Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Simnel cake

Earlier this afternoon I was entertained, along with other friends, to afternoon tea to mark the weekend of Laetare Sunday. Amongst the delicacies to eat was  homemade Simnel cake. Coming as I do on my mother's side from a family with bakery business I did a bit of research on the internet about the history of this seasonal cake. A light fruit cake with two layers of almond paste or marzipan, one in the middle and one on top, that is toasted, and eaten during the Easter period in the British isles and some other countries.

Simnel cakes, which appear to be particularly an English speciality, although there is a French version, have been known since at least the middle ages. They would be eaten on the middle Sunday of Lent, Laetare Sunday (also known as Refreshment Sunday, Mothering Sunday, Sunday of the Five Loaves, and Simnel Sunday), when the forty day fast would be relaxed. More recently, they became a Mothering Sunday tradition, when young girls in service would make one to be taken home to their mothers on their day off.

The word simnel probably derived from the Latin word simila, meaning fine, wheaten flour. There is a 1226 reference to "bread made into a simnel", which is understood to mean the finest white bread, made from that simila. However the thirteenth century John de Garlande felt that the word was equivalent to placenta cake, a cake that was intended to please. A popular legend attributes the invention of the Simnel cake to Lambert Simnel, but this is clearly untrue as the Simnel cake appears in English literature before his time.

A verse from the seventeenth century refers to the cakes and to their being used as gifts for Mothering Sunday:
I'll to thee a Simnell bring
'Gainst thou go'st a mothering,
So that, when she blesseth thee,
Half that blessing thou'lt give to me
There is no single recipe for Simnel cake and each region of England had its own version which - of course - it considered to be the finest. Different towns had not only their own recipes butt also  shapes of the Simnel cake. Bury in Lancashire was one and the Lancashire recipe had a reputation for being especially rich. Devizes in Wiltshire and Shrewsbury also produced large numbers to their own recipes, but it is the Shrewsbury version that became most popular and well known. It may be noteworthy that all these towns are on the western side of the country - there are some interesting historical studies of regional cookery patterns, as in that fascinating study Albion Seed

Conventionally eleven, or occasionally twelve, marzipan balls are used to decorate the cake, with a story that the balls represent the twelve apostles, minus Judas, or Jesus and the twelve apostles, minus Judas. A variant is to have eleven marzipan balls for the Apostles and a larger one in the middle for Jesus. This tradition developed late in the Victorian era, altering the mid Victorian tradition of decorating the cakes with preserved fruits and flowers.

In earlier times the cakes were made in a rather different way - the Shrewsbury version described below must have been like a sweet version of a pork or game pie:

  " It is an old custom in Shropshire and Herefordshire, and especially at Shrewsbury, to make during Lent and Easter, and also at Christmas, a sort of rich and expensive cakes, which are called Simnel Cakes. They are raised cakes, the crust of which is made of fine flour and water, with sufficient saffron to give it a deep yellow colour, and the interior is filled with the materials of a very rich plum-cake, with plenty of candied lemon peel, and other good things. They are made up very stiff; tied up in a cloth, and boiled for several hours, after which they are brushed over with egg, and then baked. When ready for sale the crust is as hard as if made of wood, a circumstance which has given rise to various stories of the manner in which they have at times been treated by persons to whom they were sent as presents, and who had never seen one before, one ordering his simnel to be boiled to soften it, and a lady taking hers for a footstool. They are made of different sizes, and, as may be supposed from the ingredients, are rather expensive, some large ones selling for as much as half-a-guinea, or even, we believe, a guinea, while smaller ones may be had for half-a-crown. Their form, which as well as the ornamentation is nearly uniform, will be best understood by the accompanying engraving, representing largo and small cakes as now on sale in Shrewsbury."

From Chambers' Book of Days by Robert Chambers (1802-1871)

Image and quotation:janeausten.co.uk

No comments: