Sunday, 27 March 2005

More about Easter

The erudite Grumio reminds us that, in addition to chocolate and rabbits, this is also a time when Hot Cross Buns are much in our thoughts. A recent poll has revealed that there is widespread ignorance about the significance of the Easter festival, so here are some notes on its third important feature.

Although they have been a Lenten and Good Friday tradition for centuries, Hot Cross Buns were not always associated with Christianity. Their origins lie in the pagan traditions of ancient cultures, with the cross representing the four quarters of the moon. During early missionary efforts, the Christian church adopted the buns and re-interpreted the icing cross. In the years that followed, many customs, traditions, superstitions, and claims of healing and protection from evil were associated with the buns. In the 16th century, Roman Catholicism was banned, but the popularity of Hot Cross buns continued.

So much for what goes on in England (and, for all I know, the Solomon Islands, the USA and other former colonies and protectorates). It has to be said that chocolate eggs, bunnies and buns are nothing to get excited about and can hardly sustain our interest (or, indeed, satisfy our appetites) for a whole weekend, and in other countries they do rather better.

In Russia, for example, the traditional Easter foods are a nut and fruit filled yeast cake called kulich and an accompanying sweet cheese spread called paskha. The recipes for these are involved and time-consuming: the classic kulich was begun several days before Easter; it contained candied fruit, almonds, and raisins, and was always baked in a special kind of tall cylindrical pan. When the cake was done, it was decorated with white frosting drizzled down the sides. On the side, spelled out in pieces of candied fruit, were the letters XB, representing the Cyrillic letters for Christos voskres - "Christ is risen."

Next to the cake was the paskha, carefully moulded in a triangular shape and also inscribed with the letters "XB". Creating this delight took hours: it meant weighing down "pot cheese" with a heavy board to drain the moisture and then pressing it though a sieve before the other ingredients - nuts and fruits, vanilla flavouring and sugar - were added.

It all sounds like hard work, but much more fun than dreary buns and foil-wrapped chocolate eggs.

2 comments:

Grumio said...

We have chosen variants of the traditional here this year. I started with some excellent kulwushkur (and one or two boukaj (the cashew ones, not pistachio)) and tonight the rumour is lemon sole.

After Mass, of course.

The Continental Op said...

By far the least appetizing Easter delicacy of which I'm aware comes from my former home of Pennsylvania. Candymaker "Just Born" markets an inexplicably popular confection called "Marshmallow Peeps" -- revolting little yellow chicks.

Not a food, but an odd Easter custom: In the Czech lands, during the week or so before Easter, street vendors (mostly elderly woman, as I recall) sell braided twigs festooned with ribbons. On Easter, men use these switches to swat their wives/girlfriends on the rump, after which, the women dump buckets of water on the men. I'm told this derives from some old Bohemian fertility ritual, though I can't for the life of me see how it could possibly lead to procreation.