Alban Buns – do hot cross buns
originally come from St Albans?
It is the season of Lent and in a few weeks’ time it will be Easter. Visit any supermarket and you will find hot cross buns displayed in a prominent position. Nowadays they belong to Easter like Easter eggs, but where does this tradition actually come from?
According to St Albans Cathedral (the former abbey church), they were invented by a monk of abbey, brother Thomas Rocliffe, in the 14th century.[i] Brother Thomas developed the recipe and baked the buns to be distributed to the poor on Good Friday. The cross on the bun symbolises Christ’s death and resurrection. Alban Buns have continued as an Easter tradition at St Albans Cathedral ever since brother Thomas served them for the first time in 1361.
However, there are differences between brother Thomas’ buns and the commercially produced hot cross buns we see on the shelves at our local supermarket.
Some differences are obvious: they were shaped by hand, not by machines. The flour was less refined than the white flour mostly used today. Not to mention that, in the 14th century, preservatives and artificial colourants and stuff like that were unknown.
The main difference between Alban Buns and hot cross buns is the cross on the top that has been cut in the dough before baking, not piped on top. They also have a distinctive taste as they are flavoured with ‘grains of paradise’ or cardamom.
I had never heard of a spice with such a beautiful name as ‘grains of paradise’. The spice is also known as Melegueta pepper (Aframomum melegueta) and comes from western Africa. The grains are the seeds of a plant of the Zingiberaceae family, i.e. the same family as ginger or cardamom (maybe I should try to grow some in the garden!). The seeds are small, roundish and approx. 2 mm in diameter, with a hot peppery taste.
The first European reference to the spice can be found in a document from 1214. We know that grains of paradise were for sale in Lyons in 1245. The Italian traders, who had introduced the spice to the rest of Europe, had given it its name, as they had no idea where it actually came from. They had bought it at Mediterranean ports without being aware that it had been brought there along trans-saharan trade routes from the Gold Coast in western Africa. It was only in the mid-14th century that a sea trade route was established. That is when the name “Melegueta” was introduced, which comes from the Portuguese name for its country of origin which they called Terra de Malaguet. Grains of paradise was a very popular spice in the middle ages. For example it was an ingredient in the spiced wine hippocras.
While the spice was very popular in the middle ages and early modern period, by the 19th century it had been virtually forgotten. Nowadays it is considered one of the rarest spices in the world.[ii] In Australia, it is available from Herbie’s Spices.
It is closely related to cardamom, and for today’s Alban Buns cardamom is used rather than the rare – and extremely expensive – grains of paradise. Cardamom (Eletaria cardamomum) comes originally from India and Sri Lanka. Its taste is warm and pungent with a fresh top flavour, making it suitable for savoury as well as sweet dishes. It is often used in baked goods like Danish pastries as well fruit dishes. It is also essential in many curry recipes.[iii] Or you might find it in German Christmas baked goods, and it is an ingredient in chai tea.
The original recipe for the Alban Buns is kept secret. All St Albans Cathedral reveals is that the ingredients include flour, eggs, fresh yeast, currants and grains of paradise or cardamom. If you feel like trying out Alban Buns, you will have to visit The Abbot’s Kitchen, the coffee shop in the chapter house of St Albans Cathedral. They are baked by Redbournbury Mill, which was once the mill of St Albans Abbey. They are served all through Lent until Easter Monday.
I am now somewhat annoyed with myself for eating carrot cake (albeit a delicious one), when I visited The Abbot’s Kitchen during Lent a few years ago. However, I didn’t know then about Alban Buns and their historical significance. You can watch a short video clip of Canon Kevin Walton of St Albans Cathedral talking about Alban Buns and explaining their significance here.
Writing about Alban Buns and cardamom inspired me to flavour my latest batch of bread with cardamom seeds instead of my usual caraway seeds. It makes a nice change.
[i] For Alban Buns and St Albans Cathedral: ‘St Albans Cathedral and the Original Hot Cross Bun’, The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban (11 Feb. 2016). URL: https://www.stalbanscathedral.org/news/archive/2016/st-albans-abbey-and-the-original-hot-cross-bun [last accessed 17 Feb. 2016]
[ii] Hemphill, I., Spice Notes: A cook’s compendium of herbs and spices, Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd, 2000, pp.202-4
[iii] Hemphill. I., pp.104-8