The middle Sunday of lent is traditionally known as Mothering Sunday (or the more modern Mother’s Day) the origin of which varies. The religious one is honouring the Mother Church when people travelled to worship at the main church or cathedral. Or it could be that for the first time in six months since the October hiring fair boys and girls in service were allowed to travel home and visit their families. Following this tradition the girls were allowed to make a cake to take with them and the story goes that they made a spiced fruit cake which their mothers often kept until Easter. This explains why there is confusion as to whether a Simnel cake should be baked for Mothering Sunday or for Easter. I think it is a good excuse to bake two.
The richness of the fruit combined with the gooey marzipan cooked in the middle and topping the cake were also probably a boost when people adhered to a strict lenten diet often not eating meat or rich foods during the 40 days leading up to Easter
So why Shrewsbury Simnel Cake? There are different versions: Bury, Devizes and Shrewsbury. The Shrewsbury recipe seems to be the most popular and I must confess when I moved to Shropshire over 20 years ago I became a fan and it has become a bit of a Mothering Sunday and Easter tradition in our house. I also see it as a brilliant use of all the dried fruits that have been lurking in the cupboard since Christmas!
My favourite recipe is from the Good Home Baking by Mary Cadogan which is sadly out of print now. For for the Mothering Sunday version I make deep cuts in the marzipan topping which gives a diamond look and for Easter it gets the added topping of the traditional 11 balls of marzipan which symbolise the 11 apostles minus Judas and sometimes some mini Easter eggs too!.
Yesterday I was optimistic about Spring actually being here but in fact I had suffered a rush of optimism about three weeks ago when I got that urge to get growing.
Compost was purchased (Fertile Fibre peat free) and the shiny metal box containing all my lovingly gathered and purchased seeds was opened with that rush of anticipation which heralds the start of a new growing season. Oh what to plant first and trying to be sensible and moderate the urge to fill scores of seed trays I rationed my early season planting to sweet pea, broccoli, rocket, greyhound cabbage and salad bowl lettuce. Remembering my brother’s mantra ‘steady as you go’ I curbed my enthusiasm and stopped at that point (well for a day or two!)
The first two weeks were fine I had time to keep an eye on things ( and plant more seeds – stock, globe artichoke, butter-nut squash and basil to name a few) but then my early optimism came a cropper – working away from home, visiting parents, village events and in the flash of an eye seeds had germinated and stretched their leggy stalks up to the sky making them look quite unhealthy. Oh why had I planted so early and why had I not taken a few minutes to check the seed trays? How many times have we all said this to ourselves. Never fear one of my very useful birthday presents from my sister came into play a widger – a little stainless steel tool which replaces my rusty old teaspoon for gently lifting seedlings allowing you to transplant them without crushing their delicate stem or leaves.
The straggly cabbages were gently lifted out of the seed tray and potted on into 9cm pots with the seedling planted deeply so that the compost covers the straggly stem and holds the leggy plant firmly in place. After 10 days the plants are looking like sturdy little seedlings and my neglect is not evident. All if safe for now but there are still many hurdles ahead – frost, slugs, pigeons, caterpillars and probably some more human neglect before we enjoy the first taste of the cabbage and bacon.
The weather has been so fickle recently – one day sunny and warm the next the hail is bouncing off your face. But today as I went for a walk at lunch time I was filled with optimism as I saw a carpet of wood anemone in the wood so, despite the chilly wind, I was optimistic.
Imagine my delight when I got home in daylight and wandered down the vegetable patch and there in front of me was purple sprouting broccoli… suddenly the evening menu was looking brighter!
Within 20 minutes of spying the broccoli it was picked, popped in the steamer for about 5 minutes and then enjoyed by everyone. The first harvest of the year – yes spring is finally on its way!