Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Funeral Bread.

January 16

Once upon a time there were far more traditional foods consumed on particular days. Only Christmas Cake and Easter Eggs remain with fragile certainty. Who has Black Bun at Hogmanay, or Simnel Cake on Mothering Sunday anymore? And our local supermarket – the Twelve Days of Christmas barely over and some folk still tardy with removing the tinsel from the house – has Hot Cross Buns already! What is the traditional food world coming to? Food Things Fall Apart, and I am not happy about it.

As for the personal celebrations and milestones, even the white iced wedding cake can no longer be assumed, it has been usurped by chocolate mud cake and pyramids of vegan cupcakes and the like. And does anyone offer Groaning Cake and Groaning Cheese anymore, when the lady of the house has just been safely confined? And at the other end of life, where is the funeral bread?

The son of George Browne of England made a fine funeral feast for his father on this day in 1702. The expenses were not insignificant; amongst other costs there was five shillings to the preacher (only one for the doctor), two shillings to the two women “for winding him” (and a whopping nine shillings and fivepence for the 5 ½ yard winding sheet), but only 6 pence for the coffin. Browne Jnr. did not leave a bill of fare for the dinner, but noted the cost of the cheese, beef, bacon, veal, and mutton purchased. The most important and pricey item was the Arval bread at a cost of 16 shillings for ‘16 dozen at 14 to the dozen whole loaves.’

Arval bread was a type of bread provided at funerals, particularly in the North of England. No doubt it was different from region to region, as it is variously described as a ‘particular kind of loaf’, ‘a thin, light and sweet cake’, a ‘funeral loaf spiced with spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar, and raisins, and ‘a coarse cake, composed of flour, water, yeast, currants, and some kind of spice; in form round, about eight inches in diameter, and the upper surface scored, perhaps exhibiting originally the sign of the cross.’ Remember, this was a century and a half before baking powder was developed, and a ‘cake’ was a sweet, fruity bread dough – which is why it was sometimes called Arval Cake. It was provided not just as sustenance at the wake, but mourners were given it to take home, and it was also distributed to the poor.

The word ‘arval’ is connected with ideas of kinship and inheritance - including inherited obligations and responsibilities. The arval dinner and arval bread were intended (according to Hazlitt) ‘to exculpate the heir and those entitled to the possessions of the deceased from fines and mulcts to the Lord of the Manor, and from all accusations of having used violence; so that the persons then convened might avouch that the person died fairly and without any personal injury.’ A heavy responsibility for a loaf of bread. The world should not have gotten rid of such a useful food.

There is then, no single, inviolable recipe for arval bread, but I offer you one from George Browne’s era that I am sure would do quite nicely. It is from The pastry-cook’s vade-mecum: or, a pocket-companion for cooks, house-keepers, country gentlewomen, &c. ... as also the art of distilling and surgery (1705).

To make Cake Bread.
Take to half a peck of Flower three pounds of Currants, rub’d dry in a Cloth, one pound and a half of Butter, half a pound of Sugar, a pretty deal of Cinnamon, half an ounce of Nutmeg, as much Mace, a good quantity of Ale-yest, and mix some Sack in it, temper all these with old Cream, and your Butter must be put in cold, temper it somewhat stiff, and let it lie half an hour to rise, then take a brown Paper and Butter it very well, and strow it well with Flower, and lay it under the Cake, then take Butter and a little Rosewater beaten well together, and wash your Cake over, and strow it well with Sugar before you set it in the Oven. Let your Oven be well heated.

Tomorrow’s Story …

An unfortunate invitation.

Quotation for the Day …

… I shall not hear your trentals*,
Nor eat your arval bread;
For the kin of you will surely do
Their duty by the dead.

… I shall not hear your trentals,
Nor eat your arval bread;
Nor with smug breath tell lies of death
To the unanswering dead.

Two verses from: Lines Written in the Belief that the Ancient Roman Festival of the Dead was called Ambarvalia, by Rupert Brooke.

*trental = A set of thirty requiem masses, said on the same day or on different days (OED).


Edi said...

Have you tried the Funeral Bread - I'm curious to know what it would taste like - it does sound good.

Unknown said...

Similar, yet different: Hours after my father died, my mother and I were standing in Zabar's [the famous Manhatten "appetizing store"] and I said, "A house of mourning requires babka." So chocolate babka was this New York Jew's arval bread. It was not regarded as proving anything about the circumstances of the death, or paying off debts however.