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Three Elizabeths, One George, Hot Cross Buns, and Hampstead Heath by Paula Panich

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Three Elizabeths, One George, Hot Cross Buns, and Hampstead Heath

by Paula Panich

March 2015    

That first crowned Elizabeth ate rich buns: that is, made with eggs and spices and cur-rants. Perhaps she fed one, crumb by crumb, onto Essex’s expectant tongue.

They weren’t new in her age, and if you follow the crumbs into the forest and across the Channel and then south and backward in time, you’ll see Romans dipping them into wine, perhaps. Perhaps.

English bakers, though, were aping their culinary betters, the French, around the end of the thirteenth century, making what was then called French bread, or a puff, a kind of milk bread whipped up with butter and eggs. (French toast!)

But if Elizabeth’s buns were hot in regard to Essex, the sweet bread on her plate was called by other names. All bread was marked with a cross to enable evil spirits to es-cape, or to prevent them from entering in the first place, against a yeasty failure. The practice was abandoned as popish during the time of Cromwell.

But, but. Those crosses: Popish they might have seemed, but there’s more to those cuts, cruel or not, than one might think. The food historian Alan Davidson, writing in The Oxford Companion to Food (1999):

The mark is of ancient origin, connected with the religious offering of bread, which replaced earlier, less civilized offerings of blood. The Egyptians offered small round cakes, marked with a representation of the horns of the ox, to the goddess of the moon. The Greeks and Romans had similar practices, and the

Saxons ate buns marked with a cross in honour of the goddess of light, Eostre, whose name was transferred to Easter. According to superstition, hot cross buns and loaves baked on Good Friday never went mouldy, and were some-times kept as charms from one year to the next.

I hadn’t tried this experiment myself, tucking away buns for good-luck charms, as I paid them no mind. I often saw them in March or April, tarted up with thick white icing, in supermarkets alongside their gastronomical sidekicks, pink bunny-eared cupcakes. But then came Rumbold.

It was a bakery in Hampstead, London, on the South End Road, across from an entrance to the Heath. It no longer exists, alas, except in the memory of the perfect hot cross buns found in its glass case during Holy Week.

Fragrant, light, the color of pale caramel, just the right mix of spice, not too sweet, hot from the oven, I recall mornings swearing I wouldn’t leave the keyboard to walk to the end of our road, to Pond Street, up the hill to the Royal Free Hospital, then left onto the South End Road. Yet to Rumbold I went, just as eighteenth-century Londoners flocked to the Chelsea Bun House, and for the same reason.

 

Passing by the corner of Pond Street and South End Road also meant tripping an invisible wire of literary history. Well, actually, there’s a plaque: GEORGE ORWELL LIVED AND WORKED IN A BOOKSHOP ON THIS SITE, 1934–1935.

It was in October 1934 when he moved to Hampstead, to be part-time assistant to Jon Kimche, at Booklover’s Corner at 1 South End Road. Eric Blair was barely George Orwell; his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, had been published in 1933, the inaugural appearance of his nom de plume.

During the ten months that he lived in the South End Road, two more books were published: A Clergyman’s Daughter (March 1935) and Burmese Days (June 1935). Then he decamped to Kentish Town.

It was Burma that captured my imagination then, for the first time I read Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant,” I was rooted in my usual seat in the British Library, in 1993 still in Bloomsbury.

Orwell wrote this essay in 1936, perhaps from Kentish Town. At that moment I was interested (as I still am) in voice, as in voice on the nonfiction page, of which Orwell was a master.

Here is the opening of that famous work: “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people—the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.”

Just try to stop reading there.

As Vivian Gornick, my teacher in these matters, has suggested about Orwell: The voice is the subject.

And so I would walk in Hampstead Heath as God only knows has everyone else, from Keats and Orwell, to Katherine Mansfield and Dennis Potter, plus ordinary people like me. But Orwell was on my mind; I was amazed at the maturity of the writer and of the man who so directly revealed his shamed self on the page. He did shoot an elephant. He didn’t want to, but he did.

If you read Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London—the Kitchen Confidential of its era—you’ll think more and deeper about what happens in restaurants, in the back of the house. Ever wonder how many grubby hands have been on the delicate-looking food on your hot shining plate?

 

So it happens that hot cross buns have a voice of their own:

One-a-penny, two-a-penny, hot cross BUNS.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the long-ago cry of the street vendor and its mesmerizing measured repetitive rhyme had been folded into a child’s game and thus into cultural history.

 

After two years in Hampstead, I returned with my family to the United States, to western Massachusetts, which was equally a foreign country to us. There were real winters. Long winters, with long dark evenings, and many people who had lived in place for a very long time and would never think of vacationing anywhere but the Cape or doing anything else they hadn’t done before. It was hard going.

Our first house there backed up into a wood, and to keep the light inside, that is, inside me, in winter I would bake with the excellent English food writer Elizabeth David as my companion.

I met David on the page while staying in an English friend’s house in the Ardèche, through a book I found in the guest bedroom, French Provincial Cooking. Again, it was voice that captured, and at that time I had no idea what lay ahead in my own work vis-à-vis some of hers until I began my love affair with the life of the seventeenth-century Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent.

English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977) is a delicious book, erudite and elegant, a long labor in which no corner of the baking oven remains in the dark, and in it Eliza-beth David has quite a bit to say about the freezing and other degradations of hot cross buns.

It’s not easy to extrapolate her recipe for the twenty-first-century American baker but I gave it several tries (alas), the way I gave western Massachusetts a try, for when it was time to leave, a dozen years later, it broke my heart.

 

“It’s really rather a treat to have fresh, well-spiced hot cross buns for breakfast during Easter weekend,” Elizabeth David writes.

Her basic recipe in English Bread and Yeast Cookery is Spice Buns (page 475), but under the heading “Hot Cross Buns” she writes: “The recipe . . . is exactly as for the spice buns above, except that a little less milk should be used for making up the dough, so that the mixture is slightly firmer. If the dough is too soft, it will not take the cross cuts, which are made after the molded buns have recovered volume and when the dough looks well-grown.” Oh, my. What could she mean?

The milk called for in the master recipe is “rather over 1 cup,” meaning you’ll have to experiment. It may be that taking such care and trouble over buns and spices and so forth has gone the way of shooting elephants, but I have no doubt that Elizabeth David wishes us well and good luck with her recipe. Just in case, though, she offers an alternative Good Friday rhyme:


One for the poker,
Two for the tongs;
Three for the dust-pan
Hot Cross Buns!



  Paula Panich's work has been published in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Gastronomica. the Harvard Review, and the North American Review, among other publications. Her books include Cultivating Words (2005). “Three Elizabeths” is part of an unpublished manuscript,The Cook, the Landlord, the Countess, and her Lover. Photo by Ilana Panich-Linsman.

 

Photo used under Creative Commons.