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Pagans, Lost Sailors, and Grieving Widows: The Weird History of Hot Cross Buns

The fruity, butter-smothered buns are as essential to Easter eating as Creme Eggs and overcooked lamb, but their origins span way beyond the religious festival.

Harry Sword

Hot cross buns. The very name evokes a ludicrous Dickensian panorama. Devon milk maids slathering steaming buns with thick yellow butter, laughing children playing with painted eggs in cobbled streets, doddering vicars reaching for thirds, nay, fourths of the sultana-flecked treats, puce-faced bakers wheezing over massive wooden mixing bowls … That sort of thing.

Hot cross buns (alongside overcooked lamb, cheap red wine, and hernia-inducing levels of vegetable fat-laden "chocolate") are a long-running thread in the culinary fabric of Easter, but their origins are somewhat murkier. Perceived wisdom has it that the holy baked goods were created by Brother Thomas Rocliffe, a monk in St. Albans who distributed his spiced "Alban Buns" to "the poor" on Good Friday.

While young Brother Rocliffe may have done his bit to popularise the buns, this is not the full story. Hot cross buns have far older—and weirder—origins.

Baked to celebrate the pagan goddess Eostre and the rejuvenation of crops after the rigours of winter, the buns were consumed throughout pre-Christian Europe; their crosses representing the four seasons. By the Middle Ages, the symbol had, of course, taken on a different significance.

RECIPE: Hot Cross Buns

By the 16th century, the fruity buns were viewed with suspicion by stern Protestant authorities. During the reign of Elizabeth I, the London "Clerk of markets" issued a decree banning the sale of hot cross buns and other "spiced breads" on any occasion other than Good Friday, funerals, or Christmas. Anyone who baked the buns outside of these times was forced to donate their batch to the poor.

The reason for this bizarre decree? According to legendary food writer Elizabeth David, the buns were feared by Protestant monarchs as a symbol of Catholicism in England, as they were often baked using "consecrated dough." An outright ban was thought to be too severe, such was the common hunger for buns, and so the decree was passed instead.

Myriad other folklore surrounds hot cross buns, and not just on dry land. In the 19th century, the buns were believed to offer protection to sailors readying themselves for sea and were often taken aboard ships as good luck. These lucky charms took on a dual purpose as they aged at sea—the hardened buns were grated into food to relieve bowel problems.

Around this time, certain pubs came to be associated with nautical bunlore. The Widow's Son in the London Borough of Bromley has upheld its hot cross bun traditions every Good Friday since 1858.

"The Widow's Bun" story, as it's known, goes something like this. The pub was built on the site of an old cottage belonging to a widow whose son went to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. He wrote to ask that she had a hot cross bun waiting for him on his return at Easter. The son never returned (presumed killed at sea) but the grieving widow nonetheless added a fresh hot cross bun to a net hanging from the ceiling of her cottage every Good Friday until she died, at which point the groaning net—blackened buns and all—was discovered. The pub was built in 1858 on the site of the cottage and has carried on the tradition ever since, an old sailor adding a bun to the net hanging from the ceiling every Good Friday.

Freshly baked buns. Photo courtesy GAIL'S.

Ritual and religion aside, a decent hot cross bun is a thing of beauty: heavily spiced, spankingly fruity. Why, then, are so many lacking in any kind of pep or vim? At this time of year, supermarket shelves are groaning with dry, mealy mouthed, miserable specimens. As British food master writer Jane Grigson so memorably put it: ''Until you make spiced hot cross buns yourself [...] it is difficult to understand why they should have become popular. Bought, they taste so dull. Modern commerce has taken them over, and, in the interests of cheapness, reduced the delicious ingredients to a minimum—no butter, little egg, too much yellow colouring, not enough spice, too few currants and bits of peel, a stodgy texture instead of a rich, light softness. In other words, buns are now a doughy filler for children.''

The real thing is a different story, however.

''Baking is an ancient craft," says Gail Meja, founder of London bakery chain GAIL'S, which has become known for its hot cross buns. "When it comes to the buns, we like to make sure they're packed with dried fruits and topped with a spiced syrup for that signature sticky top. They're best enjoyed with a smothering of butter, hot out of the oven.''

Amen to that.