It is the end of October, the fields are bare, the leaves have been blown from the trees, and the nights are growing longer. The darkness is coming. At this time of year we celebrate the end of summer and the cycle of death and rebirth. From as far back as anyone can remember, on one special night we gather together to share food and drink, play tricks and games. It is a time to connect with our ancestors, and honor the dead.
In my home county of Cheshire this gathering has long had a unique name – Souling or Soul-caking. ‘An Appetite for Violets’ begins on Souling Night, a time when mischief is rife and the world can turn upside down. It is 1774 and the household is baking to welcome a band of mummers with blackened faces and outlandish costumes who demand entry at the door and sing:
A soul, a soul, a soul-cake,
Please good missus, a soul cake…’
Later they perform a mumming play in return for food and drink. Just how ancient Cheshire Souling might be is suggested by the ritual of a horse’s head led by a man in a white sheet, a performance called ‘hodening’ thought to be an echo of the Norse god Odin. Other characters can include a Hero, Saint George or King George, a Blackamoor or Saladin, Kings, Fools, Devils, and a Doctor who magically brings the hero back to life in a way that echoes many rituals of death and renewal. The rhyming couplets of the play are passed on orally, so characters emerge like ‘Bellsie Bob’, a corruption of ‘Beelzebub’. But then none of it is serious - it’s about slapstick, taunting, and free-flowing beer.
So what are soul cakes and why are they handed out? Even in the fourteenth century the idea of Soul Cakes was ancient, as John Mirk wrote in Festial ‘wherefore in olden time good men and women would this day buy bread and deal (give) it for the souls that they loved, hoping with each loaf to get a soul out of purgatory’.
In pre-Reformation England these cakes were given to the poor as alms to try to free dead souls from Purgatory. Later, in one of those mixing ups of pagan and Christian traditions, the poor village Soulers conferred a blessing on rich households in return for food and drink - suggesting the rich had better pay up or risk a bad harvest, or worse.
Surviving recipes for Soul Cakes vary, but they are generally small, round, spicy and sweet. Sugar and spice and dried fruit were for centuries the mark of festival food, a welcome relief from bland everyday food. Recipes describe a ‘cross’ design that hints at two crossed bones rather than a crucifix. When I baked them as research for An Appetite for Violets they were quite delicious spiced biscuits. An ancient ‘serving suggestion’ from a pre-literate age was to lay the cakes ‘in a tall heap like the picture of the Shew Bread in the Bible’.
These days a few groups of Cheshire Soulers keep the ritual alive and next weekend I’ll be looking for a performance in local pubs. On Souling Night (or All Hallow’s Eve or Hallowe’en) it seems history does indeed live, in our instinct to walk the streets in outlandish costumes and eat and drink special foods, and bless or curse (trick or treat) our neighbours…
~ Historic Recipe To Make Soul Cakes ~
Work 4lb fresh butter with your hand to a cream. Beat in the same of loaf sugar pounded and sifted fine. Take two dozen egg yolks beaten and add by degrees. Then put in flour 8 lb with salt, allspice and mace as you wish. Add your currants 2 lb picked and dried well. Lay saffron as you have it in a churn of milk and lay next to the fire. Mix your dough with the warm milk strained and make flat rounds marking each with Crossed Bones in remembrance of Dead Souls. When done enough in a quick oven lay in a tall heap like the picture of the Shew Bread in the Bible. All who knock for entry and chant the rhyme may eat from the board to keep the blessings on the house.
A MODERN INTERPRETATION OF SOUL CAKES
8oz butter softened at room temperature
5oz caster sugar
2 egg yolks
12 oz plain flour
2 oz cornflour (this makes the cakes shorter)
A pinch of salt
2-3 teaspoons of spices as you have them: allspice, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, ginger
1 teaspoon baking powder
Cream together the softened butter and sugar in a mixing bowl until pale and fluffy. Gradually add the yolks to the mixture.
Sift in the flour, cornflour, salt, spices and baking powder.
Add the currants and mix together with your hands to make a smooth dough. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 180/350/gas mark 4.
Roll the dough out on a floured surface to about ¼ inch and stamp out circles.
Mark with crosses with a sharp knife.
Bake on baking sheets for about 15 minutes until golden.
Remove and cool for a few minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.