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Elizabeth Birkett's little cakes

Wiggs, slightly sweetened buns flavoured with carraway seeds, were served at funerals in the North West of England. In the Lake District they were sometimes called 'arvel bread'. It is likely that the 'quick' flavoured seeds they contained were symbolic of resurrection and everlasting life.

Wiggs or whigs were leavened buns that were lighter and richer than household bread. As a result they were usually eaten as a special treat. They were always flavoured with carraway seeds, or carraway comfits. Elizabeth David was of the opinion that the name wigg was derived from an Old Norse word meaning wedge. Because she could find no clues in old recipes about how wiggs should be shaped, she assumed that they would have been made up into a round loaf and then cut across to form the wedges. In reality, they were probably made up into various shapes, though Randle Holme in The Anatomy of Armoury (1688) tells us that wiggs were elliptical in shape.

Wiggs were usually eaten with ale and cheese. William Ellis, a Herfordshire farmer and writer on country matters, used to give them to his own workers at harvest time. However, to save money, he tells us that he omitted the butter and eggs. His 'Wigs to make for harvestmen' were baked at the entrance to the oven "for about half an Hour; and this we generally do about six o'Clock in the Evening, that they may be hot against the Men come home to Supper from reaping, when we toss one of these large Wigs to each Man for his dipping it in a Bowl of Ale, which serves for an agreeable cooling Supper with Cheese or other Things". He tells us that he also used to give wiggs or seed-cake to his men for their 'beaver victuals', the food they ate at noon in the fields.

Above: the frontispiece to William Ellis's The Country Housewife's Family Companion (London: 1750). This work provides a remarkable insight into the food enjoyed by fairly humble farming families in Southern England in the mid-eighteenth century.

Wiggs and docker

These little cakes are leavened with barm or ale yeast and are much richer than ordinary wiggs. They are remarkably light and buttery and not as sweet as modern buns of this kind. Unusually, the recipe below calls for them to be 'docked' or pricked underneath, presumably to encourage them to rise evenly. The wooden utensil with the metal spikes in the photograph is a baker's docker, more usually used to prick biscuits or shortbread.

To make little Cakes 1699

Take a pound of New Butter and a pound of Wheat flower, one halfe peniworth of Caraway seeds, and another of coriander seeds, 3 yolks of Eggs and one white, 2 spoonfulls and a halfe of New Ale yeast, mixe all these together to a Past, but knead it not, nor mould it but beat it with your hand till it be thin, and cut it in what formes you please and pricke them on the wrong side, strew some searced sugar on them before you sett them in the oven, and when you take them out you must strew some more searced sugar upon them.

From Elizabeth Brown's (Birkett) Receipt Book 1699

A detail from the funeral expenses of Elizabeth Brown, who wrote the recipe above as a young woman. It lists 'Wiggs 14 dozen at 14 to the Dozen: £00-07-0'. They cost only sixpence less than her winding sheet. Elizabeth, of Townend Farm in Troutbeck near Windermere, died in 1728. Her widower provided two of his own sheep for the funeral feast. He also bought in a whole cartload of malt for brewing the arvel ale in which the wiggs would have been dipped by the guests. At other Brown funerals arvel cheese was eaten with the wiggs.

William Ellis's Wig Recipes

Take half a Peck of Flower, and mix it with an Egg-shell full of Carraway Seeds, and half a Pound of Sugar; then melt twelve Ounces of Butter in a Pint of warm Milk, and with three Parts of a Pint of Ale Yeast knead all together into a Paste, and after it has lain to ferment and swell, make it into Wigs and bake them. - Or, Take three Quarters of a Pound of Butter, and mix it with a Pottle of fine Flower, and half a Pound of Sugar, Nutmeg, Mace, and grated Ginger, four beaten Eggs and half a Pint of Ale Yeast, with a little Canary, if you please: These mix with a little warm Milk, and knead the whole into a light Dough, to stand about half an Hour before a Fire to ferment and swell; then just before they go into the Oven, wash the Wigs over with beaten Yolks of Eggs; if the Oven is quick in Fire, they will be baked in half an Hour on Tin Plates.

From William Ellis, The Country Housewife's Family Companion (London: 1750)

A common Country Baker’s Way of making Wigs

This Baker lived about a Day's Journey from London, in the Dunstable Road, where he made Wigs as well as Loaves of Bread for Sale: Now it was this Baker's Method to use Milk-porridge as one of his chief Ingredients in the making of Wigs (saying, he thought it help'd to make them whiter, hollower, sweeter, and more substantial, than when Milk only is employed for this Purpose) with Flower, Ale-yeast, some Sugar, and Carraway- feeds; but you must know that the Milk-porridge he thus made use of, was from the finest of Oatmeal, as it came from Braetch-Mill at Luton in Bedfordshire, where it was ground almost as fine as Flower.

From William Ellis, The Country Housewife's Family Companion (London: 1750)

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