Simnel Cake

14 06 2009

Ahhh, the Interweb can be a marvelous thing.

I’m reading Nicola Cornick‘s The Confessions of a Duchess, Book 1 in her new “Brides of Fortune” Regency series.  (Read an interview with Nicola about this series at Word Wenches!)  So far, very amusing.  Here’s the premise, in brief, of the series: It is the summer of 1809.  Sir Montague Fortune, the squire of the Yorkshire village of Fortune’s Folly, has had his suit rebuffed by a local young heiress.  In his quest for revenge (and to get his hands on her money), he discovers a dusty piece of medieval law called the “Dames’ Tax” that, though long lapsed, was never repealed: the lord of the manor may levy a tithe upon all unmarried women of the village for one-half of their fortunes.  He revives the tax, simultaneously making Fortune’s Folly the premiere marriage mart of all England and earning him the enmity of every female in the village.  Give half their fortunes to him, or all to a hastily-chosen fortune-hunting husband?  Whichever they decide, if they cannot get him to repeal this ridiculous tax before Christmas (when the levy is due), they are determined to make him pay… one way or another.  The first book follows the story of Laura, the impoverished Dowager Duchess of Cole.

There is a reference about halfway through the book to the cook baking a “simnel cake” for the duchess. (“She says it is a medicinal recipe.”)  I’d never heard the term before– if I had to guess, I would have said the word might be a corruption of “cinnamon,” or that it might be some kind of rum cake (given the sly “medicinal” reference).  This was obviously a prime case of “Librarian, answer thyself!”  I thought it might be amusing to share my search path here (and share a number of handy reference links while I’m at it).

As my computer was handier than my OED (always a good choice when you’re looking for an archaic term), I started at OneLook with the word simnel:  “a fruitcake (sometimes covered with almond paste) eaten at mid-Lent or Easter or Christmas.”  Fruitcake!  Aha, now I was getting somewhere.  The Online Etymology Dictionary told me further that it is a “‘sweet cake,’ c.1200, from O.Fr. simenel ‘fine wheat flour,’ by dissimilation from V.L. *siminellus, a dim. of L. simila ‘fine flour’ (see semolina).”

Well enough, although that didn’t sound very “medicinal.”  Still, many fruitcakes are soaked in rum or brandy… how about a recipe?  When I’ve got a potential recipe stumper, the very first thing I do is to ask Uncle Phaedrus, Finder of Lost Recipes.  Uncle Phaedrus has an archive of nine years’ worth of hard-to-find recipe questions– if the answer’s not in there somewhere, it’s probably not online.  Even better, the archives are fully searchable.  Uncle Phaedrus did not disappoint this time, either.  Searching on simnel again, I found his answer to a question about Mothering Sunday Cake.  His first link, to an article on A Simnel Cake for Mother’s Day, told me all I might wish to know about simnel cake, including a recipe, meaning, and a bit about the surprising (to me) religious origins of Mothering Sunday.  Tadaa!  (As a note, the second and third links were dead (hey, it happens).  But– bonus!– I was able to retrieve the third link on simnel cake anyway, using the fabulous Internet Archive‘s Wayback Machine!)

I think Nicola Cornick’s research was a bit off– although quite rich and obviously special, this cake doesn’t seem “medicinal” in the slightest.  And though the backstory of the cake fits in nicely with the plot point of “medieval traditions revived,” this one seems never to have died out in England.  BBC Food says simnel cake is made traditionally in modern times for Easter.  I would be quite surprised if a Regency woman had never heard of it as a cornerstone of the Mothering Sunday tradition, since the American Mother’s Day traditions that somewhat supplanted it didn’t even exist until nearly a century after the book takes place.  Ah, well, I’m picking nits.  It’s not like the Dames’ Tax is historically accurate either (although yes, there were many taxes in the Middle Ages that we’d now consider quite zany).  The question still netted me a nifty historical recipe and a research process to share.

(Final note– there was, in fact, a link further down the page on OneLook for the phrase simnel cake, but I’d overlooked it until I went back to recreate this search.  Let that be a lesson to you, if you’re in such a hurry to find your answer that you don’t bother to scroll down!  It would have saved me a few steps, as the Wikipedia article on simnel cake looks pretty accurate (although, being Wikipedia, I probably would have double-checked the facts elsewhere anyway), and there’s the lovely link to the BBC Food Glossary that I mentioned above.  But then I wouldn’t have been able to share my beloved Uncle Phaedrus! 😉 )