Rewriting Tradition. Easter Cuisine Old and New. Part 1

I rang my 13-year-old grandson to ask if he had eaten any hot cross buns today. He sounded disinterested and replied ‘no’, in a polite but bemused way. I could almost hear his brain ticking over, perhaps with a ‘What the ..? Has Nanna finally lost the plot, ringing me about Hot Cross Buns?’ After all, the kids have been eating these buns since Boxing Day. That’s when they begin appearing in Australian supermarkets. By the time Good Friday comes around, the novelty has worn off. So much for tradition.

Ready for the oven

I then rang my eldest son, and asked him the same question. At least he is perfectly aware of the symbolic nature of these buns. No, he had also had his fill of the supermarket product along the way, and was whipping up some scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast. Yes, another pagan in our midst. I am the first one to appreciate the secular nature of our society: I am not only a ‘collapsed’ Catholic but also don’t count myself as Christian. Having said that, I don’t see much point in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. After all, these buns are a seasonal and festive treat and it’s important to explain the meaning of the added crosses to the young folk. History and tradition form a part of who we are. At the same time, we happily appropriate any Buddhist and Hindu rituals that may suit us along the way.  Buddhist meditation becomes mindfulness ( and loses a lot in translation), Diwali is taking off in Australia and Chinese New year is popular too. Australia is a wonderful melting pot of cultures, but as we grab hold of the new, we should also at least understand the old, and adapt some of those traditions to our modern taste.

Just glazed. Who prefers the top half?

I now make hot Cross buns annually, just a dozen. The yeasted variety is light and perfect for our Autumnal weather. Next year I will increase the amount of spice in the recipe I used. They cost very little to make and are far more digestible than the common supermarket variety. If you are a beginner at yeasted baking, try Celia’s recipe here. It is foolproof and very straightforward.

To serve with butter, not margarine.

The other fond tradition I hang on to is my dedication to cooking smoked Cod on Good Friday. This is an old Irish Catholic Australian thing. Most Scottish descendants did not have this bright yellow dyed fish imposed on them as youngsters on Good Friday. If you feel slightly ambivalent about smoked cod, go to the fish market and buy the real thing  from the Shetland Islands which tastes peaty and less salty. I buy it at the Preston Market, from one fishmonger who has, by 9 am on Easter Thursday, queues 5 deep. I am told by Sandra that it is available all year round at the Prahran market.

Fish pie includes Shetland smoked cod, flathead and shrimp

One way to enjoy a piece of good quality smoked Cod is to forget your grandmother’s recipe, which consisted of an overcooked piece of fish, served with white parsley sauce, alongside boiled vegetables. Maintaining the tradition but stepping it up a notch or two makes the elements of this dish more appetising. Make an Easter fish pie, incorporating the poached smoked cod, along with poached white fish and a handful of shrimp, in a white sauce, and top with buttery mashed potato. The sides? A tossed green salad with lots of mustard in the dressing, another Irish note.

Three serves later….

This post was inspired by my friend Peter’s comment a few days ago. Peter lives in tropical Far North Queensland, where some of these culinary traditions would seem totally out-of-place.

“Enter the 60’s & 70’s: Traditional Good Friday cooking of smoked cod, which was smelt from miles away on the farm, still lingers in our psyche. We (all seven kids) all started to gag at the thought of having to consume his hideous boiled, vile muck served with over-cooked spuds and grey cabbage. Tradition beheld that we all sit at the kitchen table and dare not complain as the Compassion donation box was placed in the middle of the table with forlorn starving African children’s’ faces staring back at us which reflected those much worse off than ourselves. If only our parents knew that when we took those money boxes back to school they were much lighter by many pennies and the occasional thrupence than when they left their position placed strategically near where food or indulgent entertainment was involved. When visiting childless Aunts and Uncles visited our eyes bulged as they loudly dropped loose change into said box and we immediately tallied up how many kangaroo or umbrella toffees on a stick , yard-long licorice straps of triangular frozen Sunnyboys we could buy at the tuck-shop on the next school day. I’m sure tens of thousands of children in Africa died of starvation by we greedy Catholic kids but obligatory confession ultimately absolved us even if we had to lie to the priest to protect our guilt. So now we celebrate Easter by holding a “traditional” Bad Friday by sharing all the amazing regional and seasonal foods abundant in our region. Last week-end was the annual sugarcane and banana plantation pig shoot – sponsored by the local pubs. We bar-hogs waited for hours until the slaughtered swine were unceremoniously chucked off the blood-splatted Utes by the shooters whose faces were akin to orgasmic stimuli at the thought of winning the $25 stake. The weigh-in is a serious event all greased with gallons of booze and much humourous joshing . However, those of us on the peripheral could only see that these beasts can’t possibly go to waste and commence bartering for the whole hog. My point being is that this Bad Friday’s fare is a 57 kilo pig on a spit to be shared with all the local collapsed Catholics, a few bevvies and lots of stories about how we all ended up in the wonderful wet tropics of Far North Queensland – and not a hot-cross bun in sight. Ahh! Bliss!!”

Thanks Peter for making the effort to add such entertaining recollections to my posts. I am sure many Australians of a certain age may have similar memories.

That’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spotlight, losing my religion…..

32 thoughts on “Rewriting Tradition. Easter Cuisine Old and New. Part 1”

  1. Ahh…now I can see the full post! Not sure what was happening with my phone, needs rebooting I suspect. Gorgeous hot cross buns, thank you for the kind shout-out, and what a gorgeous fish pie! I’m a bit too lactose intolerant for too much white sauce, but oh how I adore it! Sounds like you’re having a wonderful Easter! xxx

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    1. I’m enjoying being at home and making a big mess in the kitchen. After that big fish pie for lunch, followed by hot cross buns, I might need to have a Lenten dinner and forget about the other Easter treats awaiting. Thanks for the recipe Celia- you are my baking muse.

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  2. Very nice. The “hot cross buns” brought a smile to my face. I don’t know that I’ve ever officially seen any, but in school I remember a little song in our folk songbooks, “Hot Cross Buns.” We sang the words and I suppose we knew they were little pastries, but no one ever showed us a picture or anything. It was something I assumed was eaten in the olden days of merry olde England. Yours look delicious.

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  3. The excerpt from your friend was such great fun to read – thank you for sharing that – i love the idea of having traditions for a Bad Friday – though ours might be a tad less untraditional:) I feel the need of something to replace what is missing from a secular life – something to mark milestones and the passage of time and some kind of tradition that draws family together – something that is not cheapened or hijacked by the temples of the merchants. I also wish i had Catholic heritage just for the fun of being able to pipe up that i’m a “collapsed” one. It’s so long since i’ve had real smoked fish – if i can find some in Brisbane that pie will definitely be on our Easter menu. I made Celia’s HCBs today – that made me feel very happy. Happy Easter, Francesca, and thanks for the delightful post.

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    1. Celia comes up with the best approaches to baking. If you made these buns today, then you have found that magical traditional spirit Jan, without having to carry the burden of that awful Irish Catholic heritage. I must say that I would be very happy to be an Italian Catholic, lapsed of course. That version seems more relaxed to me. Peter will be pleased that you enjoyed his crazy Bad Friday comment.

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  4. Individual humanism where you can adopt various traditions to suit your life seems the absolute best way to live. And, no one should live without understanding history. HCBs also appear just after the new year back in the UK, but they a complete unknown here in Greece. The ones I made were very much appreciated by Greek friends who have their own traditions. The sweet bread, tsoureki, is never consumed before Easter. Friday (today) is the epitaphio where people take flowers to the church and place on elaborately embroidered cloths with the symbol of Christ after he was taken down from the cross. At dusk, priests carrying the epitaph, musicians, the faithful and the simply curious follow the procession (often to a cemetery)

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    1. I hope you will be going along too Debi. Great to join in these traditions whilst being an agnostic humanist The vigil happens here too, mostly for Italian families and the Greeks will be doing their epitaphio too. The Italians usually cook capretti for Easter and the feasting will be prepared today for tomorrow.

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      1. Yes, we did join in last night and today and tomorrow will be cooking loads of specialties – from a variety of countries – for Easter. We are grilling paidakia (lamb chops) with a group of our students and researchers – also from a variety of countries – who are staying for the holiday. The important thing is the company and the sharing of the feast. Kalo Pascha!

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  5. Great post, Francesca, and happy Easter to you. I, too, am a “fallen” Catholic, but still believe in those old traditions. That said, we DID eat lamb for dinner last night. I think that might have been the first time I’ve not cooked fish on Good Friday. Lovely buns xx

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  6. Your lovely fish pie hooked me… I may not even wait for another Good Friday to make it, although it would be perfect for rainy cool weather Easter, which this year at least we have been spared. We ate similarly with creamy rebaked potato bake along side crispy skin Trevally bbqed expertly by the G.O.
    I was never one to eat them before Easter but because, I think, they have become so commercialised I no longer feel like eating hot cross buns at all, which spurred me to make my first sourdough fruit loaf… that tasted like a hot cross bun. Quite dangerous, it’s very moreish.
    I loved the Bad Friday story. Unfortunately I have only good friday or otherwise fish memories -my dad is a fisherman- and the G.O. and I both hang onto the Good Friday food traditons if not strictly the faith that goes with them.

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    1. I saw your lovely loaf on FB Dale. It looked very moreish indeed. A barbecued Trevalley and some potato bake sounds perfect for your warmer clime. I feel the same way about HC buns- they are so damned commercial now, they’re almost loathsome. Hence making something else, a fruit loaf or some home made buns seems more appropriate than ever.
      Peter’s Bad Friday story had to be shared. He is such a raconteur and needs very little encouragement when it comes to yarn spinning. I hope he continues to add mad comments to my posts. He runs a B& B up near Byron Bay and it sounds just so wonderful. He is also a food lover as well as a story teller.

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  7. Lovely post Francesca, I too boycott supermarket hot cross buns, but baked four batches yesterday, along with a couple of Passover offerings to note both sides of my heritage (and cater for gluten free friends!)
    We didn’t have the tradition of fish on Friday growing up, so that one never really sunk in, but do often have lamb on Easter Sunday. I do love the intersections of history and tradition and family you get in celebratory food!

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  8. The bottom half with plenty of butter thanks! I would throw the bought buns out the window and chow down on yours! Ah those boys .. Smoked fish pie just might be a winner for dinner tonight .. loved this post, and the Bad Friday! And what a super pic to end. Awesome. Hugs

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  9. Great post and shared story from your friend. The collection box story reminds me of a story of Mums childhood as one of five and the collection plate in mass being passed along. (And perhaps becoming heavier rather than lighter…) Thanks for another wee ear worm.

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    1. Ah Lisa, I knew you would be the one to recognise that earworm. Like a little Lisa Song plant. Songs are so interwoven throughout me life, it’s hard for me to think of something without an old tune popping into my brain.

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