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A Short Sweet History of the Hot X Bun

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Dateline: St Albans 1983(?)

Good Friday falls on April the First this year. Let's hope this accident of timing provokes no hoaxes in bad taste. That apart, hands up all those who know the origin & significance of the Hot Cross Bun. In case you don't & are hungry for knowledge, here are a few crumbs of culinary history for you to savour.

According to Brewer's "Dictionary of Phrase & Fable" (a veritable treasure-trove of recondite trivia):

The round bun represents the full moon, & the cross represents the four quarters of the moon. They were made in honour of Diana by the ancient Roman priests somewhere about the vernal equinox.

 

If that is so, the Christian Church adopted & adapted pagan customs yet again (another obvious example being Christmas-Saturnalia.) Surely it can be no mere co-incidence that the Easter Resurrection occurs in Spring, the season when buried seeds begin to germinate & new growth arises from the earth. The Son of Man as solar-hero supplants the moon-goddess Diana.

On a more mundane level, maybe the latterday Diana, mortal princess not deity, whom a sizeable proportion of the population seems to venerate with quasi-religious fervour, should be offered a baker's dozen in oblation. On second thoughts, that's a risqué proposition, for what hack journalist could resist the tacky pun on a bun in the oven?

Brewer (hardly a name redolent of sober scholarship) also points out that HotCrossBun.jpg (5354 bytes)in a Christian context the buns were made from dough used for the Host or sacramental wafer & consequently marked with the symbol of the cross, yet where the yeast, vinefruits & spices came in (let alone invert sugar syrup, 'E' numbers etc) he carelessly omits to mention.

What's more, & here there is a hint of hearsay, as hot cross buns "are said to keep for twelve months without turning mouldy, some persons still hang up one or more in their house as a 'charm against evil'." (And that was in the days before preservatives!) A handy tip there. Should you buy too many & have any left over, you could make an attractive mobile or replace those démodé ceramic ducks on the wall.

Another version credits a certain Father Rocliff, cleric of St Albans Abbey, with the famous recipe destined to take its place in our pantheon of national comestibles, alongside such old favourites as Christmas pudding, Shrove Tuesday pancakes & chips-with-everything.

Ancient records note that in 1361 the cordon bleu cleric "caused a quantity of small, sweet, spiced cakes decorated with a cross to be made." This novel nourishment with its edifying edible trademark was then doled out gratis to the local deserving poor at the Abbey during the Easter celebrations. Prior  to that, the paupers had only been provided with a free bowl of soup, so, not surprisingly, they welcomed such a special treat. They went like hot cakes which is indeed what they were! The innovation caught on, & nowadays the familiar sticky descendants of the kind cleric's brainchild are to be seen on sale in every baker's shop weeks before Good Friday.

Assuming that legend wasn't cooked up by Hertfordshire Tourist Board, would it not be a fitting gesture for St Albans Council to erect a monument to Father Rocliff ? Say a stone sculpture to commemorate his concoction, a sort of gigantic mock rock-cake!

One final thought: though affluent St Albans presumably no longer has any famished have-nots to support, what about other less well-off boroughs where there's still a need for the charitable soup-kitchen? Why don't such local authorities follow precedent on this exceptional day in the Christian calendar & distribute hot cross buns instead? As Marie Antoinette is reputed to have said, 'let them eat cake'!

 

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