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Hot Cross Buns © Cjorsch (Wikimedia Commons)
Easter Biscuits Bron Marshall (Classic and Creative Cuisine)
Easter Egg Hunt © aussiegall (Wikimedia Commons)
History of Food for Lent
The six week period before Easter is known as Lent; the word is a shortened version of old English len(c)ten which meant spring. In many Christian denominations it begins a period of fasting of forty days before Easter Sunday. During Lent Christians restrict the types of food which can be eaten, usually excluding all animal products. During the Middle Ages, meat, eggs and dairy products and foods prepared from them were generally forbidden. Today Christians often opt to give up foods like chocolate or cakes for Lent.
Simnel cake © Edward (Wikimedia Commons)
The fourth Sunday of lent, three weeks before Easter, is known as Mother's Day and is a break from the fasting restrictions of Lent. From C17th it was also known as 'Refreshment Sunday' when the rules of the Lent fast, prohibiting rich and sweet foods, were relaxed. Young women and girls in domestic service were given a day off to visit their families. To celebrate the occasion a Simnel cake might be baked to give to their mothers as a present. The word simnel may be derived from the Latin similia meaning fine, which described the flour from which the cakes were made.
Simnel cakes have been known since Medieval times and towns often had their own recipe. Essentially a light fruit cake, topped with a layer of marzipan with another running through the middle. The Simnel cake was thought to be a test of a young girls baking skills. If the cake was still edible at Easter then she was deemed to be a good cook. Traditionally the cake is decorated with marzipan balls, which represent the twelve disciples, or eleven minus Judas.
The Easter holiday is at the end of Lent and because the church calendar follows the moon Easter Sunday can be on any Sunday from March 22nd to April 25th. This year it is on Sunday March 27th. Like Christmas it has particular foods associated with the feast. Traditionally spring lamb is eaten with seasonal vegetables. Lamb was one of the first fresh meats to be available after the long winter, as in medieval times cattle were often slaughtered in autumn to save on winter feed.
Eggs are also associated with Easter and a symbol of rebirth. In some cultures in Europe brightly coloured designs were painted on boiled egg shells and given as gifts. From this developed the tradition of giving chocolate Easter eggs. This custom first developed in the late nineteenth century, when new technology developed allowed the production of hollow chocolate moulds. Frys at Bristol were the first English firm to make them in 1837 followed by Cadburys in 1875 and Rowntree in 1904. By 1893 Cadburys had nineteen different lines for the Easter market. The most famous is the Cadbury crème egg, introduced in its original form in 1963, with dairy milk chocolate; it still remains popular.
Easter biscuits were also given as gifts on Easter Sunday. They originated in the West Country, and are made with flour, butter and eggs, lightly spiced, contain currants and are dusted with sugar. There are many local regional recipes. In Somerset and Bristol there are references to the biscuits being made with oil of Cassia, which has a taste like cinnamon. The oil comes from the bark of the Chinese cinnamon tree. This recipe seems to be particular to the Bristol, Bath and Somerset area. Those from Somerset were known as Sedgemoor Easter cakes and were also flavoured with brandy.
The hot cross bun also originated as an Easter food, eaten on Good Friday, and marked the end of Lent, although is now available throughout the year. In 1592 the London clerk of markets forbade the sale of hot cross buns, except for burials or on Good Friday. The punishment was to forfeit the buns for the poor, so consequently most buns were made in home kitchens and the first recipes were published in the C18th. The first definite record of hot cross buns was published in Poor Robins Almanack for 1733. A London street cry mentioned Good Friday when:
"The old woman runs.
There are many superstitions associated with hot cross buns. Those baked on Good Friday were reputed to not go mouldy for a whole year. It was also claimed that one should be kept for medicinal purposes, and should be given to the sick to help them recover. The cross on the top was thought to protect against evil spirits. If hung in a kitchen they were said to protect against fires and ensure that all breads baked in that kitchen would be delicious. If they were taken to sea they were thought to protect against shipwreck, and sailors often took them with them on voyages.
In 1824 a London widow promised her son hot cross buns when he returned from his voyage on Good Friday. He did not return and the widow baked a hot cross bun and added it to her collection on the cottage rafters. This house became known as bun house and when it was turned into a pub the buns were hung on the wall and Royal Navy Sailors visit this pub called the Widow's Son in Devons road in Bow London. It is uncertain if it will remain a pub.
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