Simnel Cake

For all that we think of Simnel Cake as being an Easter tradition, it actually started out as a Mothering Sunday tradition.  

Picture the scene.  It’s the late 1600s.  Mary (sounds like a good 17th century name to me) is fifteen years old. She doesn’t live with her family but instead over at the house where she’s been put into domestic service.  It’s hard work and she misses her mum of course, but she’s doing well and being looked after.  

Just like all the other girls in her position, Mary is really really looking forward to the fourth Sunday of Lent because that is Refreshment Sunday. It is the day when the Lent fast is relaxed and she will be allowed home to go and see her family.  As is tradition for young girls in service, Mary will be giving her mum a gift – she has baked for her a rich fruit cake with marzipan.  A lot of effort is going to go into this cake.  It’s Mary’s way of being able to show (off?) to her family that she’s becoming a good cook and is doing well.  And Mary knows that the lady of the house is going to let her use the kitchens’ best and most expensive spices and fruits to make this cake, so that she can show (off?) to Mary’s family that the girl is being looked after.

Only slightly laterslice-of-simnel in history it became the norm that the families wouldn’t actually eat the cake on Refreshment Sunday.  In a move that I like to imagine began as someone’s maternal oneupmanship with a friend, these cakes began to be kept until Easter as a test of the girl’s cook-ability.   Our Mary now finds herself as a contestant in a sort of 17th century Great British Bake Off.

You can see how Simnel Cakes began to be associated with Easter rather than Refreshment Sunday; and how the fourth Sunday of Lent became Mothering Sunday. I think it is an absolutely fascinating insight into early Mothering Sunday traditions. And I know a twelve year old boy who will be very chuffed to be told about a legitimate – even religious – excuse for breaking his Lent at the dessert course of our  family Mother’s Day feast.

Three hundred and odd years on, making your mother a Simnel Cake seems like a pretty good tradition to me, whether it is for Mother’s Day or for Easter.


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