friday feast: i love me some little cakes

From Denslow’s Mother Goose, 1902.

While reading up on Medieval/Elizabethan food for Shakespeare’s birthday yesterday, some very fetching banbury cakes insisted that I pay attention to them.

Naturally, I was reminded of the English nursery rhyme, and the time Len and I traveled to Banbury for a taste of those famous cakes. Food, you see, is always the great motivator.

First, a little about the rhyme, which in the version I’m most familiar with, cites a “fine lady,” rather than an old one. It’s widely held that she’s Queen Elizabeth I, who traveled to Banbury to visit a stone cross that had just been erected. The town is located at the top of a steep hill, so a large white stallion was often used to help carriages up.

photo of “Fine Lady” by Jim Linwood.

Seems a wheel broke on the Queen’s carriage, so she was obliged to mount the horse and ride to the cross. The town had decorated the horse with lovely ribbons and bells, and minstrels accompanied her (“she shall have music wherever she goes”). Unfortunately, the original Banbury Cross was destroyed by Puritans in 1602, but another replaced it in 1859:

This was built to commemorate the marriage of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter to Prince Frederick of Prussia (photo by Running in Suffolk).

*rubs hands together and licks lips*

Now, for the cakes. They date back to the 13th century, when returning Crusaders brought back fruit and spices from the Near East. The Elizabethans were sugar crazy, and the Queen’s legendary sweet tooth turned her set of chompers black. During Shakespeare’s time, Banbury was widely known for its cheese and cakes. It is believed that poet and dramatist, Ben Jonson, attended the Banbury Fair (famous in England for centuries), and while there, visited the bakehouse, and chatted with the owner, Richard Busby. Not too long after, Jonson wrote his famous comedy, “Bartholomew Fair,” where the cakes are mentioned by the character Quarlous:

I remember that, too, out of a scruple he took that, in spiced conscience, those cakes he made were served to bridals, may-poles, morrises and such profane feasts and meetings.

Original Cake Shop, 1902.

There is evidence of a pre-existing bakehouse dating back to the 13th century in the same location where the present day “Original Cake Shop,” (circa 1550), now stands. Ownership changed hands through the years, but the family of E.W. Brown has been associated with the “Original Banbury Cake” since 1868. Apparently the cakes are still baked by hand, according to the family’s secret, historic recipe, under the supervision of Philip Brown.

from “Memories of Banbury” by Marjory Lester.

Just what are these famous cakes like? They’re puff pastry, usually oval shaped, filled with currants, other fruits, flavorings, spices, and sprinkled with cane sugar. I vaguely remember eating mine while standing on some sort of foot bridge. It was so long ago that I thought maybe I had imagined it. I asked Len the other night (he of the exacting memory) — and sure enough, he remembers buying them warm from the bake shop and biting into the currant filling.

Brown’s Original Banbury Cakes

Well, now, since it was so long ago and all this talk has me craving these little cakes (and because Mr. Shakespeare would have approved), I’m going to order some from Mr. Brown and try them again. The Original Cake Shop apparently ships them worldwide, as they have since the 18th century. Once again, I’ll keep you posted!

Meanwhile, here’s another poetic morsel to tide you over:

~ poem image from The Ancient Brit’s photostream.

Lisa Chellman has trays of freshly baked poems in her cupboard today at Under the Covers. Stop in and sample as many as you like!

Several juicy morsels for the road:

Elizabethans considered sugar an aphrodisiac. A nobleman’s meal always ended with a sweet course, called “The Banquet.” It was designed to “moveth pleasure and lust of the body.”

Sweets were often served on plates, called “roundels” or “banqueting dishes,” which had an image or poem on them. Often these poems contained sexual innuendos and double entendres.

During Shakespeare’s time, sonnets were all the rage. Poems were sometimes baked into walnut-sized pastries — sort of like modern day fortune cookies.

*fans self*

Here’s a recipe for banbury cakes (sshhh! don’t tell Mr. Brown).


A very special Happy Birthday to Sara Lewis Holmes, Poetry Princess and novelist extraordinaire! As I said before, April is a good month for poetry — Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Walter de la Mare, and Lee Bennett Hopkins were all born in April, along with three Poetry Princesses: Sara, Kelly Fineman and Liz Scanlon!

“A Shoe Sonnet for Sara” (cake of choice for runway writers).
photo by Sandra socake.

“Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross,
To see what Tommy will buy.
A little white loaf and a little white cake,
And a tupenny apple pie.”

22 thoughts on “friday feast: i love me some little cakes

  1. not so random commenter

    oh man, I love that old rhyme, I had a kids tape of music that had it sent to music and now I can’t get it out of my head :0)


  2. I love traditions like this, where a big to-do is made of everything from the recipe to the dish on which the confections are served. Attention to detail, down to the last crumb!


  3. Oh, I love that little poem & love hearing all about it. When I took a world geography class at IU a few years back, our final was to give a 10 minute presentation to the class about a virtual trip that we had taken to three different cities. I overdid as usual… my 3 cities were Bath, Southampton and and 8-day walk to Eastborne on the South Downs. I showed up in class with fifty Bath Buns that I’d baked to pass around to the students during my presentation. I got an A (even though the prof refused the bun…it could have been construed as a bribe!)


  4. 50 Bath buns? Yum!! I’ve been to Bath — really cool. I was interested in going there after reading Georgette Heyer novels. The Royal Crescent is beautiful. My mind is fuzzy over Southhampton — I’m thinking it was often mentioned in the TV series, “Upstairs, Downstairs.” Never been to Eastborne.


  5. Banbury Cross & Banbury Cakes

    Elaine M.

    I always enjoy reading your posts about food–especially when you include tidbits of information about history and/or literature in them.

    I think my husband and I may have driven through Banbury Cross when we motored through England and Scotland in 1972. I’m can’t be positive, though, because it was so long ago.

    Happy Birthday to all our April poets!


  6. I chose my virtual trip to these places because of Jane Austen mostly – Chawton is near Southampton & of course, she mentions Bath often in her writings. Eastborne was not really a destination for me, other than that it is at the end of the South Downs trail – and that was a large part of my virtual adventure! Imagine hiking through the English Countryside – aaaah! I want to actually take the trip now! LOL!


  7. Oh, little red shoe!
    Oh, little red shoe!
    I love you, I do!
    (And the sweets beneath you too.)

    I think that ditty would fit in a walnut. Or on a plate.

    Thanks for making me smile today.


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