Ginger and Acacia Honey Buns? It’s against nature
True, there are still bakers, as readers will write to tell me, that open on Good Friday morning so that loyal customers seeking the echt bun can get the beauty of it hot. But in reality hot cross is a sort of compound designation. It sounds odd if you just speak of a cross bun, as though you had put it into a bad humour. Yet “tea and cross buns” were what James Boswell found for breakfast when he went to visit Samuel Johnson on April 9 1773. This is one of our earliest references to the things. It wasn’t that Johnson was pigging out on chocolate-chunk buns. Tea and buns were all he was to eat that day, kept as a solemn fast. Instead of dinner he read the Greek New Testament while the less serious-minded Boswell entertained himself turning over Johnson’s books.
I’m not insisting on buns as a method of strict ascesis, like wearing a hair-shirt or sitting for years on a pillar. Yet, by a paradox, buns have become less pleasurable by assuming the qualities of a luxury. When everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody, and when everything’s a luxury it’s goodbye to the pleasure of a good plain repast. There’s nothing better than Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade, but you can only enjoy it if you know what toast tastes like without it, which is to say, perfectly nice, especially if you’re hungry.
But we find packets of hot cross buns for sale all year round labelled “Luxury” and so full of raisins and sultanas that they slump under the weight. The objection to their all-year availability is different from the argument against asparagus being flown from Peru, for it is not as if buns ripened perfectly only during a few brief days of Easter sunshine.
The most surprising discovery, though, is that a solid body of enmity to the hot cross bun is motivated by the weirdest notion: that the hot cross bun is pagan. Now there are plenty of baseless claims by so-called pagans that they invented Hallowe’en and Easter without encouraging them to pretend they invented buns too. Yet that is what some believe.
Did this lot really come up with the hot cross bun?
It’s quite daft really, being based on an erroneous claim by a Georgian antiquary about the origin of the word bun. The Rev John Brand said it derived from the Greek boun, as if it meant a cow, for it was, he said, originally a little cake with horns on that was offered to the gods. In truth we only started calling buns buns in Chaucer’s day, hundreds of years after the old gods died out for want of offerings. The word is not Greek at all, though it might just be related to the French beignet and the Spanish word buñuelo. If you wanted an item of patisserie to offer the gods, you’d be better off with the croissant, shaped like the emblem of the Moon-goddess Diana or Ashteroth the Canaanite horned idol. That is not, of course how the croissant got its shape, any more than it was first made to celebrate the defeat of the forces of Islam at the gates of Vienna in 1689. It’s just that once something gets on to the internet some people feel compelled to believe it.
No one invented hot cross buns, just as no one invented roast pork, despite Charles Lamb’s rather arch essay tracing its origins to a fire in a Chinese piggery. I rather think I’ve seen a mural of ancient Roman buns with crosses on, made BC, so definitely not Christian. It’s a natural sort of way to divide up dough. But buns with crosses on were not the same as cross buns.
Hot cross buns are a British institution, like Remembrance poppies and Belisha beacons. Buns for Good Friday can hardly date from before the Reformation, when conventions of fasting were stricter. Hot cross buns qualify as immemorial mostly because they figure in a nursery rhyme: “One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns.”
The rhyme doesn’t say: “Belgian chocolate and toffee fudge hot cross buns.” The best poetry does not reflect the exceptional – the riches of Croesus or the loves of Heliogabalus. It distils the simple: water and stone, fire and night, marriage and death. It celebrates the two-a-penny, and that’s how I like my hot cross buns.