Sunday, November 05, 2006

#3: Remember, Remember...

Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
- Old English rhyme

The last week in London has been marked by sudden explosions of fireworks in the middle of busy roads and sidewalks throughout the city. This can be quite alarming when one is quietly walking home from the tube station after work and is startled out of a blissful reverie by unexpected earsplitting cracks and a shower of red sparks. All this pyrotechnic activity climaxed with citywide fireworks shows last night which left Shepherd's Bush so hazy with smoke that it was impossible to see more than half a block down the street. Why all the fiery celebrations?

On November 5, 1605, a Catholic soldier from York named Guy (Guido) Fawkes was discovered in an attempt to assassinate the Protestant King James I and most of the Protestant aristocracy by blowing up Westminster Palace during the opening joint session of Parliament. The plot was uncovered when one collaborator, worried about inadvertently injuring Catholic members of Parliament, sent a letter to the Catholic sympathizer Lord Monteagle warning him of the plan. Monteagle alerted the secretary of state, who ordered a search of the cellars beneath the House of Lords. The investigators found more than eighteen hundred pounds of gunpowder hidden in a cache in the cellar, and arrested Fawkes and his collaborators. The king ordered him to be tortured into revealing the names of his other co-conspirators, and on January 31st 1606 Guy Fawkes and several of his allies were tried for treason at Westminster and condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Determined to escape this dreadful form of punishment, Fawkes leapt from the gallows in a last gesture of defiance, breaking his neck and killing himself.

It has often been noted that the British have a particular enthusiasm for colorful failures (there is no other adequate explanation, for example, for their national fondness for Eddie the Eagle), and so, naturally, the ineptitude of Guy Fawkes is celebrated in Britain with an annual night of bonfires, fireworks and revelry. His effigy is often burned, to general rejoicing. The holiday mixes jubilation that the plot was foiled with glee that it was attempted, and Guy Fawkes has sometimes been conceived as a folk hero, bravely challenging unjust authority - hence the oft-heard comment, probably originating in nineteenth-century pantomime, that Guy Fawkes was "the only man ever to enter parliament with honourable intentions."

That Guy Fawkes remains a politically-charged topic was demonstrated in 2003 when the Scottish Socialist Party caused a national uproar by using this phrase on an election poster. Bill Aitken, the Tory chief whip, was quoted as saying, "To celebrate someone who was a terrorist and whose aim was to be a mass-murderer plumbs the depths, even for the SSP. You have to ask the question, which other terrorists do they also back? Next they'll be telling us they back the Brighton bomber." This debate came a week after scientists released a study announcing that if Guy Fawkes had in fact detonated his pile of gunpowder, it would have destroyed not only the Houses of Parliament but much of central London as well.

Over the centuries, a variety of culinary traditions have developed around Guy Fawkes Day. Some of these are simply traditional autumn dishes, like caramel apples, flaming rum cakes, and candy made with nuts. Others relate more specifically to the bonfires associated with this celebration: grilled meats, potatoes baked in coals. But the most popular, as well as the most gastronomically rewarding, is a dessert known as "Parkin" and always eaten on November 5th; it is a moist, dark ginger cake which, like Guy Fawkes, originated in Yorkshire. Here is our version of this delicious fall treat.

Parkin (English Ginger Treacle Cake)

This is a dark, spicy, sophisticated autumn dessert whose complexity of flavour belies its simplicity of preparation. It will also make your house smell wonderful.

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup rolled oats
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup black treacle (blackstrap molasses)*
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1/3 cup chopped crystallized ginger
1/3 cup chopped walnuts

Lightly sweetened whipped cream

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 325°F. Butter a 9-inch square cake pan.

In a small saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Add treacle and sugar and stir until ingredients have melted together. Remove from heat and cool.

Mix flour, oats, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices in a large bowl. Add in treacle mixture (be sure it's not too hot) and egg; stir to combine. Fold in crystallized ginger and walnuts.

Spread mixture into prepared pan and bake until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean, about 35-40 minutes.

Serve warm with whipped cream alongside.
Makes 9 servings.

*Treacle is the English term for molasses, and the basis for a number of famous English puddings. There are three different kinds of molasses; for this recipe, be sure to use blackstrap molasses (known in Britain as black treacle), which results from boiling cane sugar three times to intensify its flavor and thicken its texture. This type of molasses contains substantial amounts of calcium, iron and magnesium, and as such is much healthier than refined white cane sugar. It gives this dessert a terrifically dark, rich flavour.


Jeanne said...

I love molasses, after discovering (alarmingly recebtly!) that it was the flavour of one of my favourite childhood sweets. This looks heavenly, especialyl with the long chilly evenings upon us...

On another note - I am forwarding your URL to Andrew at SpittoonExtra who keeps a comprehensive list of Brit foodblogs but doesn't seem to have discovered you yet :-)

Anonymous said...

Hello again,
I don't know whether this still happens or not, but children used to create stuffed "guys" (crude mannequins)which they might push around in a pram or simply carry, (and possibly burn in the bonfire later) and raise money on the street from passing strangers with the call "Penny for the Guy!" I wonder whether this still happens.

danielle said...

By the way, in God's Secretaries (author escapes me), there's a great passage about the gunpowder plot and how much it impacted England, the way 9/11 has impacted the US...essentially the response to the plot was nearly hysterical in terms of searching out anyone even remotely known to the attackers and executing them. And of course, all catholics were essentially suspected of all societal ills from then on. There is even the theory that Cecil knew about the whole plot and intervened at the last second to secure his own power with James as well as James' with the people who, prior to that, were not necessarily sure how they felt about him. The crown even sentenced to death the priest who heard Guy's (and the others') confessions of the impending plot, but didn't report the plan to the crown (although he had urged them to abandon it). Protestants, not believing in the whole confession thing, didn't go for the priest-penetant defense and convicted him of treason. He, too, was to be hung until not quite dead, then cut down, his privates cut off and shown to him, then disembowled (again while presumably still alive), quartered, and put up on stakes for all to see (and the birds to eat). The theory was, believe it or not, that this gruesome punishment would represent physically each of the sins he had committed (hanging so that he could not think such thoughts again, castration so he could not procreate his evil seed (extra irony there), etc.). Apparently, the executioner actually hung him until he was dead before doing the rest, out of mercy and a general sense that this wrong. The crowd reportedly booed about a good man being killed for nothing.

Tam and Laura said...

Those of our readers who would like to read more alarmingly true tales of the "making of the King James bible" might be interested to know that Adam Nicolson is the author of God's Secretaries.