Some foods have to be shared, and the nights of bonfire season, starting around Halloween, lend themselves perfectly to packing a tin with something good and taking it out into the dark and chilly night. Right now, in Yorkshire and Lancashire, whether you’re trick-or-treating, or wrapping up to watch fireworks, you might well expect to be offered a piece of parkin while you’re out.
A sticky, dense, spicy ginger cake, parkin is a true English seasonal speciality. “Parkin is a variation of a ginger cake; the oatmeal in the recipe makes it unique,” says Ruth Burke-Kennedy of Harrogate-based Bettys & Taylors, whose tearooms are loved across Yorkshire and far beyond.The cake is made from oatmeal, treacle and ginger, and the proportions vary depending on which recipe that’s been handed down to you. “We’ve been baking Yorkshire parkin to the same recipe at the Bettys Craft Bakery in Harrogate for 30 years at the very least,” says Burke-Kennedy.
“Every family has its own recipe,” says Charlotte Shaw, director of Yorkshire craft bakery Lottie Shaws. “My family have been bakers in Calderdale for 100 years, and we use my great-grandmother’s recipe. We don’t use eggs in our mix, though some people do. Some use more syrup or treacle to make the cake lighter or darker in colour. Some use a coarser – or finer – oatmeal. The principle of the cake is the same, but everyone has their own method.”
All proud Yorkshiremen will claim parkin belongs to the county just as much as Yorkshire pudding, but variations on the theme were traditionally made all over the north at this time of year. Oats were a more common grain than wheat across Scotland and northern England, which made it a cheap food. Dating back to Viking times, special “thar” cakes celebrating the Feast of Thor, the god of Thunder, have been baked on stones heated by the fire at the end of October and start of November. In Lancashire and Derbyshire, a parkin-like cake known as “tharfcake” was made, and parkin biscuits are still made in the Borders.
So parkin, or something similar, was almost definitely being made a long time before the Oxford English Dictionary’s first recorded use of the word, 6 November 1800, when Dorothy Wordsworth wrote in her diary: “I was baking bread, dinner & parkins.” Of course, the Wordsworths lived in the Lakes and not in Yorkshire, though Dorothy may have learned how to make the cake during a childhood spell with Yorkshire relatives before donning her pinny at Dove Cottage in Grasmere.
Whoever made parkin first, and where, remains a mystery, but as sugar became more accessible to ordinary people around the turn of the 19th century, the squidgy, sticky, cakey parkin that is familiar to us today came into existence. Syrups and refined sugars made the mix more of a batter, which could be poured into a deep rectangular tin, and baked into cake, rather than biscuits.
Once made, parkin is arguably best kept for a few days before eating. “It’s a good example of what’s called a ‘cut and come again’ cake, that improves with the keeping,” explains Shaw. “You bake it in big slabs, and as it bakes the sugar caramelises.” Over a few days, the caramel softens and the cake becomes stickier. “How long it takes depends on the time of year. In cold weather, it takes longer for the cake to soften, but in summer it gets lovely and sticky in just a couple of days.”
Eating it at this time of year is such a popular tradition that in parts of the West Riding and Leeds, 5 November is sometimes known as Parkin Day. There is, however, one place in Yorkshire where you may not get offered parkin on Bonfire Night. St Peter’s School in York educated Guy Fawkes, and to this day considers it unseemly to celebrate his ignominious death.
Still, those students needn’t miss out, since lots of people eat it all year round. “It’s a really hearty cake,” says Shaw. “The oatmeal is filling, and ginger used to be known for warming the blood.” Which is perhaps why parkin is most associated with the celebration of Bonfire Night: on a cold night, the ginger gives you a bit of fire on the inside, too.
FIVE WAYS TO EAT PARKIN
1. Share it with friends with a flask of tea in front of a bonfire.
2. In summer, try it with crème fraîche and strawberries.
3. When it turns colder, it’s good to eat warm and doused in custard or caramel sauce.
4. Depending on which side of the Pennines your loyalties lie, eat parkin with Wensleydale or Lancashire cheese.
5. Add a kick to your crumble, by using some parkin in your crumble topping mix.
Read this article as it originally appeared