There’s always an extra demand for dried fruit at Easter, as they provide the key ingredients in chocolate-free treats such as traditional Simnel cake and hot-cross buns.
With Easter eggs on the supermarket shelves from as early as late January these days, it’s easy to slip into a mind-set that tells you if it’s not made (or at the very least coated in it) it’s not a proper Easter treat.
Worthwhile to remember then that, although the symbol of the egg (borrowed from even earlier, Pagan fertility festivals) has been used by the Christian church to symbolise resurrection and rebirth for several thousand years, chocolate Easter eggs were not conceived of and produced in Europe until the 19th century, with John Cadbury making the first hollow-moulded chocolate eggs in 1875.
Preserving The Past
Long before then the traditional edible treats associated with Easter celebration had been sweetened with two enduring staples; dried and preserved fruits, and marzipan, the ever-popular confection of ground almonds and (firstly honey then later) sugar.
The marriage of these two ingredients is perfectly displayed in the traditional cake eaten at Easter, known as Simnel Cake. The name 'simnel' probably comes from the ancient Roman 'simila', meaning 'fine flour' (as does ‘semolina’). Evidence of 'simnel bread' cakes being enjoyed during springtime in England go back at least as far as the 13th Century, and are often described as being boiled as well as baked.
For centuries there were various regional variations of simnel cake, but the one that has become the most popular today is the version originally known as Bury Simnel Cake, named after the Lancashire town. This rich fruitcake, made with nuts, dried cherries, currants and orange and lemon peel, is distinctively decorated on top with eleven marzipan balls, supposedly representing each of Christ’s disciples - with the omission of the treacherous Judas.
Of course Easter’s other chocolate-free favourite is the hot-cross bun. Lightly toasted and dripping in butter, what could be nicer on a chilly, early spring afternoon? And it transpires the origins of the hot-cross bun tradition go back even earlier than those of Simnel Cake.
Although most of us understandably suppose that the distinctive cross pattern laid in over the tops of these raisin-filled buns. In fact, pagan Saxons would bake cross buns at the beginning of spring in honour of the goddess Eostre, from whence the name Easter is derived. An ox was also often sacrificed to her at this time, with its horn laid in the shape of an X. To the pagans this cross symbol represented the rebirth of the world after winter, the four quarters of the moon, the four seasons and the ever-turning wheel of life.
Baked in St Albans Abbey during the 14th century, and distributed by the monks to the local poor on Good Friday, hot cross buns eventually became part of the Christian Easter tradition. The best hot cross bun recipes contains cinnamon and all spice along with mixed dried fruits (usually a combination of sultanas, raisins, currants and candied peel) rather than simply currants or raisins.
It’s A Date
In the days before chocolate was commercially available, luckier children enjoyed other sweet Easter treats made with dried fruit. One of the most popular were juicy dates (such as the delicious ‘Sayer’ dates grown almost exclusively in the Khuzetan province of Iran and stocked by Maws), stuffed with a whole almond and rolled in powdered sugar.
Whatever you’re creating for Easter, rest assured that Maws can offer all the luxury ingredients to make the celebration extra special.