Ah, the comforting hot cross bun, with its rich yeasty smell emanating from the oven (or if you’re as impatient as me, from the toaster, which inevitably results in corners that have burnt to an inedible crisp), the warm dough, the fruity taste and the sticky golden exterior. They are sold all year round and are perfect components of afternoon tea or breakfast, however the Christian tradition is to eat them on Good Friday alone. How did this tasty treat become part of a religious ritual?
The most common recipe has yeast, milk, flour, butter, eggs, sugar, raisins, and a combination of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and allspice, but some older recipes called for saffron and mace. Throughout the 1600s trade with faraway countries became easier, and new, exotic ingredients like spices and sugar found their way into British kitchens. The introduction of these items increased the popularity of fruit breads, however they actually have a much older history.
Remains of cakes marked with crosses have been found among ruins in Herculaneum, an ancient Roman city near Pompeii, suggesting Romans were eating confectionery very similar to hot cross buns. The crosses were crudely marked into the bread with a knife, rather than piped on with pastry, although this wasn’t always intended to symbolise the Christian cross. Pagan Saxons used a cross to depict the four quarters of the moon, and in other cultures it was simply meant to show the lines along which the bun should be divided.
There are older theories around, such as that of the ancient Egyptians offering small round buns to the goddess of the moon, the cross representing two ox horns, the symbol for strength and sovereignty. Other possible explanations point to their origin during the Greek Empire, or as a Jewish Passover food. The only certainty is that the term “hot cross bun” first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1733, along with a folk song: “Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs, with one or two a Penny hot cross Bunns”. While at first glance this seems little more than gibberish, it does tell us that the tradition of eating hot cross buns on Good Friday must have started well before the date of the dictionary’s publication.