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UK cathedral continues medieval tradition of ‘Alban buns’ at Easter

Norwich, UK

If it’s Easter, then it’s time for hot cross buns, those sweet-spiced slightly sticky treats which have become a key element of the celebration in the UK and many parts of the world. Millions are sold every year – but only in one place is it possible to buy the nearest replica of the original bun that started the tradition.  

Alban Buns with St Albans Cathedral in the background. PICTURE: Courtesy of St Albans Cathedral

St Albans Cathedral in Hertfordshire, just north of London, proudly produces supplies of the Alban bun, first produced on the site by a medieval monk. Cathedral officials point to a story in the Herts Advertiser in 1862, which stated that according to Ye Book of St Albans, in 1361 the monk – Thomas Rocliffe – “caused a quantity of small sweet spiced cakes, marked with a cross, to be made”.

The cakes, which were given away on Good Friday, “so pleased the palates of the people who were the recipients that they became talked about, and various were the attempts to imitate the cakes of Father Rocliffe all over the country, but the recipe of which was kept within the walls of the Abbey”.

Kate Klevitt, marketing and communications executive at the Church of England cathedral, said the Advertiser‘s story was rediscovered about 30 years ago.

“Some people baked them at home based on a recipe found in the archives. About 20 years ago, our in-house refectory cook Anne Hunt produced the best modern day version she could. These were made for Easter week only in very limited numbers, for about three years.” 

As demand grew, Klevitt said the abbey initially commissioned various local bakeries to produce the buns before eventually taking production back in house. Thousands of Alban buns are now produced every year between Ash Wednesday and Easter Monday and sold only from St Albans Cathedral refectory. Demand now frequently outstrips supply, as people flock from around the region to obtain these delicious buns.

Although the exact recipe remains a closely guarded secret by the bakers at St Albans there are two main differences to the mass produced hot cross buns you’ll find on the supermarket shelves.  The Alban bun, unlike other buns, has a cross cut deeply into the top, dividing it into four quarters.  The specific mix of spices is said to be unique to St Albans, although it doesn’t include the “grains of paradise” commonly used in medieval times.

Despite the Alban buns’ link to the Roman Catholic Church, the concept of eating spiced buns marked with a cross at Easter persisted even after the Reformation. Initially banned, Queen Elizabeth I granted permission for the buns to be commercially baked at Easter.

A plate of Alban buns. PICTURE: Courtesy of St Albans Cathedral

As the centuries passed, demand for hot cross buns even resulted in the creation of a now famous children’s rhyme:
Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns!
One a penny, two a penny,
Hot cross buns!
If you haven’t got a daughter, give them to your sons,
One a penny, two a penny,
Hot cross buns!

While the traditional mixed spiced version of the bun is still the most popular variety, alternatives such as buns featuring chocolate or apple and cinnamon have become more prevalent.

Back in St Albans, Kate Klevitt pointed out that what sets the Alban buns apart “is the ingredients and a lot of time to get them correct”.

“People journey to the cathedral to taste a bit of history in the place where it all started. On top of that – they taste good!”   


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