Sunday, March 22, 2020

Mothering Sunday - Simnel cakes and furmety

Three weeks before Easter, in the middle of Lent, was Mothering Sunday, Mid-Lent Sunday or in Bury, England - Simnel Sunday. Simnel Cake (boiled then baked), Mothering Buns, Furmity and lamb.  
March 22, 2020 is this year's Mothering Sunday date.
"In many parts of England, especially in the West, the fourth Sunday in Lent, commonly called Midlent, is observed as a festival, under the title of Mothering Sunday. On this occasion, servants and apprentices visit their parents and friends, and are regaled with wheat furmity, and a plum cake, sugared and ornamented at the top, similar to the twelfth cakes of London. Persons who can afford it, also make a point of having a quarter of lamb for dinner on this day. The practice is derived from the Roman Catholics, who, on Midlent  Sunday, went in procession from the most distant parts of each parish to visit the Mother Church."  [Aspin]

"...a sort of rich and expensive cakes, which are called Simnel Cakes.  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. They are made of different sizes, and, as may be supposed from the ingredients, are rather expensive, some large ones selling for as much as half-a-guinea, or even, we believe, a guinea, while smaller ones may be had for half-a-crown. Their form, which as well as the ornamentation is nearly uniform, will be best understood by the accompanying engraving, representing large and small cakes as now on sale in Shrewsbury."  [Chambers]

"Cowel, in his Law Dictionary [1607], observes that the now remaining practice of Mothering, or going to visit parents upon Midlent Sunday, is really owing to that good old custom.

The following is found in Herrick's Hesperides [1648]:
A Ceremonie in Glocester.
“I’le to thee a Simnell bring,
'Gainst thou go'st a mothering;
So that, when she blesseth thee,
Half that blessing thou'lt  give me.”

In the Gentleman's Magazine for February 1784, Mr. Nichols, writing in the character of a Nottinghamshire Correspondent, tells us, that whilst he was an apprentice, the custom was to visit his Mother (who was a native of Nottinghamshire) on Midlent Sunday (thence called Mothering Sunday) for a regale of excellent furmety*.”

* Furmety [or Furmenty, Furmity, Frumity, Frumenty] is derived from Frumentum, wheat. It is made of what is called, in a certain town in Yorkshire, “kneed wheat,” or whole grains first boiled plump and soft, and then put into and boiled in milk, sweetened and spiced."  [Brand]

“…although the custom of keeping Mothering or Mid-Lent Sunday has been long kept up in England and in some parts of the Continent, it is quite unknown in Scotland. Now-a-days the custom is still retained amongst members of the Church of England, of going to visit their parents on that day, and taking some present with them, which they call "Going a-mothering."

Furmety… in former days, was always a dish partaken of on "Mothering Sunday," and it consists of grains of wheat boiled soft in milk, which is well sweetened and spiced. But the great present to be taken home used to be, a cake called a "Simnel." Those cakes were highly ornamented, and to be able to make one well, was thought to be a great achievement. The child, on presenting it, always received the mother's blessing…"  [Marius]

"This strange cake was what is called in Bury, England, where name, cake and custom originated, a "Simnel cake," and an interesting history pertains to it. There is an anniversary in Bury, and I believe only in that place in England, called "Simnel Sunday." Like many old observances, its origin is lost in antiquity; but on the fourth Sunday in Lent, which is Simnel Sunday, everybody in Bury eats Simnel cake. It is a high day for the inhabitants, and the streets are thronged with people. During the preceding week, the shop windows of the confectioners exhibit a plethora of large, flat cakes, of a peculiar pattern and of toothsome composition. Every confectioner aims to outdo his rivals in the bigness of the one show-cake which nearly fills his window, and in the moulding and ornamental accessories. A local description, giving the requisite characteristics, says: "The great Simnel must be rich, must be big, and must, be novel in ornamentation." Such is the Simnel cake, the specialty of Simnel Sunday, in the town of Bury, in Old England."  [Barnum]

"To make a Simnel cake: Rub eight lumps of sugar on the rinds of four oranges, pound them, mix this with half a pound of almond-peel or pounded almonds, half a Teaspoonful each of ground allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg, a dessert-spoonful of salt, and one pound of castor sugar. Beat to a cream one pound and a half of butter, beat the whites of eight eggs to a stiff froth, add them to the butter, then the eight yolks well beaten; gradually add the flavourings, etc., as above ; also two pounds of currants, one pound of candied peel, cut very thin, one pound and a half of sifted flour, and, lastly, one gill of brandy. Allow forty minutes to beat this cake after preparing the butter and eggs. 

Have ready a sheet of paste made of flour and water, highly coloured with an infusion of saffron. Spread a pudding - cloth, well scalded and floured, over a large basin, lay the paste over it to form a mould, pour in the mixture, secure it in the paste and cloth, take it out of the basin, and boil for three hours; remove the cloth, place the contents when nearly cold, smooth side uppermost, on a baking-tin, brush the paste with beaten egg, and bake in a slow oven till the paste is as hard as wood (!) but light in colour.

As for the almond paste, here is the recipe: —Mix one pound of almond meal with one pound of castor sugar, the stiffly beaten whites of three eggs, and a little almond flavouring. Remove the hard paste while hot from the cake, dust it with flour, and press the almond paste over the cake, making it into a good shape. Smooth it with a knife, and dry it slightly in the oven.

The sugar icing is thus made: Into the stiffly-beaten whites of three eggs stir one pound and a half of best icing sugar, the juice of half a lemon, and flavouring of rose-water. Beat it till smooth. Dip a knife into cold water, spread part of the sugar evenly over the cake, dry before the fire for a few minutes, colour the remainder of the sugar with carmine, and decorate the cake. Dry the icing on the stove or in a cool oven ; but avoid heating it, or it will slip off the cake."  [Epicure]

Aspin, Jehoshaphat.  Ancient Customs, Sports, and Pastimes, of the English.  London: 1832
Barnum, Phineas Taylor. Struggles and Triumphs, or, Forty Years' Recollections of P.T. Barnum.Buffalo. NY: 1873
Beeton, Isabel. Mrs. Beeton’s Every-day Cookery. London: 1907 1st pic
Brand, John.  Observations on Popular Antiquities  ..., Volume 1  London: 1813
Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days. London: 1879 b/w pic, more info HERE p336-337
Marius Flaminus: A Story of the Days of Hadrian and other Tales.   Edinburgh: 1870
“Simnel Cakes” recipe in The Epicure. February 1901
©2020 Patricia Bixler Reber
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