24th August: Bartholomew Fair and Honey Gathering

'Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow..'

From ' The Lake Isle of Innisfree' by W B Yeats (1865-1939)

The 24th August is the Feast of St Bartholomew who is the Patron Saint of tanners and leather workers – a fact not missed by Ben Jonson in his play ‘Bartholomew Fair’ first performed about 1614. The fair took place near Smithfield Market in London every August from 1133 to 1855. Other parts of the country also had Bartholomew Fairs and they became a byword for raucous and sometimes criminal behaviour, fights, prostitution, drunkenness, and fairground food; notably pig roasts, pears and gingerbread.

In late August as the agricultural cycle slowed, people needed an opportunity to let their hair down after three months of hard work and not many holidays. There are lots of pictures of Bartholomew Fair including a famous one by Hogarth of Tiddy Doll the gingerbread seller who moved from his usual spot in London's Haymarket (a famous red light district) to Smithfield for the duration of the Fair. Gingerbread as a traditional fair food, was made in a number of different ways. It was sometimes cut into fantastical shapes which were then gilded or stamped with an image appropriate to the occasion or the season. Gingerbread could also be a deep sticky cake or a hard biscuit made with breadcrumbs and honey, which when sold in broken pieces was called a ‘snap’. Whichever sort of gingerbread it was; it had by law to be made by a bona fide gingerbread maker, and it was sold on the streets of London from hot carts until well into the nineteenth century.

The 24th August is also the traditional day for bee keepers to harvest honey, the bees are dozing in the summer heat having made the honey and filled their combs. The hives in the picture belong to my friend Barbara who keeps bees in a hidden valley near the Helford.

Here's my recipe for Beekeeper's Cake. The recipe I used is similar to a traditional Jewish cake called 'Lekash’, which is often made for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I've adapted it from from Denise Phillip’s book ‘New Flavours of the Jewish Table’. I’ve gingered up the spice mix a bit, so its gingerbread by another name really.....

Beekeeper's Cake

175g plain flour

75g soft brown sugar

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

100ml vegetable oil

225g clear honey

Zest of 1 orange

3 eggs

100ml orange juice


1. Pre-heat the oven to 180 C/350 F/ Gas mark 4.

2. Grease and line a 2lb loaf tin or a 7" loose bottomed cake tin

3. In a large bowl combine the flour, sugar, ginger, cinnamon and bicarbonate of soda.

4. Put the oil, honey, zest of orange, eggs and juice in another bowl and beat together until smooth.

5. Fold all together gently until all the flour is combined

6. Pour the cake mixture into the prepared tin.

7. Bake for about 50 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake mixture comes out clean.

8. Leave to cool in the tin, then turn out and wrap tightly in foil. Store for 2-3 days before serving to allow the flavours to mature.

Decorate with glace icing or edible glitter. I printed the bee stencil out from the internet, cut it out, laid it on the cake and then stippled it with edible gold powder.

I often make gingerbread at Christmas, gild it with gold leaf and give it away as presents. It’s also a good winter pudding, served warm with pear compote. The combination of pears and ginger is a marriage made in the middle ages and still going strong.

Joan Trash: 'Why what stuff are they made on? Nothing but what's wholesome I assure you.'

Leatherhead: 'Yes stale bread, rotten eggs, musty ginger and dead honey...'

Joan Trash: 'Buy any gingerbread, gilt gingerbread!'

From Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson (1572-1637)


Liz said...

Apologies for the font guys - blogger is v frustrating sometimes - what you see is definitely not what you get.

Choclette said...

And another amazing fact - I didn't even know there were dedicated gingerbread sellers, never mind that they had exclusive rights to make it.

The cake sounds lovely and is beautifully decorated. I've been wanting to get hold of some gold leaf but have no idea where to get it from. Any tips welcome.

Liz said...

Hope you're enjoying bring the good news to Ghent - or is it from Ghent? Anyway, try this link for gold leaf, they have 2 shops in Yorkshire and are a treasure trove of goodies, I usually buy in the shops but this is their website


Liz said...

Oh and I'm back on my trusty Imac so font problem now solved..

Anonymous said...

I have a beekeeping friend who would love this! I'm definitely going to pass it onto his Mrs.

kate said...

Wow - did you make that beautiful gingerbread? Looks fantastic and I'm sure tasted even better. I will definitely try this one. Really interesting too about the gingerbread men/women. And nice to read a little of one of my favourite poems - one of the few I can recite from beginning to end from memory K x

Liz said...

Yep I made the cake - the bottom is the top if you see what I mean..