Celebrate Shrewsbury in your kitchen
An English tradition that has spread across the world, the Simnel Cake has its roots firmly placed in Shropshire. There are as many recipes for the cake as there are towns in the United Kingdom, but it is the Shrewsbury version which has become most popular and well known.
The Simnel Cake is a light fruitcake, traditionally made with flour, sugar, butter, eggs, spices, dried fruit and candied peels. Modern versions see the addition of flavoured alcohol, as well as marzipan as both a filling and decoration.
The history of the Simnel Cake is well document within The Chambers Book of Days of 1869. This was a huge collection of short, largely factual pieces collated by Scottish phrenologist Robert Chambers. Within it he detailed "It is an old custom in Shropshire and Herefordshire, and especially in Shrewsbury, to make during Lent and Easter, and also at Christmas, a sort of rich and expensive cake, which are called Simnel Cakes."
The story behind the name ‘Simnel’ is hotly contested. Many believe that the father of Lambert Simnel, 15th Century pretender to the English thrown, was a baker and the first to create the cake. However, the name can be found in early English as well as old French and appears in Medieval Latin in the forms of simanellus and siminellus.
Shropshire folklore names two local residents as the creators of the Simnel Cake. The story is detailed in The Chambers Book of Days:
“Long ago there lived an honest old couple, boasting the names of Simon and Nelly, but their surnames are not known. It was their custom at Easter to gather their children about them, and thus meet together once a year under the old homestead.
The fasting season of Lent was just ending, but they had still left some of the unleavened dough which had from time to time converted into bread during the forty days. Nelly was a careful woman, and it grieved her to waste anything, so she suggested that they use the remains of the Lenten dough for the basis of a cake to regale the assembled family. Simon readily agreed to the proposal, and further reminded his partner that there was still some remains of their Christmas plum pudding hoarded up in the cupboard, and that this might form the interior, and be an agreeable surprise to the young people when they had made their way through the less tasty crust.
So far, all things went on harmoniously; but when the cake was made, a subject of violent discord arose. Sim insisting that it should be boiled, while Nell no less obstinately contended that it should be baked. The dispute ran from words to blows, for Nell, not choosing to let her province in the household be thus interfered with, jumped up and threw the stool she was sitting on at Sim, who on his part seized a besom, and applied it with the right good will to the head and shoulders of his spouse. She now seized the broom, and the battle became so warm, that it might have had a very serious result, had not Nell proposed a compromise that the cake should be boiled first, and afterwards baked. This Sim acceded to, for he had no wish for further acquaintance with the heavy end of the broom.
Accordingly, the big pot was set on the fire, and the stool broken up and thrown on to boil it, whilst the besom and broom furnished fuel for the oven. Some eggs, which had been broken in the scuffle, were used to coat the outside of the pudding when boiled, which gave it the shining gloss it possesses as a cake.
This new and remarkable production in the art of confectionary became known by the name of the cake of Simon and Nelly, but soon only the first half of each name alone preserved and joined together, and it has ever since been known as the cake of Sim-Nel, or Simnel!”
You can find an outstanding recipe for Simnel Cake on BBC GoodFood.
You can read the full Simnel Cake exert from the 1869 Chambers Book of Days here.
The Shrewsbury Biscuit
One of the best-known recipes to come from Shropshire is The Shrewsbury Biscuit, also known as the Shrewsbury Cake.
Attributed to Mr Pailin, circa 1760, the recipe is comprised of flour, sugar, eggs and lemon zest. The biscuits are heavily spiced with nutmeg, caraway and rosewater, but the spices and quantities change depending on the recipe.
Although Pailin’s bakery is no longer standing, it can be identified by a plaque that now adorns the wall of 17 Castle Street. It reads: “This shop occupies the site of a building where Pailin first made the unique Shrewsbury Cake to his original recipe in the year 1760.”
The sign is finished with an exert from the 1837 Ingoldsby Legends: “Oh! Pailin. Prince of Cake Compounders. The mouth liquefies at the very name.”
The Shrewsbury Biscuit has been documented in literature spanning the last five centuries. A recipe reminiscent of the modern one can be found in several early cookbooks including the Compleat Cook of 1658:
“Take two pound of floure dryed in the Oven and weighed after it is dryed, then put to it one pound of Butter that must be layd an hour or two in Rose-water, so done poure the Water from the Butter, and put the Butter to the flowre with the yolks and whites of five Eggs, two races of Ginger, and three quarters of a pound of Sugar, a little salt, grate your spice, and it well be the better, knead all these together till you may rowle the past, then roule it forth with the top of a bowle, then prick them with a pin made of wood, or if you have a comb that hath not been used, that will do them quickly, and is best to that purpose, so bake them upon Pye plates, but not too much in the Oven, for the heat of the Plates will dry them very much, after they come forth of the Oven, you may cut them without the bowles of what bignesse or what fashion you please.”
17th century playwright William Congreve uses a Shrewsbury Cake analogy within dialogue in his play The Way of the World: “Wit: Why, brother Wilfull of Salop, you may be as short as a Shrewsbury Cake, if you please.”
Today, the Shrewsbury Biscuit is one of the most popular biscuits in India and is primarily baked in Pune, Maharashtra. There is also a Shrewsbury biscuit in New Zealand, however this is a jam sandwich biscuit.
You can turn your hand to the Shrewsbury Biscuit with this recipe from Shropshire Archives.