My next-door neighbour Al – a peerless amateur baker – was vexed when I told him I was researching the history of hot cross buns. Flicking through the photos on his phone he showed me a close-up of a 12-pack of chocolate-chip buns with icing crosses. "Oh, I know," I nodded. "I'm not a fan of the sugary 'not cross bun' either."
"A travesty!" he replied. "But look closer – it gets worse."
I squinted into his phone and the cause of his outrage appeared in tiny typed print: "Expiry date: 3 January 2018".
What is it that sparks our moral indignation each year when supermarkets dare to play with the recipes of our beloved Easter treats and deliver them to us in untimely fashion? Many of us are happy to eat berries in winter or root vegetables in summer. But a hot cross bun studded with chocolate and Belgian toffee, or infused with orange peel or mocha, then served out of season has us photographing the evidence like investigators at a crime scene.
The sanctity of hot cross buns, it seems, is bound up in our childhood memories: the innocent scent of yeasty, raisin-studded buns warming in the oven, redolent of butter, allspice and the languor of Easter holidays and long Easter lunches. Hot cross buns would arrive in our kitchen a week or two before Easter and vanish immediately after. They appeared like mysterious relics of a sepia-tinted past when profits would cede to ritual; when the market would give way to magic. Even as a child I appreciated their significance – the capacity for bread to connect palates across centuries. And they came with a rhyme that sounded positively Dickensian: "Hot cross buns. Hot cross buns. One a penny, two a penny. Hot cross buns." You could almost see the stout women perched on the sides of rickety wagons hollering down rain-licked, cobblestoned streets.
It came as some surprise, then, to discover that this staple of any six-year-old's song book went back further than the 19th century. Like Molly Malone's cry of "Cockles and mussels, alive, alive-oh" in the Irish song, the piece can be dated to the rhyming cries of 18th-century street vendors who could be credited with the first form of advertising jingle. But the origins of hot cross buns go back even further.
In fact, it would not be grandiose to say the vast history of Western civilisation, the rise and fall of deities and dynasties, could be told within the honey-hued glaze of this small, spiced bread.
The Saxons, we are told, ate buns marked with crosses in honour of Eostre, goddess of spring or light, who gave her name to Easter. Antiquarians cite similar practices among the Druids, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans in honour of Diana, goddess of the hunt and the moon. Some of the sacred "cakes" were marked with the image of deer or ox horns, and others a cross, signifying the four quarters of the moon. Indeed, if you were to go to Pompeii today you could see the remains of such buns in an ancient bakehouse. Herodotus tells us that at the time they were left in sanctuaries built at crossroads for fugitives and hunters.
The Bible records that in 587BC Jeremiah denounced Hebrew women for neglecting their Christian father and continuing to worship Diana, offering up "cakes to the moon, the queen of the shining sky". Of course, the early Christian church didn't have time for such pagan idolatry and marshalled the buns into the service of God. Hot cross buns became commemorations of Good Friday, and across Christendom the cross came to represent the crucifixion and the spices symbolised those used to embalm Jesus at his burial.
The bun had been blessed.
In the late 16th century Queen Elizabeth forbade the sale of hot cross buns at any time other than burials, Good Friday and Christmas, perhaps because they were considered to be so holy. If you were caught baking them outside this time, you were forced to give all your buns to the poor.
The buns were now made in the secrecy of the home and the mythology again grew around them as they were invested with magical powers. If hung from the rafters on Good Friday, for instance, they would resist decay, it was thought, and people would nibble on them throughout the year for their supposed restorative powers. The buns would rid the house of bad spirits, protect it from fire and safeguard ships against shipwreck. In Ireland people would share hot cross buns with their best friends on Good Friday, reciting the lines "Half for you and half for me, between us two, good luck shall be" to guarantee their friendship for the coming year.
While the bun itself has scudded across epochs from paganism to Christianity, our modern recipe is attributed to a 14th-century monk at the Cathedral of St Albans, who first mixed the yeast with cinnamon and delivered his baked treats to the poor. And I weep when I imagine what this monk would say were he to wander into a supermarket today. Yes, like my neighbour, I'm a purist when it comes to the bun. This is partly out of reverence for a past that is accessible to us through food, and also because I'm not ready to cede all our sacred rituals to the new gods of consumption and profit. In fact, this Easter I'll be hanging a spiced hot cross bun from the rafters and praying it keeps the evil mocha-orange-peel spirits at bay.