Saturday, 1 March 2008

Mothering Sunday

I'll to thee a simnell bring
Gainst thou go'st a mothering.
Robert Herrick, 1648

Tomorrow is Mothering Sunday! Hurrah! I get a lie-in, some nice daffodils from church and the chance to participate in a centuries old Christian festival which is very specific to English culture. Mothering Sunday falls on the fourth Sunday in Lent and tends to be a small break in the austerity of the Lenten fast. Traditionally, it was a time when servant children left the home of their masters and went to visit their mothers. Generally, young servants rarely left the home of their employers and the releasing of these children and young people from their work obligations was seen as an act of Christian charity. The children would gather spring flowers from the hedgerows, hence the tradition of giving flowers to mother on Mothering Sunday, and they would also take a cake. Some say the tradition of eating Simnel cake on Mothering Sunday comes from young girls showing their mothers all the skills they had learnt in the kitchens of their workplaces. Some folklorists say it is more likely that it stemmed from an act of generosity from the children's employers as the ingredients of a Simnel cake were once very expensive. In fact, the word "simnel", which has been used in England since the 1300s (perhaps attesting to the age of the festival) is derived from the Latin for "fine flour". In any case, Simnel cake is one of those old fruit cakes the English do so well. And, in the interest in the historical accuracy, the recipe for Simnel cake below comes from Florence White's Good Things in England, first published by the English Folk Cookery Association in 1933. * I shall re-print the recipe as it's printed in Good Things because I simply could not better its charm!

Bury Simnel Cake

Mrs Huggins, The Rowans, Four Oaks, Warwickshire, writes in March 1931: "Mid-Lent or Mothering Sunday is kept in Lancashire by children visiting their mothers and taking the present of a cake, the time-honoured Simnel cake.

The following recipe has been handed down for many generations - possibly centuries - in the family of a pastry cook of Bury, and was at the time a trade secret. It is the recipe of the original cake."

Mrs Huggins came to know of the English Folk Cookery Association through The Women's Leader, in which paper small money prizes were offered by the founder for local recipes. One was awarded to Mrs Huggins.

Flour 2 1/2 lb; butter 1/2lb; lard 1/2 lb; salts of amonia 1 oz; sugar 1 1/2 lb; almonds 3/4 lb; a few bitter ones if liked; currants 4 lb; nutmeg 1/2 oz; cinnamon 1/2 oz; candied lemon peel 1/2 lb; eggs 5; a little milk if necessary.

  1. Rub the butter and lard into the flour
  2. Pound the salts of ammonia and mix well
  3. Then mix in with the other dry ingredients,
  4. And blend them with the eggs into a stiff dough which should be made into the form of a batch loaf about 18 inches across, 2 1/2 to 3 inches thick and round in shape.
To bake in a slow oven for about 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours or more according to the size and thickness of the cake.

Now, in many recipes the fruit cake is sandwiched and decorated with layers of marzipan and eleven small balls of marzipan are placed on the top of the cake to represent the eleven faithful apostles (let us not forget we're mid-Lent). Often sugared primroses decorate the cake too, which always looks very pretty. oh, and if anybody fancies giving the cake a try many people eat it on Easter Sunday too, and I have plenty of modern recipes I could post if you'd like.

*Good Things in England has been reprinted by the fabulous Persephone Books, but you can still find original copies of the book quite cheaply from Abe Books. Now, I've tried to google English Folk Cookery Association many times but I think it no longer exists. If by any chance you know anything about it I'd love it if you were to contact me! Oh boy, would I enjoy being involved with that kind of thing!


Jenny said...

We have Mothering Sunday and Mother's Day. One is only celebrated in the church community and the other is a huge shopping experience. Do you have Mother's day as well.

Anonymous said...

Good ol' Bury, 'tis not far from 'ere...they do a great black pudding.

Happy Mother's Day!

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Jenny
We tend to combine the two...Christian festival *and* a bit of a shopping/Hallmark card marketing opportunity!

Hi Sarah
I love black pudding. I really, really do...apart from cold and in sandwiches, which is the way my dad likes it! We love our pork products in our neck of the woods...fancy a pork and stuffing batch anyone?