Thursday, 21 April 2011

Thoughtful Thursday: Easter foods



Photo credit: dieraecherin from morguefile.com

The time has come for Easter eggs, hot cross buns, lamb roast dinners and Simnal cake, but have you ever wondered why we eat these particular foods towards the end of Lent?

Easter Eggs

Eggs have been linked to Easter for centuries partly because they symbolize new life, and because of their abundance as they traditionally must not be eaten during Lent. Eggs that were not used for hatching were available to be eaten preserved or hardboiled as Easter food. In northern England they were called ‘pace eggs’, ‘peace eggs’, or ‘paste eggs’, from pasche, the Latin-based medieval word for Easter. Until late in the 19th century children from poor families would go went from house to house asking in rhyme for eggs to celebrate the death of Jack o' Lent.

Eggs were decorated by various techniques, the simplest being to dye the egg a single colour the dye would ten be scratched away to leave a white pattern or an inscription. On Easter Monday crowds of children would gather play a game like conkers: two eggs would be tapped together, end to end, till the shell of one cracked, where upon it was forfeit to the owner of the uncracked egg. In some places children would roll coloured hardboiled eggs down a hillside, a sloping path, or the beach, until they cracked.. Some people attach religious symbolism to these customs, saying eggs were dyed red to honour the blood of Jesus, or rolled because of the stone rolled away from the tomb, or hidden in gardens because Mary Magdalen searched for Jesus in a garden

The tradition of the Easter bunny leaving a basket eggs on Easter Day comes from America where parents often hide eggs in the garden for children to hide. The idea of an egg-laying rabbit went to America in the 1700's through immigrants arriving from Germany. German tradition tells that the ‘Easter Hare’ comes by night to lay eggs for which children search. Children would make 'nests' before Easter with their caps and bonnets and if they were good the Easter bunny would leave them coloured eggs. The symbol of the hare also has its roots in paganism; It is believed that a symbol of the Anglo-Saxon Goddess of Spring Eostre was the hare. It was Eostre's sacred animal since it was a symbol of fertility and the rebirth of nature following winter. As rabbits are similar to hares and are very common everywhere, It is thought that Christians changed the symbol to the Easter bunny.

Hot Cross Buns

Another Easter tradition is the eating of hot cross buns on Good Friday spiced currant cakes with a cross marked on the top.  The cross which is said to symbolise the Crucifixion also has a more ancient orgin as a pagan symbol. It was used by the Anglo-Saxons to indicate the four seasons on loaves baked for the vernal equinox to honour the goddess Eostre (probably the origins of the name Easter) and to discourage evil spirits that might prevent bread from rising.

As a Christian symbol, the buns derive from the ecclesiastical consecrated loaves given in churches as alms and to those who could not take communion. They were given by the priest to the people after the Mass, before the congregation was dismissed. They were to be kissed before being eaten. Protestant English monarchs saw the buns as a dangerous hold-over of Catholic belief in England, being baked from the dough used in making the communion wafer. Protestant England attempted to ban the sale of the buns by bakers but they were too popular, and instead Elizabeth I passed a law permitting bakeries to sell them, but only at Easter and Christmas

English folklore includes many superstitions surrounding hot cross buns. One of them says that buns baked and served on Good Friday will not spoil or become mouldy during the subsequent year. Another encourages keeping such a bun for medicinal purposes. A piece of it given to someone who is ill is said to help them recover. If taken on a sea voyage, hot cross buns are said to protect against shipwreck. If hung in the kitchen, they are said to protect against fires and ensure that all breads turn out perfectly.

Lamb

Lamb is e associated with Easter for two reasons The first is that Christ became known as the Lamb of God in Christianity, atoning for the sins of man by his sacrifice on the cross.  The  idea of the "sacrificial lamb" is older one according to Jewish lore, the Israelites marked their doors with the blood of a lamb to prevent the Angel of Death killing their first born; their doors were therefore literally "passed over". Jewish temples began to sacrifice lambs ritually to mark the Passover. Lamb is also in season around this time.


Simnal Cake

Simnel cake is a light fruit cake, a bit like Christmas cake.  It is covered in marzipan, toasted, and eaten during the Easter period. A layer of marzipan or almond paste is also baked into the middle of the cake. On the top of the cake, around the edge, are eleven marzipan balls to represent the true disciples of Jesus; excluding Judas. Sometimes Christ is also represented, by a ball placed at the centre.  Simnel cakes originate from medieval times, they were originally a Mothering Sunday tradition, when young girls in service would make one to be taken home to their mothers on their day off. The word simnel probably came from the Latin word simila, meaning fine wheaten flour with which the cakes were made.