14 March: Mothering Sunday

'I’ll to the a Simnell bring
Gainst thou go’st a mothering
So that, when she blessed thee,
Half that blessing thou’lt give to me.'

From ‘A Ceremonie in Gloucester’ by Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

During the period of abstinence that was Lent, the five Sundays didn’t count. Each Sunday was regarded as symbolic of the triumph of life over death, good over evil and so the normal fasting rules were relaxed. Lenten Sundays brought their own obligations however and the middle Sunday was for visiting one’s ’Mother Church’, the duty arising from the Epistle preached on that day – ‘Jerusalem; Mother of us all’

The maternal theme was extended to the practice of honouring not only the Mother Church but also one’s own mother. Young people in service therefore would be granted a day off to go home and visit their parents. Mothering Sunday was observed with varying degrees of regularity across England – more in the western counties than in the east, until it was taken over after the Second World War by that commercialised extravaganza that is ‘Mother’s Day’ which blesses florists and restaurateurs across the whole county and is an entirely American invention. The American festival is in May but the British had enough memory of Mothering Sunday to combine the events on the traditional Sunday in Lent.

Different regions had different traditions on Mothering Sunday; a family meal was a common practice, as it still is. This would be veal in Shropshire or pork stuffed with bay leaves in Warwickshire and as Robert Herrick says, daughters would often take their mothers a Simnel Cake. The origin of the word is uncertain; it is probably derived from ‘similia’ the Latin for flour. It has got nothing to do with Lambert Simnel the kitchen boy who claimed to be Richard Duke of York, one of the Princes in the Tower – the name predates his escapade. The earliest reference to Simnel Cakes occurs in 1042 in the archives of Winchester referring to the King’s gift of ‘simnels‘ to the convents of that city. The version of the Simnel cake we now accept as authentic is from Shrewsbury, this is the one with the marzipan balls on top representing the apostles.

Traditionally Simnel cake is made by the ‘boiled method’ i.e. the fruit is boiled with the sugars and fat before the cake is baked. I often make boiled fruit cake, it’s really easy. The recipe was given to me by my friend Pat years ago and I’ve used and abused it in many ways. For a Simnel cake you should aim for a fragrant light fruitiness – a ‘girly’ fruit cake rather than a rich mature one, my Simnel variation is below the basic recipe

Boiled Fruit Cake (Basic recipe)

Oven at 150c and an 8” spring form cake tin buttered and lined.

Wet Ingredients
12oz dried fruit
2oz mixed peel
6oz butter
4oz soft brown sugar
6oz golden syrup
¼ pint plus 4 tablespoons water.

Dry Ingredients
12 oz plain flour
2 level teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon mixed spice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt

2 eggs lightly beaten

Take all the wet ingredients and put in a pan. Bring to the boil and simmer for five minutes, then cool (very important). Weigh out dry ingredients (except eggs) into a bowl; now add the fruit mixture and the eggs, stir in gently until all is combined. Pour into the cake tin and cook for 1hour 30 minutes. Test with a skewer. It may need more time depending on your oven – mine is a hot fan oven. Yours may be cooler; it can take up to 2 hours.

My Simnel Variation

I used 10 oz sultanas and 2oz dried cranberries for my fruit and 10 oz plain flour with 2 oz ground almonds. I used orange juice instead of water, and for the spices I used cinnamon, mace, ground coriander and a teaspoon of dried ground orange peel. Put half the mixture into your cake tin, then put on a thin layer of almond paste. (You can use bought white marzipan – just not the yellow stuff OK?) Add the rest of the cake mixture and bake as above.

To decorate, brush the top of the cake with jam (apricot is best – sieved marmalade would do) roll out most of the other half of the marzipan to the size of the top, put it on and roll again to smooth it. You should have enough marzipan left over to make eleven little balls; they only need to be the size of marbles. I also like frosted spring flowers for decoration, the sort of posy a young village girl would take her mother. Paint the flowers with egg white and sprinkle with caster sugar, leave to dry, then carefully arrange on top.

Thanks to Anita for letting me raid her garden for the primroses and violets.

‘When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces
The mother of months in meadow or plain
Fills the shadows and windy places
With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain.’

Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) From ‘At Parting’

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