Cake, Caraway and Commemoration

A commonplace book typically includes notes and passages from literature compiled as work of reference. Manuscript R.2.45 is an example of this kind of memoranda and was probably put together by the printer William Bowyer (1699–1777) sometime in the 1750s. This is a very personal miscellany including many ‘stories’, description of the parts of a carriage (2v), lists of plants (6v), humorous sayings (10r), epitaphs (20r), reading notes (21v) and details of treaties (27r).

R.2.45, f.5v-6r

There are also several recipes – many for shoe blacking (16r) – and for various ailments and illnesses including for scurvy (4r), the bite of a mad dog (6r) and stomach upsets (16v). Other recipes are for barley water (13v), a curry from Governor Pitt’s cook and, on folio 12r, for a seed cake.

Traditionally this cake may have been served to agricultural workers at a feast to reward them after sowing perhaps around this time of year for spring sowing or later in the year when wheat was planted.

Man sowing. Detail from a Book of Hours: B.11.31, f.10r

Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (1552) suggests that at the end of wheat sowing in Essex and Suffolk, workers were treated to seed cake.

Wife, some time this weeke, if the wether hold cleere,
an end of wheat sowing we make for this yeere.
Remember you therefore though I doo it not:
the seede Cake, the Pasties, and Furmentie pot. (90/7)

The recipe in this manuscript is regional; it calls for Hertfordshire flour, but the classic ingredient of a seedcake is caraway seeds. Used as a spice for flavouring, the seeds are actually the split halves of the dried fruit.

Recipe for Seed Cake: R.2.45, f.12r

Caraway may be the oldest cultivated spice plant of Europe. It is mentioned by Shakespeare in Henry IV, part 2 in act 5, scene 3 when Justice Shallow says

Nay, you shall see my orchard, where, in an arbor, we will eat a last year’s pippin of mine own graffing, with a dish of caraways, and so forth (The Riverside Shakespeare, p.961)

This pairing of apples with caraway was also served at Trinity College in the sixteenth century. For example in the earliest Senior Bursar’s audit book (1547) under the heading of ‘Extraordinary expenses’:

‘Item for wyne and appelles and carawayes at the dynner and bever of Kyng Edward, iij s. vj d.’

Senior Bursar’s Accounts, 1547

A bever is a drink or small meal usually served between dinner and supper. This occasion was to celebrate the accession of King Edward VI following the death of his father Henry VIII. The preceding entry refers to a dirige (a service or feast for the dead) for King Henry.

Later apples and caraway were traditionally served at Trinity College as part of the audit feast. This was the occasion when the Master and Fellows would inspect the College accounts and was traditionally followed by a Feast where a specially-brewed audit ale was served. Audit ales are not particular to Trinity College, but to most Oxbridge Colleges as a tradition which began in the 14th century and continued until well into the 20th.

Menu for the Audit Feast, 1937 including baked apples served with comfits.

The menu for the Audit Feast of 1937 included baked apples served with comfits. A comfit is a seed or a nut coated in sugar. These sweets were often made with caraway seeds and were used as an aid to digestion. A recipe for making comfits can be found in a manuscript which was probably assembled in the 15th century and is in the British Library’s digitised collection (Harley MS 2378, ff155r-156).

Seed cake is served on another annual Cambridge occasion: Mere’s Commemoration. This is a sermon that nowadays is given on on the first Tuesday of the first full week of Easter Term. The service commemorates benefactor John Mere who died in 1558. He was was Esquire Bedell (a ceremonial role) and Registrary (the senior administrative officer) of the University of Cambridge. Because of the strong links between Corpus Christi College (of which Mere was a member) and St Bene’t’s, Corpus Christi College appoints the preacher and traditionally offers refreshment – seed cake with madeira wine – to those attending. This year’s commemoration takes place on Tuesday 26 April.

A slice of the Seed Cake baked by a member of the Library staff (to mixed reviews!)

Transcription for the Receipt for a Seed Cake, c.1750.

Take 12oz of the best Hertfordshire Flower, 12oz loaf Sugar powdered, set them both to the fire to be dry and hot, then take 12 Eggs, take out 4 whites, beat them well with a whisk till they are all of a froth, the put in the Sugar and beat it first, then the Flower & beat it up for 3/4 of an hour, then put in a glass of Brandy, a little Rose and Orange flower waters & 1/2 oz of Caraway Seeds, keep beating till it is set in the Oven, an hour bakes it.




One thought on “Cake, Caraway and Commemoration

  1. annmariewall

    Thank you!

    On Wed, Mar 30, 2022 at 4:02 PM Trinity College Library, Cambridge wrote:

    > trinitycollegelibrary1695 posted: “A commonplace book typically includes > notes and passages from literature compiled as work of reference. > Manuscript R.2.45 is an example of this kind of memoranda and was probably > put together by the printer William Bowyer (1699–1777) sometime in the > 1750s” >

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