Treacly Treats for Guy Fawkes Night

The anniversary of a failed assassination is celebrated with fireworks, bonfires, effigy burning and some very sweet desserts

A loaf of parkin
A loaf of parkin Courtesy of Flickr user Johnson Cameraface

Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot.

So goes one version of a popular rhyme about Guy Fawkes, whose failed plot to assassinate the King of England in 1606 1605—Fawkes was caught under the House of Lords with barrels of gunpowder—got him hanged, drawn and quartered. Sure enough, 400 years later, the act of treason is still remembered: November 5th, known as Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night, is celebrated throughout England with fireworks, bonfires and the burning of the traitor in effigy. The celebrations once held an anti-Catholic undercurrent (Fawkes and his co-conspirators were Catholic), but that has all but disappeared today.

I first heard of Guy Fawkes Night in a 1992 cookbook, The Inspired Vegetarian, by British author Louise Pickford. She includes a recipe for “Miff’s Spicy Pumpkin Soup,” which her Aunt Miff used to make for a Guy Fawkes fireworks party every year. She recalls that “all the children would spend hours preparing pumpkin lanterns to hang in the garden. We would watch the fireworks, huddled around the bonfire, with mugs of steaming pumpkin soup.”

I asked my cousin’s husband, who grew up in Exeter, in the southwest of England, whether he recalls any particular Guy Fawkes Night foods, and he couldn’t think of any—with the possible exception of beer. But up north, particularly in Yorkshire, there are a couple of treats that are associated with the holiday. Both revolve around treacle, or sugar syrup.

The first is parkin, sometimes spelled perkin, a gingerbread-like oatmeal cake usually made with dark molasses and golden syrup (a light sugar syrup—the closest American equivalent would probably be corn syrup). One of its features is that it keeps well; in fact, many recipes advise aging the cake for several days to let the flavors develop.

Pinning down food origins is always tricky, but the BBC reports that parkin may have originated with the Vikings and was certainly around by the time of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. Why it’s associated with November 5th is unknown—one possibility is that it dates to the Viking Feast of Thor, which was celebrated around the same time of year with bonfires and a similar cake—but some in Yorkshire even call the date Parkin Day. The one place that refuses to serve parkin, though, according to the BBC, is Fawkes’ alma mater in York.

The other Guy Fawkes-related treat, also from Yorkshire, is bonfire toffee, sometimes called treacle toffee. Also made with black treacle (or molasses), golden syrup and Demerara sugar (a light brown sugar), it’s made by boiling the sugars to a very high temperature with water and cream of tartar (other recipes call for butter and/or condensed milk), then letting it cool in a sheet pan until it becomes brittle. The pieces are broken off with a hammer. I couldn’t find any information on why this candy is associated with Guy Fawkes Night in particular. But, for a sweet tooth like me, who needs a reason?

Of course, in recent years another candy-centric fall holiday from America has been creeping into British culture, leaving some people there to worry that, in time, gunpowder and treason will be all but “forgot.”

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