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Parkin is as closely associated with Bonfire Night as Guy Fawkes himself, but there is one place you can be sure that you would not be offered a piece of this sticky gingerbread and that is at St Peter's School in York. This is where Guy Fawkes was educated, and almost 400 years on from his most infamous exploit, his old school still feels it is not quite the thing to watch a former pupil go up in flames while you stand by cheering and eating spiced oaty cakes. Bonfire Night at St Peter's is studiously ignored.

In fact, celebratory bonfires and parkin both go back well before 1605 and the Gunpowder Plot. Around this time of year, the Vikings once celebrated the Feast of Thor, the god of thunder, with bonfires and a special 'thar cake' which, like early forms of parkin, would have been baked on a stone heated by the fire. There is a similar recipe called 'tharf' made in South Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Derbyshire. The parkin biscuits still made in the border regions between England and Scotland date back to this drier dough that was rolled flat and baked in a disc or cut into shapes. It is the Yorkshire parkin, made from batter soft enough to be poured into a deep rectangular tin, that has spread nationwide. It is so popular in the West Riding of Yorkshire that in Leeds and many other places the fifth of November is called Parkin Day.

Parkin belongs to a family of economical teabreads called cut-and-come-again cakes - and not just because they were large enough to serve at more than one teatime. Such cakes were once made with little fat and no eggs so their texture depended on a high proportion of treacle. During baking this caramelised and hardened so the cake had to be kept for a few days for it to 'come again' (when the caramel softened a little to give a yielding crumby and nice sticky texture).

Dorothy Wordsworth made parkin on 6 November 1800 (we know this because she mentioned it in her diary). Hers would have been made with oatmeal - it was this and not wheat that was the common grain in the north of England and throughout Scotland. The later addition of a little wheatflour and the substitution of golden syrup for some of the black treacle makes for a lighter cake that is more to modern tastes. Ginger has always been added to a parkin, for it was once used medicinally and believed to warm the blood. But exactly when this sticky ginger cake came to be called parkin is not known. It was probably named after a Mrs Parkin (or perhaps Perkin), who must have had something of a reputation for the excellence of her cake. Perhaps it was she who invented the Yorkshire custom of baking a double batch of parkin and serving the first lot hot from the oven and smothered in apple sauce.