In the North of England there is a longstanding tradition of eating gingerbread on the anniversary of the attempt in 1605 to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The version of gingerbread which is best known in association with the night of the Gunpowder Plot is made with oatmeal, and is called ‘parkin’. On a previous Bonfire Night (as it is also called) I wrote about parkin (see the links after this post) but today I want to explore the tradition a little further.
The roots of the tradition appear to go back to ancient times, and likely have pagan origins. A Victorian text suggests that parkin has evolved from an ancient ‘bread’ called tharcake which has a connection with Norse mythology.
From Old English Customs Extant at the Present Time (1896):
In Lancashire, in the neighbourhood of Oldham, it is still the custom at the beginning of November to make what is called Harcake. The origin of this custom is lost in the mists of antiquity. It is probably a relic of an ancient pagan festival. Har was one of the names of Odin, and the word appears in many place-names in the neighbourhood, e.g. Harrof, Hargrave, Hargate, &c. In this making of harcake there is doubtless preserved the memorial of an old Norse festival.
In Nodal and Milner*s "Lancashire Glossary” the word is given as Tharcake ; but this need not sever its connection with Northern mythology, as Tharcake or Thor-cake suggests the name of the deity in whose honour the special cake was eaten. It is a kind of oatmeal gingerbread, made of meal, treacle, and butter, and is sometimes called parkins.
The word ‘tharf’ is said by the Oxford English Dictionary to mean ‘unleavened, unsoured’ and written usage is recorded from the tenth century.
On tharf-cake, the OED says:
A cake of unleavened bread; now spec. a flat circular cake of oat-, rye-, or barley-meal, unleavened, and sometimes flavoured with butter and treacle; in the latter case = parkin n.
The first written reference to tharf-cake is given as appearing in Piers Plowman (c. 1362)
A þerf Cake, And a lof of Benes and Bren I-Bake for my Children
So far we have two theories as to the origin of tharf-cake: it was named for the Norse god Thor, or it simply means unleavened. There are a couple of other theories in relation to associated words:
- Tharf is an old Saxon word meaning ‘need, necessity’ (OED): written reference from the ninth century.
- Tharf-cake is a corruption of hearth-cake (several references, but no evidence that I can find.)
Well, I think we have established the antiquity of tharf-cake, although we are a long way from establishing the process by which a cake of unleavened bread became sweet, treacly, oatmeal gingerbread.
I give you a couple of recipes for ginger nuts as a change from parkin for your November 5th celebrations:
Gingerbread Nuts – The Yorkshire Receipt.
Mix half a pound of flour, the same quantity of butter and of brown sugar, with three ounces of ginger, with as much treacle as will make it into a paste. Roll it out thin, and bake for about twenty minutes in a slow oven.
Gingerbread Nuts – the Suffolk Receipt.
Put a pound of brown sugar, and a pound of honey, with half the rind of a lemon grated, into a saucepan, and simmer them well together; then add four ounces of good fresh butter and one ounce of ginger; mix the whole with two pounds of flour.
N.B These receipts come with extraordinary recommendations.
A new system of domestic cookery ... By M. E. Rundell (66e., London,1843)
Previous ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ posts: