Hot cross buns are one of those things

Easter means many things to many people, in different ways; as well as the important religious significance, more important than Christmas to Christians, it is also associated with a much older welcoming of the spring festival. No-one knows the details of early celebrations, how people marked the turn from winter to spring with summer not far ahead, but there are certain universal symbols, such as eggs. I’m sure eating nice things also featured in these festivals… and what could be nicer than hot cross buns!

Here is what I wrote some time ago about my childhood experiences:

Hot cross buns are one of those things that send thoughts flying back to my earliest childhood. My dad used to get up early and cycle the mile or so to Maskell’s the bakers which was just next to the Portland Arms Hotel where he grew up.Portland Arms, Cambridge

He collected a dozen warm freshly-baked buns and  cycled home where they would be eaten for breakfast on Good Friday; in those days this was the only time of year  that there were hot cross buns in the shops… now they seem to be available all year round, another eroded tradition to mark special times of the year.

Hot cross buns are yeasted dough, enriched with egg and mixed spice and dried fruit, currants give the best flavour. The spice should make the inside of the bun specky and when you break it open there should be a wonderful waft of nutmeg, cinnamon,  clove and allspice. The bun should have a sticky glazed top marked with a cross, either a simple knife cut, or a flour and water paste cross, or using a template when brushing on the glaze.  The cross is obviously a sign of the crucifixion, and the richness of the bun breaks the Lenten fast for breakfast. Hot cross buns should be served hot, and eaten with loads of butter.

As well as enjoying eating them, I’m also interested in their history, and this is something else i wrote:

The tradition of making special or significant patterns or marks on bread or other baked goods is very ancient and goes across all cultures. There was certainly Anglo-Saxon bakers making patterned or marked bread here in England, and through the Middle Ages so it continued. There was a mini-crisis at the time of the Civil war when the Puritans saw such things as Popish… however the hot cross bun survived. Thank goodness!

By the 1700s these buns were becoming more exotic and fancy, with different ingredients and speciality buns, much as they are today. Superstitions began to arise that buns actually baked on Friday could heal all sorts of ills, and if kept would continue to prevent or protect against disease. There was another tradition of nailing a hot cross bun to the kitchen wall… no doubt to ensure good fortune and plenty in the kitchen, but I have forgotten the precise details!

There is a pub in East London called the Widow’s Son; its name arises from an Easter tradition, and again I cannot remember the precise details in terms of dates. There was a widow with a son who became  a sailor; as he left to go on a voyage he told his mother he would be home by Easter and asked r to keep him a hot cross bun. She put aside a bun, but the son didn’t return. This was in the days of sailing ships and no speedy communication, so the following year the mother again put aside a bun,hoping that this year her sailor-boy would return. He must have met his end somewhere because he never came home, but each year a bun was put aside. Eventually the woman died and her lowly home was demolished and a pub put up in its place,which was named… the Widow’s Son. The first Easter in the pub, the landlord remembered the old woman, and put aside a bun, and it became a tradition that was followed each year. Sailors learnt of the pub and visited, bringing the traditional bun, and these buns were placed in a net hanging from the ceiling.

Today if you visit the Widow’s Son, you will be pleased to notice that the custom still continues!

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