What I'm talking about is a raised cake with a crust of fine flour mixed with water and enough saffron to give the cake a deep yellow colour. Its interior was filled with a rich plum-cake mix which including plenty of candied lemon peel. According to Chambers Book of Days [published in 1869] the cake would be 'made up very stiff', tied up in a cloth, boiled for several hours, then brushed over with egg and baked. By the time it was ready to eat its crust would be as hard as wood. Yum.
Hardly surprisingly, various local yarns tell of unfortunate recipients of simnels not knowing what they were and either using them as footstools or boiling them to soften them up [ie. ruining them]. Simnels came in many different sizes. Some of the larger ones sold for as much as a guinea, which was a huge amount back in the day, whilst smaller ones could be bought for half-a-crown. Large or small, however, their appearance was distinctive and they were easily recognisable.
According to the poet Herrick, it was the custom in the Shropshire/Herefordshire border region for young people in service to take simnels as presents for their mothers on Mothering Sunday. According to the Foods of England website [byline: "Cooking in England, when well done, is superior to that of any other country in the world - Louis Eustache Ude, 'Le Cuisinier Francais'"] they were baked for Christmas, Easter or New Year. The Shrewsbury Simnel, however, was known particularly as a springtime celebration cake. It included the ingredient we associate with simnel cakes today - a central layer of marzipan and another layer on top, with additional icing, marzipan or paste balls or points.
The Shrewsbury Simnel is reckoned to date back to the 13th century. I've failed to find an original recipe for it [well, there's a surprise] but here is what I have found, from Emily Elizabeth Steele Elliott's 'Copsley Annals Preserved in Proverbs' in case anybody wants to give it a try:
'She who would a simnel make,Flour and saffron first must shake,Candy, spices, eggs must take,Chop and pound till arms do ache :Then must boil, and then must bakeFor a crust too hard to break.When at Mid-lent thou dost wake,To thy mother bear thy cake :She will prize it for thy sake.'
Simnels aren't the only cakes associated with Shrewsbury. Another cake with a slightly more user-friendly recipe was known simply as 'Shrewsbury Cake'. Later it developed into the Shrewsbury biscuit, but in its heyday, immortalized by Mr Palin in what is now the bed shop, Country Linens & Interiors, on Castle Street, it was a sort of very large shortbread flavoured distinctively with rose-water.
I’ve searched for a picture of the old traditional Shrewsbury Cake, but the best that I can find is a Shrewsbury biscuit pic. I do, however, have an original recipe for Shrewsbury Cake, taken from 'The Complete Cook', compiled in 1658 by an anonymous culinary person known as ‘WM’. I can’t help you on what ‘two races’ of ginger might mean, but for those of you who can navigate the spelling, the rest of the recipe seems fairly straightforward:
Original Receipt for Shrewsbury Cake:
Take two pound of floure dryed in the Oven and weighed after it is dryed, then put to it one pound of Butter that must be layd an hour or two in Rose-water, so done poure the Water from the Butter, and put the Butter to the flowre with the yolks and whites of five Eggs, two races of Ginger, and three quarters of a pound of Sugar, a little salt, grate your spice, and it well be the better, knead all these together till you may rowle the past, then roule it forth with the top of a bowle, then prick them with a pin made of wood, or if you have a comb that hath not been used, that will do them quickly, and is best to that purpose, so bake them upon Pye plates, but not too much in the Oven, for the heat of the Plates will dry them very much, after they come forth of the Oven, you may cut them without the bowles of what bignesse or what fashion you please.