By F. C. PRICE
IN the days when Lenten abstinence was strictly observed housewives had to use their ingenuity to contrive a variety of dishes designed to tickle the palate. Not unnaturally this gave rise to special recipes which were peculiar to certain localities and to Lent itself.
Ash Wednesday in the North of England was known as "Fruttis" or "Fritter Wednesday" because fritters made of ling, herring, cod or salted salmon were the favourite dish. Several counties in the West Midlands— Cheshire, Worcester and Herefordshire—served Hasty Pudding, a quickly made sweet of milk, flour and rich sugar syrup.
Sundays were always extra special because meat was permitted. Throughout the country loin and veal were favoured throughout the season but in Derbyshire a hind-quarter of lamb was roasted.
From time immemorial it has been customary to eat Simnel Cakes on Mid-Lent Sunday. The most famous are those of Shrewsbury, Devizes and Bury, hut those of Hereford, Worcester and other towns along the Welsh border are well known.
The Shrewsbury. simnel has a thick, hard crust of saffron bread enclosing the remainder of the ingredients: that of Devizes has no cust, all the ingredients being kneaded into a paste from which the star-shaped simnel is moulded. The Bury simnel is a flat cake, turned up at the edges, and moulded so that its thickest part is in the centre. Sometimes it is round, sometimes it is elongated.
The origin of the name "simnel" has aroused much speculation and is often explained by a number of varying local legends. The strongest evidence suggests that it is derived from a Latin word, "simile", meaning flour of the finest quality.
An attempted derivation of the name tries to link it with Lambert Simnel, the unsuccessful imposter whom Henry VII banished to the royal kitchens. This falls down, however, because simnels are much older than the late fifteenth century.
In the "Annals of the Church of Winchester", under the date 1042, is a declaration that King Edward the Confessor granted a charter stating that whenever he, or any of his successors should wear his crown at Wincheeter, Worcester or Westminster, the Precentor of that place should receive half a mark from the royal purse and the convent one hundred simnels and a measure of wine.
The people of Shrewsbury have a very colourful explanation. They tell of a man and his wife who could not agree about the method of cooking a pastry. One maintained that it should be boiled whilst the other suggested baking. Finally a compromise was reached. The pastry was boiled for a time and finished off by baking. As a result a name for the new delicacy was coined by combining the names of the man and wife — Simon and Nell.
Frumenty was another lenten favourite. It was obtained by boiling whole grains of wheat in water, straining them off and boiling in milk before sweetening with sugar and flavouring with cinnamon and other spices. In Yorkshire and other northern counties the fifth Sunday is known as "Carling Sunday" because of the custom of eating carlings. These are peas steeped overnight and fried in butter, then sprinkled with salt and pepper. Palm Sunday in the Midlands was, until recent times, referred to as "Fig Sunday" from the ancient practice of eating fig puddings, and large crowds used to gather at Dunstable to eat figs, drink and admire the scenery.
Fig-Sue — a mixture of ale, sliced figs, bread and nutmeg boiled together and eaten hot like soup — was always served on Good Friday. On the same day in other northern counties an indispensable dish was a herb pudding in which the leaves of the Passion Dock were the main ingredients. It was commonly believed that this produced visions of the Cross, hammer and nails.
The scholars of Brasenose College, Oxford, had a traditional diet of almonds, raisins and figs for lunch on Good Friday, while the inhabitants of Guernsey collected limpets. placed them on a flat rock surface, covered them with furze and then set them on fire to cook them. They formed the chief delicacy of the many picnics held on the island on that day.
The universal favoinite, however, on Good Friday has always been the hot-cross bun. The symbolism of the cross requires no explanation but the origin of the custom is far more difficult to trace.
Two loaves marked with crosses were found in the lava of Herculaneum, the Roman city destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. This may indicate that the tradition of hot-cross buns is almost as old as Christianity itself. On the other hand the loaves might have had nothing to do with Good Friday.
A far more creditable version, but still one which cannot be verified, was published by G. Collier, a London baker, in 18 51, who claimed to make his buns according to the original recipe used by Father Rocliff, a monk of the abbey of St. Alban's. According to this account Father Rocliff, himself a cook. made a number of small, spiced cakes stamped with the sign of the cross. Each person who visited the abbey on Good Friday was handed one in addition to the usual bowl of soup.