Friday, 12 December 2008

Godcakes, Soulcakes, Sacristans...Oh, and Mince Pies

...but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life. And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.
Ecclesiastes 3:12

Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works. Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment.
Ecclesiastes 9:7

In the medieval period English food became rich in spice and dried fruit, largely because English merchants were profitably trading with the East. Sugar, spice and exotic fruits were incredibly expensive to buy, and even in wealthy households these ingredients were only used for feast food; the food consumed for high days and holidays. I suppose also, the fashion for heavily spiced food may have come as a reaction to the various fast-days the medieval people had to endure...wasn't more than 50% of the liturgical calender given over to fasts or days of holy obligation? I suppose you would be very grateful for something as exciting as fruit cake or mince pie after weeks of river fish and butter-less bread!

It used to be that every region in England had their own versions of the feast day treats. I remember, when we still had several independent bakers in our town, a mincemeat turnover called a Godcake...or Coventry Godcake. I haven't seen one in years, but I haven't seen an independent bakery in years either! Godcakes were traditionally given to godchildren on Twelfth Night, by the doting godparents of the Coventry area. I kind of remember old folks calling those funny triangles of grass you get at junctions on country roads "Godcakes", but this may be my brain playing tricks on me! Making Godcakes couldn't be more simple. Take a square of very short, or flaky, pastry, fill half of it with mincemeat and make it into a triangular shaped turnover. Brush with beaten egg and sprinkle on a little brown sugar. Bake in a hot oven for 10-15 minutes. Serve hot, with pouring cream, or leave to go cold, lift up the pastry top and fill with whipped cream. If you want a vintage recipe for Coventry Godcakes, see the excellent Good Things in England, by Florence White.

Also, from across the border in Leicestershire, there's a little cake called a Whetstone Cake. I had no idea these things existed until I read an article on regional food in a 1930s edition of Good Housekeeping magazine. The cake was just listed amongst a series of other regional foods, and it attracted me, not just because I live very close to Whetstone, but because (get this!) Whetstone is my maiden name. There's very little information on them out there in the ether, but from what I can gather they are little pies, made of flaky pastry and filled with dried fruits and rosewater. Sounds very Tudor to wonder Nigella Lawson, in How to be a Domestic Goddess, recommended that Baklava be counted as Christmas food, the links between the food of the Eastern Meditterranean and traditional English feast-fare are remarkable.

Another Baklava-style treat is the Sacristan. I have no idea how this pastry gained its name, but like Baklava it is filled with nuts, sugar, honey and spice. Unlike Baklava, Sacristans are bites-sized pastries twisted into little shapes; circles, knots and fish being popular...each shape perhaps having a religious or traditional meaning?

In Suffolk God's Kitchels were eaten for the twelve days of Christmas, and just like the Godcakes of Coventry, were meant to be given to visiting godchildren. Apparently, there used to be a Suffolk saying: "ask me a blessing and I'll give you a kitchel." Kitchels were triangular and filled with dried fruit, spice and nuts, just like my local Godcake! Perhaps these things were triangular to represent the Trinity?

And finally, Shropshire had their Soulcakes. This time the cakes were meant to be eaten on All Souls' Day, and perhaps the American tradition of Trick or Treating stems from the Shopshire emmigrants who in the "old country" went souling... children singing from house to house collecting money in late October to buy the ingredients for Soulcakes .

Of course, these folk foods have largely died out. However, what we do have left is the mince pie. Which is good. It's the feast-food we still have today, which is baked regularly, enjoyed regularly and is intrinsically linked with the liturgical calender. A mince pie is entwined with the holidays of the past, it's a historic morsel of celebration! Although mince pies contained beef until the early Victorian period, Mrs Beaton has two recipes; one containing meat and one which does not. Indeed, the fashion for putting meat in them did die out completely by the latter part of the 19th century. But meat or no meat what we have left is a pie which has been part and parcel of the traditional feast-foods just like the Kitchels and Godcakes that have now sadly gone.

I don't tend to faff about with mince pies, I make too many. You can add orange rind and almonds to the pastry, or make your mince meat with blueberries and cranberries, which is nice. However, I think one of the reasons why the pies continue to be baked regularly during Advent and the Christmas season is because they are so very easy to do. Instead of typing out my own recipe for pies I shall link to the blessed Delia, my pies are just an adaption of hers, and you can never really go wrong her recipes. If you want a more detailed recipe for Godcakes, or would like a recipe for Kitchels, Soulcakes or Sacristans, please email me and I'll send you a recipe as soon as I can.

God bless and happy baking!


Angela said...

What a superb post. I didn't know about Godcakes or Whetstone cakes. Will have to check those out, they are so local to me!
Thanks so much for all this information.
I always understood that Tudor mince pies were originally oval to represent the manger, and had a small piece of MEAT in them to represent baby Jesus [hence mince-meat] but that Cromwell banned them as papist.
After the restoration of the monarchy, they were re-invented but round and with no meat, and with pastry tops.
I usually try and get hot cross buns to eat on boxing day - because He was born to die for us.
I agree with your theory about triangular pies = the Trinity.
But Jewish Hammentaschen are triangular too.
German Stollen bread - or Christollen - is supposed to represent baby Jesus in swaddling clothes.
I think these special Christmas feasting foods are great and I adore learning about the historical background.
Bob maintains that cake eaten with friends contains fewer calories!

Gumbo Lily said...

I would just love to taste some of your feast day delicacies. My German grandmother always, always made mincemeat pies at Christmas. I never liked them much and I've never made one. Perhaps now that I've grown up, I might like them.

What an interesting article Ms. Whetstone.


Dulce Domum said...

Hi Angela
I'm glad you enjoyed the post! I loved the stories surrounding the different food we eat at Christmas time. Oh, and I love stollen. Absolutely delicious...and now your Bob maintains that eaten with friends it doesn't contain too many calories I can stuff myself!

Hi Jody
I didn't like them when I was a kid either. However, as an adult I can't get enough of them. Try them and see!
Your truly
Mrs Prudence Whetstone-Goodewyfe

monix said...

Thanks for this wonderful story of Christmas traditions. I grew up in Lancashire and now live in Devon and I'm not aware of any Godcakes specific to these counties but I would like to find out. It would be good to surprise the family with some new treats along with the mince pies.

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Monix
I've had a quick look through some of my old cookbooks, but I've not found anything Godcake-like for Lancs. and Devon. I've found lots of Easter treats though, and of course, Parkin. I'll keep a lookout for you.

Anonymous said...

I haven't heard of Godcakes, I have heard of souling, I thought it was an Irish thing though.

Some of what you describe sound very much like Eccles cakes and Chorley cakes which are rather popular round here.

Love mince pies too.


Anonymous said...

I don't know that they're associated with feast days though.

monix said...

Mmmm hot buttered Eccles cakes. That brings back memories childhood Saturdays when my sisters and I sat by the stove waiting for Mum's baking to be done.

Left-Handed Housewife said...

Your posts always make me want to move to the UK immediately and be British and know all sorts of interesting things about mincemeat.

More domestic history--I love it!


Anonymous said...

Attention all Bread and Roses fans

Poor Dulce Domum has asked me to let you know that their computer has broken and she isn't likely to be online until January. (Her telly's broken too!)

So Happy Christmas dear readers from Dulce Domum (by proxy), and a wonderful New Year.


monix said...

Please convey my very best wishes to Dulce Domum for a happy and peaceful Christmas. And best wishes to you, too.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Maureen, I will indeed, and best wishes for Christmas to you too.

Dulce, I realise you aren't going to read this for ages but I've given you a fabulous blog award.


Nan said...

Now you've got me singing:
Souling Song

A soul, a soul, a soul cake
Please, good missus, a soul cake
An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry
Any good thing to make us all merry
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all

I have a version of it on a Peter, Paul, and Mary Holiday Celebration cd. I've never known what on earth it was.
You are a wealth of information. Thank you for all the research you do. I just love it.

Susan said...

Such interesting stuff! Love the word Godcakes. Especially for mince. Also love your playlist, was enjoying the Messiah and all the other songs. Clicked on Gumbo Lily's blog and then I could somehow still hear your songs but also her Charlie Brown's Christmas songs - and they actually sounded very nice together! Holiday harmonies :)
Hope your computer, tv, and all well enough soon.

Anonymous said...

Don't half miss seeing you in blogland! Rumour has it you are having computer probs...hope you get sorted out soon!

love, Tina :)