Simnel cake: what it is and what's the story behind it?

Updated on 28 March 2017 | 0 Comments

Glyn Hughes takes a look back at two thousand years of this curious English springtime cake, and the legends that go with it.

Springtime is when the world comes back to life. In the ancient Anglo-Saxon tradition, it is when Eostre, the Goddess of Spring, returned to the earth. And how else would you welcome an old friend back, but with a nice cake?

Simnel cake bread

The name 'simnel' probably comes from the ancient Roman 'simila', meaning 'fine flour' (as does 'semolina'). Simple, everyday, cakes of 'simnel bread' have been known in England at least since the 13th Century, and are always described as being boiled as well as baked. We don't know quite what they tasted like, but we do know that, around the time of Queen Elizabeth I, fancy simnel cakes came to be associated with springtime – they turn up in celebrations of Mothering Sunday, Easter, or the day-off from the religious fast of Lent known as 'Refreshment Sunday'. Different regions used to have different versions. I've listed several versions you can choose from below.

Devizes star simnel

The Devizes Simnel Cake was made with currants and lemon peel, coloured golden with saffron and always made in a star shape, 'boiled, baked and glazed'. The Wiltshire Heritage Museum still have an original recipe.

Shrewsbury simnel cake

Shrewsbury's Simnel Cake, famous in its day, was also a light fruit cake with saffron, boiled and baked. But this one was round, with marzipan in the centre and decorated on top with a circle of points. 

Bury simnel cake

Most famous of all is the 'Bury Simnel' named after the town in Lancashire. A rich fruit cake made with nuts, cherries and peel, iced on top and always decorated with eleven sugar balls. Why eleven? Well, they might represent Christ's eleven Good Apostles. But, as with most Simnel traditions, who knows?

The legend of Simon and Nell

If you like tall tales, they don't come much taller than this 1810 story from Wiltshire. Long ago there lived an honest old couple, boasting the names of Simon and Nelly, who, one Easter, found their household with a surplus piece of dough. They argued and fought over what to do with it – Simon wanted to boil it, and Nelly to bake it. In the end, they compromised and did both so that their invention became known as the cake of Simon and Nelly … Sim-Nel, or Simnel!

Your simnel cake

Try Lisa Faulkner's simnel cake, chock-a-block with marzipan and fruit, and cheekily drenched in brandy. But nobody is going to stop you creating your own simnel tradition. Perhaps a reliable Victoria Sponge? Maybe James Ramsden's five minute version, or even one of those no-bake refrigerator cakes. As long as it welcomes springtime, you can make it just how you like.

This is a classic loveFOOD article

And some more things to welcome in spring:

The history of Easter eggs

Top recipes to make this Easter

Hot cross buns recipe


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