Hot and a little bit cross
PUBLISHED: 07:42 23 March 2018
They used to be a predictable mix of dough and dried fruits but now hot cross buns come in all sizes, all flavours and all seasons
“I think you should look at hot cross buns,” said a colleague.
I was surprised because I’m more of an eater than a looker. I asked why.
“Because,” he said, “Morrison’s are selling turmeric, mango and ginger hot cross buns.”
Of course, I had to write about it - because, with Easter looming, it was (pun intended) current. I set out, planning the shortest route between the four big supermarkets – Morrison’s, Asda, Tesco and Sainsbury.
An Easter traditionalist, I remember when the only shops open on Good Friday were the bakeries, which would make great batches of hot cross buns early in the morning, for immediate consumption, and then be closed by lunchtime. Aged eight, I rose at 6am, cycled to the bakery, bought a dozen buns, cycled home and put them in the oven to keep warm until the rest of the family got up. We would first eat them without butter for breakfast and then, when they were cold, spread them with Anchor butter for tea.
They were the main highlight of an otherwise gloomy day. On Good Friday, being the saddest day in the Christian calendar, there are no flowers in the churches and their choirs sing mournful anthems. Worse than this, for an eight-year-old in 1963, the television showed only appropriately serious programmes all day, only livening up after my bedtime. Today, people complain there is too little about Easter in the schedules.
As for hot cross buns, I don’t think they were available at any time of year other than Easter. Now, they are on sale all year round, their tops shinier, their texture squishier, and their crosses more pronounced than in the Sixties. I don’t notice as much candied peel as there used to be, either. My mum once made them and they were excellent but, to be honest, I think we all preferred the ones from the shop. I have never made them and have thus fulfilled one of my lifetime pledges.
Recent additions to the hot cross bun family have been the “luxury” or “extra fruity variety” which can involve mild peril if you toast your bun as the richly fruited treat can shed sultanas which then turn to charcoal in the toaster. But imminent Easter has brought us a whole new, untapped seam of hot cross buns. Some of them look more appetising than others. The “seeded” hot cross bun (Tesco) didn’t do much for me and nor did their blueberry and maple syrup – a sort of hot cross bun version of a breakfast pancake. It is entirely unscientific but when that amount of sweetness is suggested, my tooth fillings ache. I gave a similar wince when I contemplated the mini toffee and banana buns.
On my travels, the only failure was finding the aforementioned turmeric, mango and ginger hot cross buns. My trip to Morrison’s was in vain. They had none. The baker kindly went into the stores to see if he could find them but to no avail. Presumably they had sold out or withdrawn them. If the former was the case, then I’m guessing they didn’t have too many in stock to start with... unless I’m missing something, flavour-wise and they are completely and utterly delicious.
I notice that in 2015 Harrods in Knightsbridge, London has produced a savoury carrot, turmeric and parmesan bun. Very modern but quite unnecessary.
Rewind 700 years (on Wikipedia) and we encounter the theory that the British tradition of hot cross buns may have begun in St Albans, where a monk at the abbey came up with an Alban Bun and distributed it to the poor on Good Friday.
During the the reign of Elizabeth I a decree issued in London banned the sale of hot cross buns and other spiced breads, except at burials, on Good Friday, or at Christmas. The punishment for non-observance was the forfeiture of all the forbidden product to the poor. As a result, hot cross buns at the time were primarily made in home kitchens. Further attempts to suppress their sale took place during the reign of James I.
The first definite record of hot cross buns comes from a London street cry: “Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs. With one or two a penny hot cross buns”, which appeared in Poor Robin’s Almanack for 1733.
We have a rhyme that partly echoes this cry: “One a penny two a penny, hot cross buns. If you have no daughters, give them to your sons, One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns.
It is pretty clear however, that the original spiced bun never veered off into “belgian chocolate” or “all butter fudge”.