Saturday 17 March 2012

Hot Cross Buns and Grains of Paradise

Grains of paradise flavoured hot cross buns together with a bun docker

Just before Christmas I was in St Alban's Cathedral recording an interview on twelfth cakes and other Christmas food with Edward Stourton for the BBC Radio 4 programme Sunday. After the recording I had an interesting conversation with Dr Jeffrey John, the dean of St Alban’s about another traditional, but more local cake – the St. Alban’s Bun. This is sometimes described as the ancient prototype of the well-known hot cross bun, which was once only eaten on Good Friday. Hot cross buns can now be bought all year round in most supermarkets. Even ‘gourmet’ versions are appearing on the scene. Heston Blumenthal’s Earl Grey and Mandarin Hot Cross Bun was recently launched by Waitrose, who also market another flavoured with cherry and dark chocolate. The British are a curious race. We allow most of our real domestic traditional foods to become totally extinct and then happily buy a factory-made one all the year round that was intended just to be eaten on one day!

According to Dr. John, there is an extant recipe for St Alban’s buns kept at the cathedral. It is said to date back to 1361, when a local monk called Thomas Rockcliffe first started distributing them on Good Friday to the poor of the city. As far as unusual ingredients are concerned, Rockcliffe’s recipe could give Heston Blumenthal's a run for its money, as the ancient bun is flavoured with 'grains of paradise'. This spice is hardly known today, but was common enough in medieval English cookery. It was a costly, high status ingredient, though a cathedral close or monastic kitchen is the sort of place you might have found it in the fourteenth century. Abbots and their kind had aristocratic tastes, but did they want to share the expensive contents of their spice cupboards with the poor?  I guess if you are going to spice up a bun with religious significance, grains of paradise would be an appropriate choice. I have not seen the recipe, so do not know if it is in an original manuscript or in the form of a later transcription. Who am I to doubt the word of a man of God? But as someone who is very sceptical about the phenomenon of the 'ancient secret recipe', I would want to see the original before I am completely convinced of its authenticity. 

Grains of Paradise, sometimes called Meleguata pepper

Another unique feature claimed by the dean for the St Alban’s bun is the way in which it is embellished with a cross. Rather than having two crossed lines piped across the top, which is the modern way of embellishing the bun, the mark of the cross is pressed or slashed into it. This last fact interests me a great deal, because I remember that the hot cross buns we ate in the 1950s, were marked in this way. And my family did not live in St. Albans. Those piped with lines of dough only started to appear later in my childhood. There are directions to stamp buns with a cross in some nineteenth century recipes. The Victorian baker Frederick Vine in Saleable Shop Goods (London: 1898) even gives us illustrated instructions on how to make a bun docker, the tool used to do the job. For some years now I have been using one of these to mark my hot cross buns. If you want to make one yourself, here are Vine's instructions.

How to Make a Bun Docker.

Take two thin pieces of hard wood about 3 ins. long,
  2 ½ ins. wide, and ¼ in. thick. The sides of a cigar box
 would supply it very well, and then with a fine, sharp
 meat-saw cut a slot in each piece (as shown in Fig. 38).
 Now by reversing one piece, and fixing the two slots 
together, you form a cross. 

Fig. 38

Having made the blades, the next thing is to get a solid piece of wood about 3 ins.
square and l ¼ ins. thick, and with the saw cut a groove evenly in it, in which to tightly fix the cross. Have
 four long French nails and drive them into the block,
 one between each blade of the cross, as shown in the sketch (Fig. 39), and then file them up to sharp points;
 have some glue melted and fix in the blades, sharpen 
up with a knife, and your docker is complete. 

Fig. 39

 will find this wooden cross far and away before any made 
of metal you can use for the purpose, as it will not cut
 the buns into four separate pieces, but only just sufficient
 for your requirements.

After proving and moulding the buns are docked

When baked they have a distinct cross which bakes lighter

When the docker is pressed hard into the bun you also get a cross on the underside - buy one get one free!

The dean and his colleagues have recently been in the headlines for wanting to claim the hot cross bun back for Good Friday. They dislike the fact that it is available all year. I agree with them. I see no reason why Heston's bun (which I have tried and it is delicious) and all the other mass-produced ones that appear all year round in the shops should be marked with a cross. They would taste just the same if they were made without one and were just called buns. There is something special about a dish that is eaten on one day of the year only. But of course, the supermarkets will never agree to this. Recently, however the Sainsbury in-house bakery in St. Alban's have been making some Alban buns for the cathedral. They have substituted cardamom for the original grains of paradise. The latter are a cardamom relative, though they come from West Africa rather than Asia and have a very different flavour. I made an experimental batch with real grains of paradise yesterday and they were tasty, but pungently peppery. I will make them again on Good Friday morning. 

St Alban's cathedral has a bit of a history when it comes to unusual flavours (and for duping its visitors). When the humanist scholar Humphrey Duke of Gloucester died in 1447, his body was buried in the cathedral in a beautiful perpendicular gothic tomb. In the eighteenth century,  his coffin was opened and the body was discovered to be perfectly preserved in alcohol. All who saw it were amazed at how well he had weathered four centuries in his marinade of aqua vitae. The cathedral vergers started selling the Humphrey-flavoured liquid in small bottles as a cure-all and cosmetic wash to counteract ageing. When it ran out and the body started to decay, they went to the local taverns to buy more spirit to top up the coffin! 

Humphrey Duke of Gloucester's tomb in St Albans

Coming back to hot cross buns, these cakes actually have a rather opaque history, which is too complex to deal with in a mere blog posting. It would need a sizeable book to do justice to the subject. As with a lot of folk foods, they possess a remarkable power to continue to generate myths about their origins. As was their wont, eighteenth and nineteenth century antiquarians like John Brand, William Hone and Robert Chambers were all keen to link them with rituals and foods from classical antiquity and the pre-christian era. Their interesting, yet conjectural theories form the basis of much of the hot cross folklore that survives to this day. This has happened to such an extent that a number of journalists have recently questioned St Alban's claims to the oldest bun. 'But they had hot cross buns in ancient Greece' they cry, - or 'the hot cross bun evolved from a ritual cake sacred to the pre-Christian goddess Eostre, its four quarters symbolising the four phases of the moon.' As if this were all indisputable truth. Here is a link to a clip of a St Alban's cleric being interrogated in this fashion -

Watch an interview with Canon Kevin Walton of St Albans for ITV News on the subject of Alban buns  

I often get interviewed by the media at this time of year about hot cross buns and their history. Here is a link to a BBC website article from 2010.

How did hot cross buns become two a penny?


  1. Ivan - I'd be very interested in finding out if there is an original document of this early date for these types of Easter buns, as I have not come across anything close to this age. The earliest similar recipe I have seen is a 17th century Scottish "Good ffryday cake" (flavoured with cloves, mace and saffron). But this is a large cake (using a peck of flour), not small buns and no mention of crossing the top is made. On the other hand I have seen similar Easter breads in Italy with slashed crosses. The grains of paradise is unusual also. I seen it used as a pepper substitute and in gingerbread recipes, but not as a major flavouring spice. In one brief analysis of spices in medieval cookery grains of paradise appear in 1% of English recipes, much less then in French recipes of the same period.

  2. I am going to St Albans next month to investigate the matter further. I am rather sceptical about the authenticity of the recipe The other early Good Friday dish was Good Friday Pudding, a recipe for which is in Gervase Markham's The English Housewife (London: 1615) in the chapter entitled Skille in Oat-meale. He says, 'Of these Greets is also made the good fryday pudding, which is mixed with Eggs, Milk, Suet, Penyryal; and boyl'd first in a linen bag, and then stripped and buttered with sweet butter.' It is often said that the earliest recipe for a pudding boiled in a cloth is one for Cambridge Pudding in John Murrell's A Newe Book of Cookery (London: 1617), but Plumcake has pointed out that Markham's recipe for Good Fryday Pudding is two years earlier. There are however allusions to pudding bags in some medieval recipes, which of more anon.

  3. Ivan - here in the States, at least New Jersey, we can only get hot cross buns between Lent and Easter. They are still seasonal and it's that seasonality that makes them so special to me. Thanks for another great post!

  4. They are all the more interesting because of the million stories that people have conjured up about their origins, I think. Also, very tasty, yum! Agree with last commenter about the seasonality, they are only available seasonally in Ireland, for the most part, too, unless you bake them yourself of course :)

  5. A very interesting article. I make all our own bread, sometimes with sourdough although my cultures fail after a few repetitions. I agree with the views expressed regarding seasonality of foods. Apart from bought buns being distressingly poor they are on sale immediately after Christmas.
    I bought Grains of Paradise (Melegueta pepper) intending to try them as a flavouring for bread.
    Not relevant but in Sweden, ginger biscuits are called pepparkakor. Their origin is German. Germans who migrated to Sweden found they couldn't reproduce germanic baked goods with the Swedish flour (rye mostly) so imported German flour and recipes (including pepper in the biscuits). I now wonder if it was Melegueta pepper.