Tuesday 4 September 2012

A Forked Stick for the Cookold

'A bean for the kinge, a pease for the queen, a cloave for the knave, a forked stick for the cookold and a ragg for the slutt. ' All these objects were concealed in the twelfth cake which Henry Teonge ate on board HMS Assistance in 1675

In our last posting, we mentioned how a threepenny bit coin was included in the Empire Christmas Pudding recipe of 1926 'for luck'. The practice of concealing small objects in food as good luck charms, or for divination purposes, seems to be both ancient and international. In Scotland there was a tradition of hiding a glass ring in a bride pie - whoever got the ring in their portion would sure to be the next one to get married. And there was a very similar custom here in England where a ring would be tossed into a bridal posset. Sometimes gifts or messages were secreted in sugar walnut shells or sugar eggs. The Georgian confectioner Giuliamo Jarrin tells us how to make perfectly seamless hollow sugar eggs in a balancing pan. Hidden inside these 'egg comfits' were all sorts of goodies. Jarrin tells us that,
‘In Paris they put in a number of nicknacks, little almanacks, smelling bottles with essences, and even things of value, for presents.’

From very early times both a bean and a pea were concealed in cakes consumed during revels and celebrations on the feast of the Epiphany, a custom that was practiced in a number of European countries. Whosoever got the bean in their slice became the king of the revels and the pea signified his queen. The most celebrated of these cakes is the gallete des rois, which still survives in France and its former colonies. In nineteenth century France, beans (feves) made out of ceramic started to replace the real ones and a whole host of other small objects were made by the potteries for galletes des rois. There were white rabbits, four leafed clovers, kings, queens, infants, doves and a whole host of other objects, though these novelties continued to be called feves.

Two nineteenth ceramic French feves designed for hiding in galletes des rois - in this case the feves really are beans.
A small collection of nineteenth century French feves for galletes des rois. These now then to be made from plastic.
Two feves in the form of tiny bone playing cards for putting into galletes des rois (early twentieth century). These are French, but sets of cards illustrated with various characters, including a king and queen became very important in the English twelfth-day celebrations from the end of the eighteenth century into the early Victorian period. Though these were not put in the cakes of that period, but blindly picked from the pack by the Twelfth-nighters to indicate the role they had to play for the night.
In England the practice was already ancient when Robert Herrick wrote the following lines in the seventeenth century,

Now, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean's the king of the sport here;
Beside, we must know
The pea also
Must revel as queen in the court here.

Begin then to choose,
This night, as ye use,
Who shall for the present delight here;
Be a king by the lot,
And who shall not
Be Twelve-day queen for the night here!

From Twelfth Night; Or, King And Queen

HMS Assistance, the ship on which Henry Teonge and his fellow crew members celebrated Twelfth-day in 1676 with a 'great kake".
About a year after Herrick's death in 1674, a naval chaplain called Henry Teonge celebrated both Christmas and Twelfth Day on board a ship in the Eastern Mediterranean in stormy weather. In his diary he describes the twelfth cake made by the ship's cook, 

From The Diary of Henry Teonge. London: 1825
Though very brief, this is is one of the most detailed descriptions from the early modern period of the English version of the custom. Teonge's vivid account paints a marvellous picture of the hilarity of the occasion. My 'great kake' for Twelfth day this year will definitely have in it  'a bean for the kinge, a pease for the queen, a cloave for the knave, a forked stick for the cookold and a ragg for the slutt.' We will make it on my Taste of Christmas Past Cookery Course on November  24-25. I still have a few places left, so if you would like to join the fun please get in touch.

In the first half of the twentieth century manufactured silver charms for concealing in Christmas Puddings became popular, though the most commonly used item was a silver threepenny bit. These are the direct descendants of the bean, pea and other items originally hidden in twelfth cakes
In early modern period England twelfth cakes were also known as wassail cakes. In 1686, in his notes on customs and superstitions Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme, the antiquarian John Aubrey tells us that at,

'Twelve-tyde at night they use in the Countrey to wassaile their Oxen and to have Wassaile-Cakes made.'

Instructions for preparing a Twelfth-day revel, including how to lay out wassail cakes, is given in a remarkable early Tudor manuscript in the Bodleian Library known as 'The Second Northumberland Household Book (Bod]. MS Eng. hist. b. 233. This set of household ordinances was compiled for Henry Algernon Percy, fifth earl of Northumberland (1478-1527) and was compiled between 1519 and 1527. Here is the section of the text that deals with the highly ritualised delivery of wassail cakes to the hall for the earl's table. I have left the English in its original form,

The pauntry to be brought in for the lorde ande the laidy as hereaftir followith with two yomen of the Chaumbre suche as the gentillmen vsshers shall appoint  Furst the yoman of the pauntry to bring in for the lord the Salt the kerving kniffes bread ande trenchers and aftir him a groim with a towell vpon his shulder bering the vassall caike and an outher to be appointed as yoman to bring in for the laidy with an outhir to follow him as groim with A towell vppon hs shulder bering the wassaill caike inlikefourme as the outhir did with two gentillmen vsshers befoir theim and two Marshalles befoir theim and a yoman vsher befoir theim and aftir the said pauntlers haue set the Saltes vppon the bourde and breade and takyn of the groim the wassaill caik and set it down Than the gentillmen vsshers and Marshallis with the yomen vsher to maik their obeisaunce and departe The said yomen pauntelers to stand still vnto the say be deliuerd theim by the kervers when they be comyn and haith takyn the sayes and so the pauntelers to departe when that is doon. 

From The Second Northumberland Household Book (Bod]. MS Eng. hist. b. 233.) 274-288

Wressle Castle in Yorkshire, where Henry Algernon Percy held his twelfth day revels in the early sixteenth century. The wassail cakes would have been baked in the castle bakehouse.
Twelfth night revels at this period, like those given by the Earl of Northumberland in his castle at Wressle, featured an entertainment known as a 'disguising', where the participants dressed up as characters. This tradition continued well into the first half of the nineteenth century, when twelfth-night partygoers would choose cards illustrated with the characters they were required to take on, rather than hunt for a bean, pea or forked stick in their portion of cake. In the later nineteenth century, the twelfth cake went out of fashion and similar novelty items started to find their way into the Christmas pudding.

A much romanticised Victorian depiction of a Twelfth-night revel


  1. In New Orleans, Louisiana, a very French influenced area, they put things like this in the King's Cake served for Mardi Gras.

  2. I have a tiny ceramic Virgin Mary that I found in a French 12th Night pie/gallette!