumped out the smell on purpose,” says Joanne Hunter, who currently owns the shop with her husband Andrew. But the truth is, the cottage is so small — the retail space is only large enough to fit one customer at a time — the kitchen needs a fan to keep the room at a reasonable temperature. Still, the smell that wafts outside is a great advertisement, luring customers, one by one, into the little house all year long.
Made from Nelson’s original recipe — handwritten on parchment and stored securely in a bank vault — the gingerbread isn’t thick, cakey, and treacle-flavored like the versions found across the Lake District, where it’s often served with custard. Nor is it dry construction material for Christmas gingerbread houses. Instead, it’s as thick as a cookie, but denser and chewier. It doesn’t break with a quick snap, but more of a lazy bend. Chewing requires a certain amount of effort, making it, by necessity, a treat that you savor. It tastes of butter and sugar, a trace of lemon, and above all, ginger, both in ground and crystalized form. The overall effect is both comforting and bracing.
You can get it by the piece, the half-dozen, or dozen, or in a commemorative tin. The shop also sells ginger tea, ginger beer, ginger curd, and stem ginger in syrup; nonedible gingerbread-adjacent products like hand and lip balm; and other Lake District classics that contain no ginger whatsoever, like Kendal Mint Cake and rum butter.
It’s entirely possible that other people made gingerbread like this in Nelson’s time and before. (Down the road at Dove Cottage, the former Wordsworth home that’s now a museum, a facsimile of a recipe book is propped open to show off Wordsworth’s sister-in-law’s gingerbread, presumably the one the family ate, though Dorothy herself noted in her diary that she preferred a thicker variety.) But no one else makes it now. Nelson was clever enough to trademark the name Grasmere Gingerbread, along with the logo: a picture of herself standing in front of the cottage. Though a 2021 U.K. law required that the gingerbread, like all prepackaged food items, be labeled with the ingredients, the exact recipe and methodology remain a secret, shop workers must sign nondisclosure agreements, and only two people are allowed to do the final mixing. (For many years, Andrew Hunter did all the mixing himself, but eventually, Joanne says, as the business grew, the work began to restrict their family life, so they decided to initiate others into the secret process.)
The shop has been in Joanne Hunter’s family for three generations. Nelson had no immediate survivors, so after her death in 1904 — at age 88 “from sheer exhaustion,” according to the death certificate — her nieces sold the shop to a village woman who eventually went into partnership with Hunter’s great-aunt and -uncle, who sold it to her parents. Hunter was “weaned on gingerbread.” She grew up in an apartment across the road from the shop and began working there when she was still small enough to have to stand on a box to see over the counter.
As a child, she would look around and imagine ways things could be improved. But when she and Andrew bought the business in 2000 — he now handles the legal and financial aspects, while she manages the shop and the marketing — she decided to move slowly, to avoid alienating staff and customers. Her management principles can be best summed up as WWSND: What Would Sarah Nelson Do?
The Hunters see themselves as custodians of both the shop and the recipe. While they will occasionally collaborate with other local businesses on items like Easter eggs, the kitchen hasn’t “bastardized” — in Hunter’s words — Nelson’s original recipe with extra ingredients or add-ons like chocolate. (At-home experimentation, however, is always encouraged. Several employees report that they enjoy Grasmere Gingerbread with whisky or beer, and Hunter says it’s very nice with blue or goat cheese, or a Lancashire with mango or pineapple.)
Some changes have been allowed in the shop for convenience and health reasons. The Victorian coal range has been replaced with a modern electric oven, and an electric mixer spares the bakers’ arm muscles. There’s an electronic credit card reader and new offices across the road for the marketing and shipping operations. There’s also a website, a far more efficient way of letting the public know the shop exists than standing at the front gate to attract customers, as Nelson did.
The gingerbread is only for sale at the Grasmere shop and a new second location in Hawkshead, another Lake District village about 10 miles away. It has a short shelf life and Hunter is adamantly opposed to adding preservatives that would extend it, so it’s not available in London or elsewhere in the U.K. Hunter has rejected the overtures of Walmart and other large corporations for the same reason. But FedEx, Hunter says, ships quickly enough so customers can get the gingerbread while it’s still at its best; gingerbread has been delivered as far afield as Australia and a helicopter drop was once arranged in the Falkland Islands.
The overseas fans who order the most and who chat with the team most frequently on social media are from the U.S.
“Americans love us,” says Hunter. “It’s like” — she affects an accent — “‘Gee, man, it’s the cutest little store.’” The difference is context. In the U.S., a shop like this would likely be found at an amusement park or faux-historic village. It would sell postcards or deep-fried things on sticks with watery beer, and there would be an unmistakable tinge of plastic in the air.
But even Brits, who are more accustomed to things that are authentically old, buy into Grasmere Gingerbread. It’s not the shop’s age; there are plenty of institutions in the Lake District that have been around for much longer, including a few pubs that were already 200 years old by the time wee Willie Wordsworth saw his first daffodil. Beneath their ancient wooden beams, though, those pubs serve chicken tikka and modern craft beer and fish fingers for the kids, just like anyplace else in 21st-century Britain. It’s a different experience to taste the exact same gingerbread that visitors to Grasmere have tasted as long as living memory (a fact confirmed by elderly visitors who tell Hunter that it’s just as they remember from their childhood holidays).
When you’re used to seeing the past in black and white, a living-color recreation will always look a bit uncanny. Taste memory is even more difficult to fake. The unchangeability of Grasmere Gingerbread lends the shop a definite and unmistakable authenticity. That’s why it stands out from the rest of the town’s tourist kitsch. Like William Wordsworth’s poems and Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal, it preserves what Grasmere really was, not someone’s sentimental vision of a 19th-century village. And like the mountains, lakes, and fells, it’s become inextricable from the experience of Grasmere itself, as essential as the weather.
Or as Hunter puts it, “People go to the Lakes, and they remember it rained and they had gingerbread.”
Aimee Levitt writes and eats in Chicago. You can see more of her work at aimeelevitt.com.