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Were Hot Cross Buns the First Food Fad? A Brief (and Fascinating) History

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If I had to put my cards on the line and pick, I’d say the greatest culinary achievements of my homeland, Great Britain, are Things You Can Toast. From crumpets to teacakes, muffins to drop scones, if you can warm it, butter it, and eat it with a cup of tea, we’ll give it a try. And so, as Easter approaches, our nation’s collective thoughts inexorably turn to Hot Cross Buns—my grandma’s absolute favorite. Ideally, hot cross buns are, well, hot, crisply-brown, and dripping with butter, but not unwelcome if cold and spread thickly with lemon curd. Whether homemade or shop bought, every bun is welcome on the British table.

Up and down the high streets of Britain, at every Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, and Marks & Spencer, the shelves are crammed with packets of Hot Cross Buns in every flavor under the sun: chocolate chip; chocolate-chocolate chip; clementine and cinnamon; cranberry; apple; apricot; coconut and pineapple. One is even iced in pink with pink and white sprinkles... probably not what the medieval monk who invented them had in mind.

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Spotted: Toffee Fudge & Belgian Chocolate and Kentish Brambley Apple hot cross buns
Spotted: Toffee Fudge & Belgian Chocolate and Kentish Brambley Apple hot cross buns Photo by Katherine Knowles

The most likely origin story for the cross-anointed bun we enjoy today comes from St Alban’s Cathedral, where it is mentioned in Ye Booke Of St Albans, a gentleman's guide to hawking, hunting, and heraldry, printed in the 1480s. Here, we’re told that a monk working in the refectory, Brother Thomas Rocliffe, created a recipe and distributed the bun to the local poor on Good Friday to great popular acclaim. Apparently, “These cakes so pleased the palates of the people who were the recipients that they became talked about, and various were the attempts to imitate the cakes of Father Rocliffe all over the country, but the recipe of which was kept within the walls of the Abbey." The Alban Bun was basically the Late Medieval cronut.

This bun is still served at the cathedral today. It contains flour, eggs, yeast, and currants, and is spiced with cinnamon and “Grains of Paradise” (in the ginger family). Interestingly, instead of being decorated onto the bun, the cross is slashed into it, as in Irish soda bread; folklore suggests this lets the devil (and steam!) out.

However, the tradition of baking a fruited, spiced bun in springtime goes back much further than that, pre-dating Christianity. The Old Testament records Ancient Egyptians selling spiced breads outside Isis temples, and the Ancient Greeks wrote and shared recipes for several different types of sweet wheat breads. These were shaped with pointed ends, more like a miniature French loaves than the round cobs we see today, and they were specifically eaten at the time of the Spring Equinox, in honor of the new moon. Each loaf was stamped with a curved symbol, like an ox’s horn, and that gives us some clue to the etymology of the “bun”: “Boun” is the Ancient Greek word for ox.

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Bouns were part of Roman tradition by the time of the Conquest in 43 AD, when they collided with the Anglo Saxon’s own baking custom. Kate Colquhoun, in her book Taste: The Story Of Britain Through Its Cooking, describes a small fruit loaf that the Anglo Saxons made in honor of the goddess of the spring and dawn, Eostre. (Yes, it sounds like Easter, and yes, there’s a lot of debate on whether that’s the origin of the word.)

Hot Cross Bun, Meet Cream Biscuit

Hot Cross Bun, Meet Cream Biscuit by fiveandspice

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Honey-Glazed Brioche Hot Cross Buns

Honey-Glazed Brioche Hot Cross Buns by Betty Hung

In 1592, Queen Elizabeth cemented the reputation of the Hot Cross Bun, somewhat by mistake. She decreed that it should only be baked and sold for burials, or at Christmas and Easter. Her intention was to quash what she saw as a symbol of papal Christianity, which had no place in the new Protestant world. Unfortunately for her, scarcity bred demand, and the buns only became more popular. Their rareness made them special, something to look forward to. By 1733, Robin’s Almanac notes children singing the early version of the nursery rhyme we know today:

Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs,
With one or two a penny hot cross buns

The bun was officially famous.

Over the years, the bun evolved and changed. Victorian recipes suggest various glazes to top the bun with after baking, including molasses, or honey with turmeric. The buns had become spicier too, with the addition of mace, caraway seeds, and even coriander. Most notably, hot cross buns were now decorated with crosses made from flour and water paste, rather than cut with crosses before baking. A Baker’s Trade book from the 19th century makes a distinction between the two; “Easter Buns” (such as the St Alban’s Bun) have the cut cross, and "Hot Cross Buns" have the cross decoration.

Slashed bun, as in Irish soda bread (left) and modern-day hot cross buns (right) Photos by James Ransom, London Bakes

With symbolism literally baked into the buns, it's little wonder they’re shrouded in myth. A few favorites:

  • Hang a Hot Cross Bun from the rafters of your kitchen on Good Friday and it will not rot all year. The hanging bun will bring you excellent luck, protect your kitchen from fire, and ward off evil spirits.
  • You can grate this dried hot cross bun into water and drink it as medicine (especially for digestive issues), though historic mortality rates suggest this is not a very reliable cure
The Widow's Son pub on 75 Devons Road, London
The Widow's Son pub on 75 Devons Road, London Photo by Ewan Munro
  • Hot Cross Buns are said to act as a charm against shipwreck. Famously, there’s a pub in London called The Widow’s Son, named after a woman who lived in a cottage on the site. She hung a bun in a net from her rafters, adding to the collection every year to commemorate her son, who worked as a sailor and disappeared at sea. After her death, when her cottage was renovated, successive generations of owners and landlords continued this tradition. The youngest sailor from the HMS President, moored on the nearby Thames, is invited to add a specially baked Hot Cross Bun to the net. “Would you believe, the baker who makes them every year is actually called Mr Bunn?!” says Katie Connell, the current manager. “No kidding! He bakes a tray of buns for everyone in the pub, and makes two special ones with the date and year piped on near the cross. He varnishes it so it will last, and then we pick one the sailor will put in the net.” The big question: Do they smell? “Not really,” says Connell. “There was a fire years back and some of them burned, so they smelled burned, but [that’s it]. Maybe the varnish stops it [from smelling]? Or the myth [about hot cross buns not rotting] is true, who knows?”

The myth I subscribe to and superstitiously follow every year is this: sharing a Hot Cross Bun will cement a friendship. I mean, when you think about it, how could it not? “Half for you and half for me, between us two good luck shall be,” my Grandma would say, popping one in the toaster, buttering and handing me whichever half was bigger. We’d drink our tea and crunch companionably, butter dripping down our chins. It was pure happiness.