Parkin

It’s Bonfire Night (November 5th) here in Britain, an annual event marking the failed attempt in 1605 by Guy Fawkes and his Gunpowder Plot co-conspirators to assassinate King James by blowing up the House of Lords. The thwarting of the plotters is still celebrated with bonfires, fireworks, the gluttonous consumption of treacle toffee and the ceremonial burning of “The Guy”, a sacrificial effigy representing Guy Fawkes.

Bonfire Night equation:
Sugar rush + Fire + Explosions = Wild Revelries

guy_fawkesFrom The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in
Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History,
Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character

by Robert Chambers (1864)

Parkin (also spelled Parken) Cake is an integral part of bonfire night in Northern England, particularly in the counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Its variant, Thar’s (or Thor’s) Cake, is said to have originated in the neighboring county of Derbyshire. In these areas, Parkin or Thar’s Cake is considered even more important to the celebrations than treacle toffee. An account of Thar’s cake, complete with recipe, was published over 100 years ago in the 1908 issue of Folklore, the professional journal of the Folklore Society of Great Britain. The author’s correspondent (and originator of the recipe) was a woman from Lancashire.

Finely ground flour, 2lbs.; granulated sugar, 2 Table-spoonfuls; ground ginger, 1/4 oz.; baking powder (evidently a modern innovation), 1 teaspoonful; candied peel, cut fine, 2 oz.; sweet almonds, chopped, 1 oz.; Kiel butter, 5 oz.
Rub the ingredients well together, and then mix with a tea-cup full of milk and as much Scotch treacle as will make it lightly stiff. Bake in a greased tin in a slow oven. My correspondent says many of the ingredients are modern innovations, and that very old people in her neighbourhood say that nothing but oatmeal, butter, and treacle should be used.

In deconstructing this recipe, two things struck me about the “modern” ingredients other than baking powder which I remark on in an earlier post, Any One Can Bake.

  1. Kiel butter
    According to an 1884 newspaper account on the increase use of “bogus butter” (the newly introduced “oleomargarine”) in British kitchens, margarine’s popularity was explained by the fact that, at that time, quality of British butter sold in the shops had fallen drastically. Kiel butter was the imported “real butter” alternative. It was named after an area in Germany along the Kiel canal and was considered inexpensive and – unlike British butter – reliable. Yet, lard is traditionally used in Yorkshire. Could this be another instance of the rivalry dating back to the War of Roses in the 15th century between the red rose of Lancashire and the white rose of Yorkshire? Farfetched, but possible.
  2. Scotch Treacle
    Treacle is a dark syrup by-product of sugar refining akin to molasses, although some sources say it is the same thing. It only started being used in cooking in Britain sometime around 1660 (according to Alan Davidson in The Oxford Companion to Food), linked to sugar production in the British colonies in the West Indies. Accounts of ancient treacle mines in Yorkshire and anywhere else in Britain are hoaxes perpetrated on children and gullible, newly arrived American expats seeking the answer to the question “Is treacle the same as molasses?” So, the use of treacle, even in the older version of Thar’s cake mentioned by the Folklore article, can only date back to the mid-17th century. But, why Scotch? On good (Scottish) authority, it was called Scotch treacle in England to distinguish it from Golden Syrup which the English also referred to as treacle. In Scotland, treacle is only black treacle.

The Folklore author explained that a version (obviously not the published “modern” recipe) of Thar’s Cake had been consumed during a festival in honor of Thor, the pagan Viking god of thunder, possibly coinciding with Scandinavian Yule festivals. The influence of Scandinavian traditions in this area of England is hardly surprising given the Viking settlements, not least at York when it was known as Jorvik, and the number of Scandinavian placenames in Northern England.

However, the article also indicated that the festival where the cake was consumed was most likely the Celtic pagan festival Samhain, which included bonfires, feasting and sacrifice and marked the end of the harvest season and and is widely believed to be incorporated in our Halloween customs (see my post The Original Jack o’Lantern). Whether Scandinavian or Celtic, it seems that Parkin and Thar’s Cake represent older pagan elements that have been absorbed and transformed into these November 5th celebrations.

Amazing…all of these deductions and historical connections from a cake! Parkin, essentially a form of gingerbread, is still made in Northern England and consumed with gusto on the 5th of November.

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9 comments

  1. My Yorkshire born grandma made delicious parkin. I still make it sometimes, her recipe is essentially a sticky spicy treacle cake. Love your snippets of food history. Thanks

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    • I saw your post on parkin only after I had posted mine and found it fascinating that you baked parkin from a 1907 recipe! I wasn’t brave enough to bake this 1908 recipe, but would be very interested in the results if you do. Keep me posted! 😄

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