The holy bun that crossed the centuries

When it comes to hot cross buns, I love nibbling round the chewy cross on top like an ill-mannered five-year-old.

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If you have just turned the page with buttery fingers, if your nostrils are filled with sweet spice and your tongue is at this very moment engaged in gently prising a gritty currant from your molars, then spare a thought and a hot cross bun for me. The moment I saw these Easter treats cheek by jowl with discounted mince pies in December, I resolved that not a single crumb would pass my lips until Good Friday.

Even writing about the merits of hot cross buns tests my resolve. I love their fluffy texture, the contrast between savoury bread and sweet, plump fruit, the heat of ginger and nutmeg tamed by the obligatory creamy wodge of butter. Best of all, I love nibbling round the chewy cross on top like an ill-mannered five-year-old. The only thing keeping me going is the thought of the glorious weekend of gorging ahead of me, before I forsake their pleasures for the next 51 Fridays, as nature surely intended.

Sweet buns have always been festive food: a Tudor by-law presumably aimed at stamping out naughty, popish decadence outlawed their sale in the City of London, “except it be at burials, or on Friday before Easter, or at Christmas, upon pain of forfeiture of all such spiced bread to the poor”. The Easter cross is a more recent introduction, first recorded in the late 18th century. (Collectors of literary trivia may be interested to learn that James Boswell and Samuel Johnson breakfasted on “cross buns” on Good Friday in 1773; whether they were hot or cold is not recorded.)

Until relatively recently, the mark was slashed rather than piped on, using a tool known as a “bun docker”, though common sense suggests that this practice, common to many such denser breads, was as much to allow heat into the buns as it was to let the devil out. So powerful is this particular cross, however, that tradition has it that any buns baked on Good Friday will never go off. Indeed, one example in Colchester, described by its owner as “like a ball of concrete”, celebrates its 210th birthday next year.

This fortitude is fortunate, given the once common practice of suspending a Good Friday bun from the ceiling as a kind of cinnamon-flavoured household protection insurance. Crumbs were carefully hoarded for their healing powers and sailors carried them as good luck charms, all of which leaves me in no doubt that the hot cross bun is a magical thing: no mere bauble of a Creme Egg (which could be discontinued for all I care), but a special treat that deserves a bit of ceremony.

And ceremony is what it gets at the Widow’s Son pub in Bow, east London, which throws a bun-hanging party, complete with sailors, every Good Friday – but the bun has friends in higher places, too. The Church of England would probably support my usual stance, given the Very Rev Jeffrey John’s worry that the ubiquity of the cross has led to Britain losing touch “with the significance of the bun and its link to Holy Week”. Members of the English Defence League (EDL) are fans; one of its London branches was fooled and outraged by a spoof story suggesting that a baker in Southend had removed the cross from his buns to avoid causing offence. (A “hot cross bun without a cross”, it fulminated, is “just a bun”.)

Now I come to think of it, perhaps that is the perfect way to dent our voracious, year-round appetite for these seasonal treats – put the word out that they’re endorsed by the EDL. Nothing like a bit of right-wing extremism to put you off your breakfast . . . which should mean all the more buns for me, come Friday. Happy Easter, folks.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue