Why do we eat the foods we eat at Easter?

KATE RYAN looks at the symbolism and folklore surrounding the food we eat at Easter
Why do we eat the foods we eat at Easter?

Homemade Easter traditional hot cross buns.

RABBITS, lambs, eggs, cakes, and buns – all recognisable as delicious foods we feast upon during Easter. But why these foods in particular? What do they mean, and are there others that have fallen out of fashion and favour?

Like all our big feast days, they may be celebrated as important dates on the Christian calendar but have their origins in a mix of old pagan and Celtic observances with a good dash of folklore in there for good measure, too!

Easter is our only moveable feast day coinciding with the Spring equinox between the Celtic feast days of Imbolc (St Brigid’s Day) and Bealtaine (May Day). The origins of Easter are said to be the Saxon goddess of fertility and rebirth, Eostre. As Christianity established in Ireland, the church brought together the ancient Gaelic, Celtic and Saxon beliefs with their themes of life, fertility, death and rebirth, and enfolded them within Christian teachings of Jesus Christ, his death and rebirth.

Kate Ryan, of www.flavour.ie/
Kate Ryan, of www.flavour.ie/

The myriad symbolisms and important feasting rituals were combined also, and a complicated, intermingling coda of characters and emblems were squashed into a box called Easter. That’s why we have Easter bunnies (Lutheran), eggs (Celtic), hot cross buns (Saxon), and simnel cake (Christian) all taking pride of place during our celebrations. Chocolate is incidental, I’m sorry to say, but I’m very much in favour of bringing back the Easter Cake Dance - more on that later!

So, what are the hidden meanings behind the foods we eat at Easter?

Eggs

Easter is about fecundity and the promise of better times ahead. The spring equinox marks when the day becomes longer than the night. We can look forward to warmer and abundant days.

This would have been especially important for our ancestors for whom food and survival was a matter of what could be produced from the land. The beginning of summertime marked the end of lean times and when the farming year would enter its most productive time.

Eggs, therefore, are the overt symbol of fertility, the hope and expectation of an abundant year ahead. A new food season meant health, vitality, and virility – a great time to think about growing the family perhaps? In both pre-Christian and Christian times, the egg represented resurrection and new life.

In Ireland, any eggs laid on Good Friday were marked with an X and kept until Easter Sunday marking the end of Lent. These days, we tend to gorge ourselves on eggs of the chocolate variety instead; but the tradition of painting eggs is long rooted in Ireland when dyes were made from wild plants and herbs and hidden for children to find.

Wherever the May Bush tradition was practiced, the painted eggs shells from Good Friday eggs eaten on Easter Sunday were saved and used to decorate the May Bush.

In Cork, a unique practice for preserving eggs is to butter them. Cork-based Culinary Historian, Regina Sexton, says in her book A Little History of Irish Food: “Just three ingredients are required for the successful preparation; freshly laid hot eggs, fresh unsalted butter and a speedy dexterous pair of hands.”

At one time, buttered eggs could still be got from The English Market, but sadly I think the practice is dying out. Should you have hens at home, maybe this is something you could try yourself? Eggs can keep for up to six months; the taste is supposed to be quite something indeed!

Spring lambs are a sign of better food days to come.
Spring lambs are a sign of better food days to come.

Lamb

Lambs embody a bucolic notion of fertility, and after a long winter living off salted bacon flitches, a taste of fresh spring lamb is a sign of better food days to come! Spring lambs are usually ready at 12-14 weeks fitting practically with Easter’s annual move about the calendar. Any later, and spring lamb will start to lose it sweetness developing deeper, gamier flavours of late season lamb. Salt marsh lamb is particularly sought after for its delicate flavour, and perfect served with a fresh mint sauce.

We are waiting for the Easter bunny...
We are waiting for the Easter bunny...

Rabbits

Rabbits have little to do with Easter feasting – it is the wrong time of year to eat them – but the Easter Bunny has its origins in Germany, specifically for Lutherans. The Easter Bunny is a similar figure to St Nicholas or Father Christmas, checking in with children to see if they have been good and providing gifts to those who have been. The Easter Bunny even carries eggs dyed bright red.

In Irish folklore and superstition, however, native hares were regarded as harbingers of bad things. Easter is situated mid-way between the traditional peak dairying season bookended by Imbolc and Bealtaine. Folklore views hares as shapeshifters that threaten to steal vital butter profits, (the cream), from milk and magicking away the ability to make valuable butter.

Hot Cross Buns

These sweet and spiced buns with their white cross of flour paste are said to represent the cross that Christ died upon, and the spices those used to protect his body after he died. But there is an alternative symbolism associated with Eostre: the four quarters of the cross representing the four phases of the moon.

In Ireland, there is an affinity for using spices in festive cakes. This is especially true in Cork, with its history as a trading port with links to spice producing countries, resulting in famous delicacies such as spiced beef, blood puddings, and seed cake. The use of sugar, spice and dried fruits were exotics and only purchased at special times of the year, notably Easter and Christmas; the cost out of the reach of ordinary people in times gone by.

Simnel Cake.
Simnel Cake.

Simnel Cake

A rich fruit cake flavoured with spices with a thick layer of almond paste in the middle, decorated with a cloak of almond paste and crowned with eleven spheres of yet more almond paste, this cake is an imported tradition from England and most likely copied from grand houses of the landed gentry. The 11 balls of almond paste represent apostles – 12, minus one for Judas who betrayed Jesus.

Heavy fruit cakes have fallen out of fashion, and with it some other uniquely Irish traditions. One such is The Cake Dance which would take place on Easter Sunday. A simnel cake was placed on white cloth on top of the butter churn and people would come and dance. Sometimes the cake would be used to foretell a marriage. Almost every Irish festival day has marriage folklore ritual attributed to it, and it seems Easter was no different.

If you’re not a fan of marzipan, this cake will not be for you! I made a simnel cake once – it took forever. Like Christmas cake, it has a vast array of ingredients, benefits from time after baking to cure, and then there’s the small matter of making the almond paste itself. It’s a hale and hearty cake, dense and delicious. Perfect with a cup of tea…

The Irish custom for tea... where did it come from?
The Irish custom for tea... where did it come from?

Tea

The Irish custom for tea and cake is a relic from a time when, for working classes, such things were luxuries. In Margaret Hickey’s book, Ireland’s Green Larder, she recounts a tale from an elderly gentleman from the west of Ireland who said an ounce of tea would be bought at Christmas and “whatever they had left over, they’d keep it in their pocket until Easter.”

Nothing makes fruit cake sing to its full potential than when served with a pot of freshly brewed tea!

Wild Plants

Medical herbalist, Rosarie Kingston, in her book Ireland’s Hidden Medicine says “dandelions, chickweed, plantain and sweet violet” are the wild plants most associated with spring. Dandelion petals make great wine, and the delicately perfumed purple flowers of our wild sweet violets can be candied and used to decorate sweet cakes or made into a syrup “to soothe a cough.”

Whatever graces your Easter feast this year, now you’ll know why each dish has it place at the table… Happy Easter!

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