5 popular bakes and the religious stories behind them 18 October 2014

In honour of the Great British Bake Off, Laura Jones explores the little-known religious stories behind some popular breads, cakes and pastries from around the world.

Food is very easy to take for granted. And many religions recognise this, utilising the tradition of fasting to encourage adherents to remember the blessings in their food. It is also very easy to forget the rich history that lies in the origins of the food we eat. So here are some of the fascinating religious stories, some more dubious than others, behind some of the world’s popular bakes.

Croissants

CroissantButtery and delicious – the French staple. The croissant, which was thought to originate in the 19th century, is named, fairly obviously after its crescent-moon shape. It was originally based, however, on the Austrian kipferl – a crescent-shaped biscuit or pastry.

The origins of the kipferl are highly debated but one story is that in 1683 the Ottoman Turks were attempting to attack the Austrian capital, Vienna, by digging tunnels under the city. Austrian bakers, awake and at their ovens during the early hours when the tunnelling occurred, noticed the strange noises from underground. The Christian forces in Austria were informed and defeated the Turks. Thus the kipferl was invented by the Austrians in celebration of the defeat. (Apparently, eating the crescents, the symbol which also featured on Ottoman flags, was symbolic of devouring the Turks.)

Another version of the croissant’s origin dates back to 732 when the Umayyads were defeated at the Battle of Tours – again, the Muslim-crescent link is prominent and the pastries were said to be baked to commemorate the victory.

There are also a myriad of other stories associated with the kipferl’s origins but we don’t really know which, if any of them, is true. Crescent-shaped baked goods however, seem to have been around for thousands of years, some of these being made in honour of ancient Pagan gods. The kipferl has also been reported to be the inspiration behind the Jewish Ashkenazic crescent pastries called rugelach.

Challah

Challah breadChallah bread (or chollah), although not very well known, has an interesting religious significance. Challah is a Jewish plaited loaf made with a rich dough, kind of like brioche but without dairy products as this is important for certain interpretations of Jewish dietary law. Challah is traditionally eaten at Jewish Sabbath meals (Fridays and Saturdays) and holy days and is said to symbolise the mysterious heavenly food, manna, sent down by God during the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Usually two loaves are served to represent the two portions of manna sent down from heaven, and a blessing is often read over the bread.

There are many other forms of symbolism associated with challah. The plaited dough is made up of varying numbers of strands but sometimes twelve are used to symbolise the twelve tribes of Israel. A fabric cover is put over the loaves to represent the dew that settled on the manna overnight. It is also important to add salt to the dough as salt in Jewish tradition, symbolises the covenant with God.

The name ‘challah’ was given to the bread in the fifteenth century in Europe (though the delicacy stems back far longer), and literally means ‘portion’. This is because, traditionally, Jews are instructed to keep a portion of the dough aside for the Jewish priest (Kohen).

Simnel Cake

Simnel cakeA Simnel cake is a traditional British fruit cake eaten around Easter time. Though not perhaps an Easter staple yet, it seems to have made a resurgence in recent years. The cake includes two layers of marzipan and is topped with 11 marzipan balls representing Jesus’ disciples – minus Judas who was said to have betrayed Jesus. Sometimes an extra ball is added in the centre to represent Jesus himself.

The cake was traditionally baked for Laetare Sunday (also known as Refreshment Sunday or Mothering Sunday), which falls in the middle of Lent. On this day, the fasting of Lent was relaxed and thus the cake could be eaten guilt-free. It is also thought that in the 17th century, female servants would bake the cake and take it home to their mothers as a Mothering Sunday gift. Nowadays, the cake is more commonly eaten at the end of Lent during Easter celebrations.

The name ‘Simnel’ is a bit of a mystery but there are a few stories which have attempted to explain its origin. The first is that the cake was invented by Lambert Simnel, who at 10 years old challenged the throne of Henry VII. He was unsuccessful but the king sent him to work in the royal kitchens, supposedly where he invented the Simnel cake. Another story is that the cake was concocted by a brother and sister for their mother, and named ‘Simnel’ after the siblings’ names – Simon and Nell. The final theory is that ‘Simnel’ simply comes from the Latin ‘simila’ meaning very fine flour from which the cake was made.

Baklava

BaklavaMany of us may have tasted baklava from Middle-Eastern shops or restaurants. These nutty, syrup-soaked pastries, and variations of them, are eaten in various countries around the world often on special occasions and religious festivals. Though their history is sketchy and many different countries lay claim to their invention, the first creation of a simple baklava-like sweet was thought to be at around the 8th century BC in the Assyrian region. From here, they may have spread to various other countries but probably developed into the more recognisable baklava of today during the reign of the Ottoman Empire. Baklava was a dish of the royalty and elite at this time and was often baked on special occasions in the kitchens of the Topkapi Palace. The Ottomans even held a ‘baklava parade’ on the 15th Ramadan (the Islamic fasting month) where the sweets were ceremonially presented to the sultan’s soldiers.

Nowadays baklava is made and eaten on various special occasions across the world, and is no longer limited to the upper classes. In the Balkans, baklava is eaten during Christian celebrations of Pascha (the Orthodox equivalent of Easter) and Christmas, as well as for Muslims in Ramadan and Eid ul Fitr.

An Azerbaijani version of baklava is also eaten during Nowruz (Persian New Year), a festival rooted in the Zoroastrian faith but celebrated by many different religious groups. Some also say that the Greek version of the dessert should contain thirty-three layers to represent the number of years that Jesus lived.

Gateau Saint-Honoré

Gateau Saint-HonoreAnyone who watched the 2012 series of the Bake Off will have heard of this cake. But for those who didn’t, this French pastry is an elaborate construction of pastry, cream and caramel-dipped choux buns. Sounds delicious right? But did you know that the pastry is named after St Honoratius (or Saint-Honoré) who died in around 600 AD? The pastry is a relatively modern creation having thought to have been invented by a chef called Chiboust in about 1800. Chiboust’s bakery was situated on Rue Saint-Honoré – a street named after the saint in question.

And why was the delicacy named after St Honoré in particular? Well, originally he was a bishop of the Amiens region in France and the story goes that when he returned with the news of his election as bishop, his maid was in disbelief. She was in the middle of baking at the time and remarked that she wouldn’t believe the news unless the wooden tool she had been baking with grew into a tree. Sure enough, the maid’s tool was said to have miraculously sent roots into the ground and grown into a mulberry tree.

Saint-Honoré was also associated with many miracles which protected farmers and bakers from drought and in 1202 a baker built a chapel in his honour. Thus, Saint-Honoré became known as the patron saint of bakers and this is the reason why the French pastry was dedicated to him.

Culinary inheritance

All these stories (however far-fetched they may be) illustrate the important role religion has played in history and up until the present day. Religion is often said to be about giving mean and purpose to our lives, and as is demonstrated by everything from croissants to baklava, it gives meaning to our food too.

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About Laura Jones

Laura researches and writes on religion and Muslims in the UK. She recently completed a Masters in Islam in Contemporary Britain, has previously worked as a Muslim chaplain, and is contributing editor for On Religion. She has a particular interest in inter-faith relations, mental health and Muslims in the public sphere.

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