Spices have been traded since the Middle Ages but how each country chose to use them can be a defining element of its cuisine. In Britain they are mainly used in sweet dishes reflecting our love of baking. Before railways made travel relatively quick and easy, Britain had many regional specialties, often baked to mark feast days. An exploration of the regional sweet buns is a subject in itself, but sadly regional specialties have often been lost in our now national, homogenous, distribution chain. Whilst this began with the introduction of the railways, regional specialties were dealt a hammer blow by the supermarkets.
Even a national specialty, such as Hot Cross Buns, cannot be left alone, so that now, in addition to added sweet flavourings such as salted caramel you are just as likely to find cheese and marmite versions. Did you know that Hot Cross Buns have been baked since pagan times? Their cross, originally cut just to aid a uniform rise, came to symbolize the four seasons, with the round bun representing the sun. The church was quick to assimilate pagan traditions into it’s religious calendar and so the cross became the symbol of Christ’s crucifixion on Good Friday. After the Reformation it became illegal to sell spiced buns other than for special occasions (e.g. a wedding) or on holy days such as Good Friday. Any baker who broke this law would have their bread taken and distributed to the poor. Perhaps something we should reintroduce?
The most popular recipe I ever gave on our previous website was for Bristol Easter Biscuits. It received many comments from those who remembered the biscuits but had never had the recipe, and was especially valued by those who had moved away. Thanks to the reach of the internet, it was read by former Bristolians all over the world and demonstrated the strength of affection that people retain for a childhood memory.
Easter Biscuits are still sold in Bristol, and in fact in other parts of the country, but almost all are spiced with that ubiquitous blend now sold under the name of Mixed Spice (formerly Pudding Spice). Those who hold fond memories of Bristol Easter Biscuits know that the defining flavour is Oil of Cassia. My late father-in-law used to carry out an annual audit in Cheddar at a bakery that normally made Cheese Straws but at audit time production of Easter Biscuits was underway. His suit had to be hung in the fresh air for several days to remove the smell of Cassia! Cassia was the poor man’s alternative to the more costly cinnamon, to which it is loosely related. Nowadays it is harder to find oil of cassia than cinnamon, and certainly no cheaper, although a little goes a long way. Try health food shops, or you will find it on the internet. Don’t worry if it says that the essential oil is not for consumption, the small quantity used in Easter Biscuits is fine, but you must be careful not to get the undiluted oil on your skin. The recipe is given at the end of this article, the precise number of drops to use was often amongst our responses. Whilst Cassia is the defining flavour of a Bristol Easter Biscuit, its origins may in fact lie in the area of the Somerset Levels known as Sedgemoor, site of the Battle of Sedgemoor, and actually not that far from Cheddar, where the story goes that they were made to revive the Duke of Monmouth after he had fallen into a ditch. Their defining flavour is brandy, but the biscuits (or cakes as they are called here) also contained cinnamon. In London another version of Easter Biscuit was flavoured with lemon zest, although I have yet to come across anyone still making these latter variations.
In addition to masking regional differences, I have another issue with the use of Mixed Spice in baking. Once ground, spices quickly lose their pungency, so you will always get more flavour if you grind whole spices just before use. I always do this for Hot Cross Buns, as well as chopping whole peel rather than use those floor scrapings that pass for mixed peel. This attention to detail lifts the finished buns beyond any you can buy.
Elizabeth David’s style of writing is best known for evoking the flavours of foreign lands and certainly not for giving precise instructions. However, in later life she did turn to British food and Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (1970) and English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977) are relevant to Hot Cross Buns. Rather than turning to a ubiquitous blend now known as Mixed Spice she discusses the role of the individual constituents:
The exact blend varies but almost always includes cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Other additions might include: coriander seeds, allspice berries and ginger, these latter two providing heat as well as flavour. Elizabeth David recommends: two parts nutmeg, two parts white or black peppercorns (or substitute allspice berries for a milder blend), one part cinnamon bark, one part whole cloves, one part dried ginger root. She further notes…To this mixture a fraction of freshly ground cumin seed can be added. This is particularly successful for Hot Cross Buns.
Another spice associated with Easter is Saffron. It is the only spice ever to have been grown in, and even exported from, the UK. It gave its name to the area of Essex where it was grown, Saffron Walden, but it was for Bread and Buns made in Cornwall that it became most associated. Saffron Bread became so popular in Cornwall that it was baked year-round, although it was originally associated with religious festivals, especially Easter. Simnel Cake, now usually served on Easter Sunday, but in the past often taken as a gift on Mothering Sunday, midway through Lent, used to have a layer of saffron bread over the marzipan. You could instead colour the marzipan itself with saffron. At Easter, I sometimes make a baked Honey and Saffron cheesecake, which has its in Medieval British cooking. Whatever you choose for your Easter baking, please respect our Spice heritage.
Bristol Easter Biscuits
10 oz plain flour
7 oz butter
5 oz castor sugar (plus extra for sprinkling)
2 oz currants
1 or 2 egg yolks
6 – 8 drops oil of Cassia
Mix all of the ingredients together adding a little milk if too dry. Roll out to about ⅜”/1 cm thick and cut with a fluted cutter.
Bake at 160˚C (conventional oven) for 10-15 minutes, until lightly browned. Sprinkle with caster sugar as soon as you remove the biscuits from the oven, then cool on a rack.
The original recipe said 6 drops of oil of cassia, my mother-in-law has now increased this to 8, but do count the drops carefully as too strong a flavour of cassia ruins the biscuits.
Likewise, according to my husband, the biscuits are RUINED if they are cooked for too long. According to him, they should retain some substance in the middle and not be too biscuity. He does have some technical description of the degree of resistance to snapping the biscuits should have, but it is a bit too complicated to explain – let’s just say they shouldn’t snap too easily!
Traditionally Easter Biscuits are tied in a bundle of three to represent the Holy Trinity.