Remember remember the fifth of November…

Remember, remember the fifth of November,

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.

We see no reason

Why Gunpowder Treason

Should ever be forgot.

On the fifth day of November 1605, after an anonymous tip-off, a man was found in the House of Lords keeping watch over 36 barrels of explosives. That man was of course Guy Fawkes, the most famous of the thirteen Catholic conspirators who attempted to assassinate King James I of England and VI of Scotland.

King James I of England & VI of Scotland

They were not doing out of sheer spite, you understand, in fact they had pretty good reason to do it. James was a Protestant, as was Elizabeth I before him. Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, after becoming sick of being told what to do by the Roman Catholic Church, essentially created Protestantism so he could do anything – or anyone – he liked. This made him the Head of the Church rather than the Pope – something that still exists to this day. In fact, it will be this year – 2011 – where a long-time law will eventually be dropped allowing members of the royal family to marry Roman Catholics. Anyway to be Catholic was to be hated – you had no few rights and any public servant or member of the Church Office had to swear an allegiance to the Church of England. Several attempts to assassinate the monarch previously had been unsuccessful, but the Gunpowder Plot was the closest anyone had ever got to getting the job done.

A contemporary depiction of some of the conspirators

Guy Fawkes is the third from the right

Guy Fawkes may be the best known of the conspirators, but he was certainly not the ringleader – that was a man called Robert Catesby. No, Fawkes was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and because he was caught red-handed, it was he that was made an example of. Even though he was caught and arrested, he only confessed to the full crimes after three days of torture. Eights of the conspirators were caught and hung, drawn and quartered.

Fawkes’s signature before torture…

…and after.

Of course anyone who was a Protestant celebrated this fact and it soon became customary to build bonfires on the fifth of November and in its early days it was used as another excuse to persecute any Catholics that may be living in your neighbourhood. However, the decades and centuries passed, and for most people Guy Fawkes Night is simply a great British custom where we get to huddle round a big bonfire, set off our fireworks – and most important of all – eat some food.

British celebrations always have feasts, or at least certain foods, associated with them and Bonfire Night is no exception. It may not have a very long list, but they are some of the most delicious foods. I think it is because it is associated with cosiness – big coats, big scarves and big hunks of cake and toffee, all washed down with a big mug of tea.

One of the most exciting things for me as a child was baking potatoes in the bonfire. The potatoes were wrapped in aluminium foil and gingerly placed in the white-hot embers with the use of a stick and left there for an hour or so to cook before being fished out and eaten greedily with lots of melted butter. There is no better baked potato than a bonfire-baked potato let me tell you. If you are having a bonfire, give them a go, you will not be disappointed.

This time of year is the best for cakes and toffees – they are commonly heavily flavoured with black treacle and spices, all very provocative and medieval-feeling. The four that spring to mind are Yorkshire parkin, bonfire toffee, cinder toffee and toffee apples. It is these autumn and winter foods that I love the most, and miss the most. I am hunting down the ingredients to make some of these myself whilst I am here in the USA – the recipes will follow of course.

One last thing: if you are having a bonfire, don’t forget to check it before you light it, just in case a little hedgehog has made its little hibernation home in there. Roasted hedgehog should certainly not be on the menu…

7 Comments

Filed under food, history, Seventeenth Century

7 responses to “Remember remember the fifth of November…

  1. Kathryn Marsh

    Failing to find black treacle in Oklahoma I used heavy molasses – found pinhead oatmeal in a health food store and the resultant parkin went down a treat, as did sticky gingerbread, brandy snap and toffee apples. Kids made cinder toffee for school science project as a change from volcanoes

    • buttery77

      I have a great shop called Global Foods not too far from me so British basics are pretty easy to come by. Failing that Amazon has a great groceries section these days…
      I don’t use pinhead oatmeal in my parkin, I go for medium oatmeal; I like the texture it gives. I’m putting up my parkin recipe up later today in fact…. as the Autumn and Winter progress, I hope to work my way through all of those recipes… I may be asking for your recipes for some of them Kathryn as I have never actually made bonfire toffee, toffee apples or cinder toffee before….

  2. Yum! Can’t wait to try it! What I remember from Guy Fawkes day in London back in 1965 is firecrackers, not bonfires. Tragedy of the city?

    • buttery77

      Ah yes, the bangers and catherine wheels. I have mixed feelings about the fireworks. I reckon in London, you would have had to go to an organised bonfire, which is what most peple do now these days anyway…

  3. Hi,
    Like the blog. I’m currently building a blog on a more all round social history of the last 100 years. It’s based around an old recipe/scrap-book I inherited from my grandmother begun in the early 20th Century.
    I shall follow your site with interest!

  4. Pingback: Yorkshire Parkin | British Food: A History

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