Mothering Sunday

On 22.3.16, Tim Sandles wrote on the Legendary Dartmoor website:

“…As with many other parts of the country one Easter tradition that has long been held on Dartmoor is that of the Simnel Cake although its origins are thought to have begun either in Bury, Devizes or Shrewsbury. Originally this tradition was associated with the fourth Sunday in Lent which in medieval times was a day when people went in procession to their ‘mother church’ to honour the local patron saint and get their blessing. The occasion was known as ‘Mothering Sunday‘ but term ‘mother’ applied to the church not a maternal parent.

By the 16th century this observance was extended to visiting one’s mother to get her maternal blessing which symbolised the pilgrimage to the mother church. It became the fashion for girls who were away from home working in service to bake a cake which along with flowers were given to their mothers on what by then had become Mothering Sunday. The cake they baked was a Simnel Cake, so called because its roots lie in the Latin word ‘simila‘ which means ‘fine, white flour’ and was what was used in the recipes. However, prior to this tradition the term ‘simnel’ referred to anything baked with fine flour and not specifically to the cake associated with Mothering Sunday. There are a couple of other suggestions as to how the cake got its name; some will argue that Lambert Simnel devised the recipe whilst working in the kitchens of King Henry VII where he was placed as a punishment for trying to usurp the throne…

It was custom for the mistress of the house to donate the ingredients for the cake and their quality was a reflection of how high a regard the mistress of the house held her employee…

Not only was the giving of the cake’s ingredients an appreciation of how much an employer thought of their employee it was also an exercise in which a girl could demonstrate her cooking skills to her family. As Mothering Sunday was an occasion when dispersed families came together the Lenten observances were relaxed for the day and pride of place on the food table was the Simnel Cake. Therefore the girl’s entire family would be sampling her cake and undoubtedly have given their marks out of ten for its quality. It seems that in later years the baking skills of the daughter were stretched to the limit when tradition dictated that the simnel cake was kept until Easter Sunday. If it retained its taste and moistness then she would have proven her worth, if not…

They are raised cakes, the crust of which is made of fine flour and water, with sufficient saffron to give it a deep yellow colour, and the interior is filled with the materials of a very rich plum-cake, with plenty of candied lemon peel, and other good things. They are made up very stiff, tied up in a cloth, and boiled for several hours, after which they are brushed over with egg, and then baked. When ready for sale the crust is as hard as if made of wood, a circumstance which has given rise to various stories of the manner in which they have at times been treated by persons to whom they were sent as presents, and who had never seen one before, one ordering his simnel to be boiled to soften it, and a lady taking hers for a footstool.

Originally the Simnel Cake was basically an enriched yeast cake full of currants, saffron, lemon and almonds and decorated with preserved fruits and flowers. Eventually this tradition shifted slightly insomuch as Simnel Cakes became part of the Easter tradition. This also saw a change in the cake’s decoration because 11 marzipan balls replaced the fruits and flowers…”

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