The Ceremonial Tradition of The Easter Bread
Master Baker Michael Hanson talks about the importance of Easter and the tradition of ceremonial bread offerings
Words – Daniel Etherington
For long ages, this time of year, when the plants and trees wake up, has been important for northern hemisphere cultures. It’s something we continue to celebrate with Easter.
“Easter for me is that special time in the year. It’s Beltane coming up. It’s that moment when you really feel like you’re coming out of winter. Spring is properly sprung,” says Michael.
Beltane, now celebrated on 1 May, was the festival that marked the start of the summer in the Celtic calendar. It was a time to celebrate new life, rebirth, fertility. And these factors were folded into the Christian Easter, when Christ was reborn.
The very name Easter comes from pre-Christian traditions, either from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Ēostre or even the Babylonian goddess Ishtar (though the latter is much debated). Both can be seen as personifications of the archetypal goddess, associated in so many cultures with fertility in general and grain specifically. When humanity left behind hunter-gathering and settled into a new agricultural life in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, paying respect to the goddess, and being thankful for the all-important grain, was at the heart of beliefs. Prior to the emergence of the Abrahamic religions, Michael says, “bread was always the main offering. There’s a very ancient history of using grain as an offering, which is why Jesus chose to say that the bread was his body.”
Michael has previously revisited these ancient traditions with his creation of special breads at Easter, large ring-shaped loaves with eggs in the centre. “The ceremonial bread is made as an offering,” he explains. “It’s a way of saying thank you to the earth for its bounty, for getting you through the winter. An offering has to be something that you would miss when you gave it up, something that you treasure. If you’ve got your last half a dozen eggs, or last block of butter, it’s very very special to bake it and offer it up as a communal offering.”
The inclusion of a eggs in the loaves “is like a double celebration, you’re making a sacred loaf, and you’re putting a sacred egg in it.” Eggs, like grain and dough, have potent and long-standing symbolism. “What’s happened over maybe the last 500 years is there’s been a coming together of the egg as a sacred offering and the bread,” explains Michael “Eggs are the symbol of fertility and rebirth and renewal, which is what Easter is.”
The ostrich egg-size centres of Michael’s loaves “were made in a sacred way too. They’re clay eggs. Olly, the ceramicist, built a wood-fired kiln, dug up the clay near Lewes and fired the eggs, continually being there for three days feeding the fire.” Interestingly, the resulting loaves resemble Easter breads made in various other cultures, notably the Neapolitan casatiello, which has whole eggs baked into it.
“I’d never seen this idea of a bread with an egg in it,” says Michael, who first made these loaves last year, “but I always remember at Easter when I was a child we used to make these cakes and put the sugar eggs on the top.” So even in Britain we have a traditional of Easter baked goods that combine the grain and the egg. We also have the simnel cake, with its 12 balls of marzipans. “They’re round balls, but they should be eggs,” says Michael.
For many Brits, however, the quintessential Lenten and Easter baked product is the hot cross bun. “Working in a bakery from the age of seven, eight, one of my jobs was also putting the crosses on the hot-cross buns,” Michael recalls. “In my grandfather’s bakery, we used have little stainless steel crosses. Every bun would have a little cross on the top before it went in the oven. Then when they get baked you take the cross off and there’s a white line underneath, because it doesn’t colour. So there were thousands of these little crosses.”
Coming from three generations of bakers, Michael’s seen the hot cross bun change over the years. “Then the next stage, in my father’s bakery, was rice paper crosses. You used to stick them onto the hot cross buns. Then the progression after that was piping on the batter. My childhood was imbued with this sense of something special at Easter, but coming from a non-religious household there was never any ceremony. I felt a long time ago that what’s missing in modern culture is ceremony and ritual. So part of my baking is about the ritual and ceremony. And if at certain times of the year I can make a sacred loaf, then that’s enough for me.”