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Sweet memories of old fairy tale kindled by empty tin box

May 14, 2023

One of the most memorable was an exquisite pencil-drawing of two ancient, gnarled oak trees that arrived in Roamer's mailbox in 2012. An expert confirmed that it was drawn in 1852 by William Craig, an accomplished Dublin artist who came north before emigrating to New York in 1863.

And it was hugely evocative, and sad, to feature an old bicycle here in 2010. It had been kept in an attic since its young owner pedalled off to volunteer for WWI and never returned from the front lines. The bike's little bell still jingled!



Many memories have been kindled too by cuttings from old comics and newspapers, vintage postcards and photograph albums. There's another artefact here today, shared by Caroline, a Co Antrim reader. Found in a jumble sale, it's a small, rectangular tin box (seven by four by three inches) shaped like an old van, multi-coloured but predominantly green - empty now, though packed with history.

With its four turning wheels, and a spare on the roof, it can transport older folk back in time to the Brothers Grimm and Hansel and Gretel. The van's roof (the tin's lid) lifts off and the engine's old-fashioned crank-handle (above the numberplate HM10 ) turns a clockwork music mechanism (under the bonnet) which plays a very tinny version of Stille Nacht. The old carol suggests the wee van's original purpose - a container for Christmas gifts. Clasping the steering wheel is a smiling driver with a handlebar moustache and the driver and his assistant are in smart uniforms.

Other decorative automotive adornments include headlamps, tail lights, a toolbox, doorhandles and other meticulously reproduced details. The name ‘Heinrich Haeberlein’ painted on both sides of the box heralds one of the leading manufacturers of one of Germany's most famous culinary essentials, particularly at Christmastime - gingerbread.

Known as Lebkuchen in Germany and Austria, there are a number of eminent gingerbread bakers and Henrich Haeberlein's selection came here from Nürnberg ‘on the Lebkuchen Musical Express’ says the writing on the tin. The travel, food and culture magazine Bayerns Bestes (Bavaria's Best) recently ran an article about Nuremberg's unrivalled gingerbread industry.



Feature-writer Daniela Feldmeier outlined the local legend of the gingerbread-maker's daughter who became critically ill. Doctors couldn't help her, but her father knew the healing effects of oriental spices. Using cinnamon, vanilla, cloves, allspice, coriander, nutmeg, ginger and cardamom he cured his daughter.

"Gingerbread was rich in nutrients and strengthening," says Daniela "that was what gingerbread was like back then and it still is today." Ancient Egyptians relished it, the Romans adored it and the first written recommendation of gingerbread was around 350 BC. Nuremberg became a hub for making it "because in the Middle Ages the city lay at the intersection of the old salt and trade routes," Daniela explains, "cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, anise and pepper were offered for sale here."

Initially it was mostly monks who baked gingerbread because only the church could afford expensive spices. "Nuremberg's first gingerbread baker outside the monastery walls was mentioned in a document in 1395" adds Daniela. She tells the story of Emperor Friedrich II who commissioned his gingerbread makers "to bake gingerbread for all the children in the city."

At his Reichstag (legislative assembly) in Nuremberg in 1487 Friedrich invited almost 4,000 children to the Imperial Residence and gave them each a slice of gingerbread, bearing his portrait, as a gift. The origins of the Heinrich Haeberlein company, and the little tin van, are in a gingerbread shop run by Johann Caspar Schores in 1810. And just two years later in 1812, as many folk of a certain age will nostalgically recall, Hansel and Gretel were lured by a wicked old witch into her gingerbread house.



Heinrich Haeberlein, Johanne Schore's son-in-law, took over the gingerbread business in 1846, christened it with his own name, and updated and enlarged the company. Today Germany bakes numerous varieties of internationally acclaimed gingerbread - around 85,000 tons annually, with 20,000 tons for export. And some of it comes here, in little tin vans!