This traditional dried fruit and almond filled pastry was eaten all over Suffolk and Essex and takes just a few minutes to make. Mentioned by Chaucer and part of a town ritual for the last four hundred years, it deserves to be eaten more widely.
Wandering around Saffron Walden some fifteen years ago I came across a trove of old cookery books in one of the second hand bookshops the town used to be known for, and now sadly closed down alongside many others. One of the books I bought contained a wealth of old East Anglian recipes including an intriguing one which mentioned the ‘Bury St Edmunds Kitchel.’ Unfortunately a lot of the pages were missing and I only read half of the story, then I lent the book out and never got it back. Then more time passed and apart from the occasional impulse to do some further research into this mysterious pastry that bore the name of the town I had moved to, life got in the way and the Kitchel remained unbaked and unknown.
Last week, whilst ambling through the lanes and highways of t’internet I came across it again and although my hope that it had a closer link to my part of Suffolk was dashed (It is linked more closely to the Essex town of Harwich, if anything), there is still enough evidence that it was baked and eaten pretty widely throughout the Suffolk with specific links to the seaside town of Aldeburgh. Alas, I can find no trace of that mysterious Bury St Edmunds link and it remains a mystery as to why the book was so adamant about this.
The God’s Kitchel is based on that tried and tested combination of pastry and dried fruit that served as efficient fuel delivery system for hard working bodies and a way of getting through the lean period between November and late March when little fresh fruit was on the market. Back then, the stores were not full of imported green beans from Kenya and satsumas from southern Spain.
Households would preserve the fruits that they could grow, those apples, cherries and plums from their own trees, but the dried fruit we associate with mince pies and Christmas puddings- sultanas, dried peel and raisins, was comparatively expensive and beyond the reach of many households. During the medieval period, foreign exploration led to the trading of exotic spices and dried fruits which could survive the many months a sea journey could take but their rarity and expense caused them to used in foods made for feasts on high days and holidays; at least for ordinary families anyway. Back then, like the mince pie, they were made with meat and served as a useful way of using up this preserved meat over the winter months. Over time, the meat was gradually omitted from the kitchel in the same way it ceased to be included in mince pies, although traditional mincemeat still contains suet, the fat that protects the kidneys of an animal.
Back then, many towns and regions had their own very specific feast day foods of which the kitchel was one- it is a close relative to the godcake made and handed out in Coventry; the only other place with a ceremony similar to that of Harwich and Aldeburgh. It has been suggested that the kitchels original triangular shape was a reference to the Holy Trinity, as are the three cuts in the top, and this very same religious symbolism (like the original crib shape of the mince pie) might have resulted in their ban from sale during the period of the Commonwealth in seventeenth century England.
Edward Moor, in a dictionary of Suffolk Words and Phrases (1823) describes the kitchel as “a flat Christmas cake, of a triangular shape, with sugar and a few currants strow’d over the top – differing, only in shape, I believe, from a bun. Cocker says “Kichel is Saxon – a kind of cake of God’s Kichel, a cake given to God-children when they ask blessing of their God father.” By triangular, he means more of a cornet shape, like a triangular apple turnover.
The kitchel was even mentioned as far back as 1386 when Chaucer cites it in his Summoners Tale:
“Give us a bushell whete, malte, or rice, A God’s kichel, or a trippe of cheese,”
and the 15th century ecclesiastical court servants of Chaucer clearly considered the kitchel a worthy enough and acceptable recompense for the saving of a soul or its delivery from penance. Evidence then that a cake that appears, to our modern palates as fairly modest, was actually a great and infrequent treat for the 15th century person.
The origins of ‘the word kitchel’ are obscure and therefore suggestive of an ancient lineage (way back to the 11th century at the very least) although the Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘kichel’ (and offers an alternative spelling of cicel) as a ‘small cake’. A connection with the German for cake- ‘Kuche’- is suggested as is the Yiddish ‘kikhl’ which commonly refers to a small sugary cookie. In Anglo Saxon, ‘cicel’ is both a ‘morsel’ or ‘little mouthful’ but is also linked to ‘circle’ too. The Dictionary of the Anglo-Saxon Language (1838) supposes that the origin is Anglo-Saxon although there is no specific reference to cake so unless anyone can further advise, one has to assume that the Germanic origins are the most likely ones. Or are they?
Locals in Harwich, Aldeburgh and other East Anglian towns say that kitchels also known as ‘Catch Alls’ because of the tradition where the cakes were thrown to the crowds by the mayor each year (and more on this later) to symbolise the showering of his blessings upon the town. Believed to date back to the Norman conquest, a 1905 guidebook describes this practice as ‘a curious custom, many many hundreds of years old.‘ In Aldeburgh, ‘kitchels’ are baked and sold on New Year’s Eve and monumental amounts of bad luck is foretold for those who do not order at least one ‘kichel’ for each member of the family. As F A Qutt says in his book, ‘The County Coast,’ the kitchel “must be eaten before midnight or the worst of ill luck was predicted for folks who failed to partake of these cakes and even now, it is said, there is no one in the town so daring as to nibble a crumb of them after the new year had dawned.”
Back in 1935, the local newspaper of Harwich and Dovercourt describes the town ceremony as a ‘good custom for godfathers and godmothers every time their godchildren asked them for a blessing to give them a cake which was a ‘gods kitchel’ and cites the saying ‘ask me a blessing and I will give you a kitchel’ as a common one.
Going back to the Harwich ceremony, the ringing of the bell from the town crier, followed by a speech, “Catch a kitchel, if you can!” signifies the start of their being thrown from the Guildhall window in a ceremony that is now held on the third Thursday in May around noon at St. Nicholas’ Church. In the next town, staff at the Cabin Bakery, Dovercourt, begin baking the 400 kitchels in the early hours, ready for delivery to the Guildhall and local schools – unlike centuries before, every child who wants one will get a kitchel. The town clerk and staff sit in the grade one listed Guildhall and wrap each one individually.
Symbolising the spreading of goodwill amongst the poor of the town by the newly elected mayor who walks through the streets back to the Guildhall from Church Street, resplendent in bicorne hat, mayoral chain and scarlet frock coat with black pantaloons worn underneath, it is thought to be a development from the tradition, at the beginning of the year, whereby godparents would present theur godchildren with a cake along with their blessing for the new year ahead. The children of Harwich however, accompany the mayor back to the guildhall and await his appearance at the window, hands outstretched, waiting to catch the kitchels.
Some recipes for Gods Kitchels specify shortcrust pastry and others use puff. I have tried both and much prefer the latter which gives it a lightness that balances out the dried fruit and ground almond contents. I have seen versions with added rum or brandy which you, of course, are most welcome to do too but I have kept my version as close to the original as possible although I use bought pastry, fresh from the chiller cabinet. The brand I buy is all butter which puffs up admirably. Despite the dried fruit, the sweetness quotient isn’t that high (sugar wasn’t that cheap back in the day) so you might want to add a little extra sugar. Or do what we do and serve it custard or with a dollop of double cream, sweetened with a little icing sugar.
3oz butter / 10oz currants / 4oz chopped candied peel / 4oz ground almonds / 1 tsp mixed spice / 450g puff pastry / milk to brush
Preheat the oven to 400F/ 200C/ Gas mark 6. Grease a large baking sheet.
Melt the butter over low heat in a decent sized heavy bottom pan and add the currants, spice and peel along with the ground almonds and stir them well, ensuring they are all incorporated. Set the mixture aside and allow to cool.
Divide the puff pastry into half, roll each half into two evenly sized oblongs and place one of them carefully onto the greased baking sheet. Spread the dried fruit mixture evenly over the pastry base, ensuring you leave a margin around all four edges. Moisten the edges with some milk then lift the second sheet of pastry carefully over the top. Seal the edges by crimping (you might have an excess which is fine to cut off with a sharp knife before you crimp and seal.
Mark the pastry lightly into squares with a very sharp knife. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes or until puffed up and golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before cutting through the outlines knife marks into squares. Sprinkle with a little caster sugar (I like golden) and serve.