Golden treat for Mothering-day

Simnel cake is a traditional Lent treat.
Simnel cake is a traditional Lent treat.

Written by Heather Elvidge

Crocuses are in bloom now and if yours have been shredded, then sparrows are the likely culprits. Those birds have good taste – the golden stigmas contain saffron, a prized spice since medieval times.

Mother’s Day as we know it began in the USA in 1914.

Saffron is also a food dye, traditionally used on simnel cakes to lend its rich colour to the marzipan. The glamorous simnel with its 11 golden balls – one for each of Jesus’ disciples, except Judas – is still a favourite Mother’s Day treat.

Mother’s Day as we know it began in the USA in 1914; two years later some well-known British figures suggested we should celebrate it here. Sentiments aroused by the First Word War helped the campaign along and a date in early August was chosen. Yet it didn’t last. By the 1920s, we’d given up on Mother’s Day.

It wasn’t that the idea was alien. Since the 17th century, young people living away from home had been allowed to return on Mothering-day, the fourth Sunday in Lent.

Apprentices, servants and farm workers began work at a young age, usually “living in” with their employer. Although some were still children they could be miles from their families with few days off, so the chance to go home was eagerly anticipated.

On Mothering-day they would set off with a small gift, perhaps a cake or a posy of flowers such as wild daffodils, violets or primroses. The highlight of the day was a celebration meal with all the family.

Different regions had their own fare. In the north families enjoyed fig pie made with currants, syrup and spices, washed down with spiced ale. Egg custard and white sugar candies flavoured with caraway were popular treats for those who could afford them. But the most economical dish was frumenty, made by simmering pre-soaked wheat grains in milk and cinnamon. It was so popular that many people called the day Frumenty Sunday.

Golden treat

Simnel cake was the great delicacy associated with Mothering-day. In 1648 it was mentioned in a poem by Robert Herrick: “I’ll to thee a simnel bring, ‘gainst thou go a-mothering.” Herrick was describing a custom in the Severn valley, which is where Mothering-day is likely to have begun.

The word “simnel,” meaning fine flour, dates from the 14th century so it was already an old word in Herrrick’s day. However, there’s some debate over the other ingredients of the traditional cake.

Shrewsbury’s version was a rich plum cake, baked in a flour-and-water crust coloured with saffron. However, Bury and Devizes also claimed that theirs was the original recipe. Whoever was right, the simnel spread across the country, gradually developing from a modest, home-baked cake into the rich, spicy confection that we know today.

Mothering-day customs began to die out in the 1930s, lingering long enough to pave the way for the re-introduction of Mother’s Day after the Second World War. For a time, the two customs existed side by side. Mothering-day even enjoyed a revival in the Church of England, where it is still celebrated. But the contest was soon over when commercial interests got involved.

Curiously, the old Mothering-day customs never made it to parts of Yorkshire and the northeast, where people preferred to celebrate Carling Sunday instead.