Category Archives: Food

Custom survived: Making Simnel Cakes for Mothering Sunday

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Recently I have noticed that well-known bakery Greggs had been selling Simnel cakes around March time in memory of the tradition of making Simnel Cake which if the number of recipes on the internet is anything to go by is still a commonly made cake. Here is a clip of well-known Mary Berry making one!

The association with Mothering Sunday has been so great that it became alternatively known as Simnel Sunday. 

Nathan Bailey in his 1721 Dictionary states that:

“Simnel is probably derived from the Latin Simila, fine flour, and means a sort of cake, or bun, made of fine flour, spice, &c.”

Frequent mention is made of the Simnel in the household allowances of Henry the First.

“Cancellarius v solidos in die et i Siminellum dominicum, et ii salum, et i sextarium de vino claro, et i sext. de vino expensabili, et unum grossum cereum, et xl frusta Candell.”–_Libr. Nigr. Scaccarii,”

Why a cake should be firstly established with a religious custom is unclear but some have argued that it derived from a type of bread given out on the Sunday service. Indeed a bread called “simnel bread” is mentioned by Jehoshaphat Aspin, in his Pictures of Manners, &c., of England quoting from a statue book of the 51st of Henry III:

“A farthing symnel_ (a sort of small cake, twice baked, and also called a cracknel) should weigh two ounces less than the wastel_(a kind of cake made with honey, or with meal and oil).”

At some point probably to make it more commercially viable it manifested itself into cakes with the image of Jesus to know the traditional 12 apostles and Jesus made of balls of marzipan!

Edward Baines in his 1836 History of Lancashire records that:

“At Bury, in Lancashire, from time beyond memory, thousands of persons come from all parts, and eat “simnels” on Simnel Sunday.”

However the custom nearly fell afoul of the church:

“Formerly, nearly every shop was open, quite in defiance of the law respecting the closing during “service,” but of late, through the improved state of public opinion, the disorderly scenes to which the custom gave rise have been partially amended. Efforts have been repeatedly made to put a stop to the practice altogether, but in vain. The clergy, headed by the rector, and the ministers of all denominations (save the Romanists) have drawn up protests and printed appeals against this desecration, but, as just stated, with scarcely any visible effect. It is not a little singular that the practice of assembling in one town, upon one day–the middle Sunday in Lent, to eat simnel cake, is a practice confined to Bury. Much labour has been expended to trace the origin of this custom, but without success.”

Herrick in his Hesperides has the following:

“TO DIANEME. “A CEREMONIE IN GLOCESTER.    “I’ll to thee a Simnell bring, ’Gainst thou go’st a _mothering;  So that, when she blesseth thee, Half that blessing thou’lt give me.”

Hone’s Book of Days gives the origin of the name

“There is a story current in Shropshire, which is more picturesque. Long ago there lived an honest old couple, boasting the names of Simon and Nelly, but their surnames are not known. It was their custom at Easter to gather their children about them, and thus meet together once a year under the old homestead. The fasting season of Lent was just ending, but they had still left some of the unleavened dough which had been from time to time converted into bread during the forty days. Nelly was a careful woman, and it grieved her to waste anything, so she suggested that they should use the remains of the lenten dough, for the basis of a cake to regale the assembled family. Simon readily agreed to the proposal, and further reminded his partner that there were still some remains of their Christmas plum-pudding hoarded up in the cupboard, and that this might form the interior, and be an agreeable surprise to the young people when they had made their way through the less tasty crust. So far all things went on harmoniously; but when the cake was made, a subject of violent discord arose, Sim insisting that it should be boiled, while Nell no less obstinately contended that it should be baked. The dispute ran from words to blows, for Nell not choosing to let her province in the household be thus interfered with, jumped up, and threw the stool she was sitting on at Sim, who, on his part, seized a besom, and applied it with right good will to the head and shoulders of his spouse. She now seized the broom, and the battle became so warm, that it might have had a very serious result, had not Nell proposed as a compromise that the cake should be boiled first and afterwards baked. This Sim acceded to, for he had no wish for further acquaintance with the heavy end of the broom. Accordingly, the big pot was set on the fire, and the stool broken up and thrown on to boil it, whilst the besom and broom furnished fuel for the oven. Some eggs, which had been broken in the scuffle, were used to coat the outside of the pudding when boiled, which gave it the shining gloss it possesses as a cake. This new and remarkable production in the art of confectionery became known by the name of the cake of Simon and Nelly, but soon only the first half of each name was alone preserved and joined together, and it has ever since been known as the cake of Sim-Nel or Simnel.”

Well upon cooking my Simnel cake I took pains to boil the fruit and then add it to the mix bake it slowly..and then with the marzipan on carefully place it under the grill..and very nice it was too. My mother was very pleased with it as I arrived surprising her on Mother’s Day.

Custom demised: Wetting the block

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All about shoes: Cordwainer or Cobbler : What's the difference ?

Hone’s Everyday book records a curious lost trade custom which was recorded in Berkshire and Hampshire only it appears. As the two counties are adjoining it is quite possible that it was established here but a note by the author suggests that it other places it took place in Easter. The author writes: 

“The first Monday in March being the time when shoemakers in the country cease from working by candle-light, it used to be customary for them to meet together in the evening for the purpose of wetting the block.”

The custom appears to be one done by the master of the trade to recognise the workers:

“On these occasions the master either provided a supper for his men, or made them a present of money or drink; the rest of the expense was defrayed by subscriptions among themselves, and sometimes by donations from customers.”

The custom then would have a ceremonial end which is the wetting part which consisted of the following:

“After the supper was ended, the block candlestick was placed in the midst, the shop candle was lighted, and all the glasses being filled.”

Then at the end:

“the oldest hand in the shop poured the contents of his glass over the candle to extinguish it; the rest then drank the contents of theirs standing, and gave three cheers. The meeting was usually kept to a late hour.”

As shoemaking became industrialised one imagine this custom died out!

Custom survived: St. Ives Langley Bread

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“charged his lands in St. Ives with the payment of 40s. a year to be distributed to poor widows and fatherless children, and with a further sum of 6s. to the churchwardens to be given to the bellringers.

Robert Langley by will dated 24 Aug. 1656 Charity report 1909

St Ives is a delightful small town which is noted amongst those interested in calendar customs for its bible dicing, however there is another custom that the town has undertaken for the last 300 years or so which has failed to be recorded as far as I am aware in any books on calendar customs. So for the 10th year of blogging on calendar custom it felt appropriate that I experienced and being free on the day of its distribution the 5th of January, linking it to epiphany no doubt it felt this was the ideal opportunity. 

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Bread and Butter

The custom consists of a dole given out on or around the epiphany and fortunately being free this year. It was set up as stated above in 1656 by local philanthropic St. Ives man, Robert Langley and whilst there is no stipulations about fatherless children it is still distributed to poor widows (and grammatically now widowers). The tradition is known as the Langley Bread and continues as a giving practice once a year in January.

I arrived to see the truck outside the Corn Exchange loaded with Co-op bags drive off – hand I missed it – no for as I went into the main hall of the building to see tables bellowing under a pile of green Co-op bags crammed with food and the Mayor in his chain, the trustees of the charity and town council secretary awaiting the first of the applicants.

In 2022 there were 120 bags lined up on the tables. Around 45 being delivered each year to local nursing homes. The number had been adjusted to take into account the number of recipients who came the previous year and thus the number left over. 

All doled up

Soon the first applicants appeared and many of them for familiar faces who had come previously to collect their bag of goodies and as a local newspaper account records:

“Great care is taken to ensure that only widows and widowers who are residents of St Ives benefit. As people come in to the building, they give out their addresses which are checked on the electoral roll.”

Indeed the clerks asked for names and they searched carefully their electoral role and upon finding them crossed them off and gave the recipient a ticket. However it was only a few feet away where the Mayor was ready to collect the ticket and give over the bag.

Many of the recipients were ‘regulars’ and despite having to be checked on the role many had come for the chat as well – being lonely widowers this would of course make sense. Indeed there was a sort of melancholy to the custom typified by one recipient stating

“Last year I came with my friend and wasnt eligible and this year I can come and collect one myself”

Sadly we all know what that means. But on the flipside it also encouraged people to talk to each and help each other as recorded in the newspaper article which stated:

one person is authorised to collect for friends.

“Especially where the old folks’ bungalows are, the fittest one will come down and collect them for their neighbours,” said David Hodge, who as mayor is responsible for giving out the bags. “Hence, they come with a list and they then go back with some for all their friends. It is checked, honestly!”

One could see that for many lonely widows it was a good reason to get into town and perhaps socialise or in some cases challenge the Mayor on their policies.

The trustees stick very rigidly to the wording of the charity. A man turned up from nearby Reach and politely asked if he was eligible having been born in St Ives and was a widower. He however was refused as he no longer lived in the town. He seemed okay with that and it was interesting to see that the letter of the original bequest being undertaken.  

The bags soon went down. By 10 .45 85 bags were gone. By 11.40 107 had gone. And then by 11.45 only 13 were left. It had been a successful day the previous year they had had 150 bags left but nothing goes to waste as like the earlier ones they are delivered to those in nursing homes.

Now however very little of the original charity money goes to buy the dole and is donated by local companies. In 2022 it was donated for the third year from the Co-Op. Back in the 1800s it would have simply been bread like many other doles. However, now its full of other staples.  The bag consists of digestive biscuits, tea, bread, butter and sugar and were delivered by the company on the back of truck at 8 o’clock. Usually I was informed that it was topped up by the charity and this included orange juice or jam but this year they could not be sourced. 

Two for the price of one!

The Langley bequest is actually two customs in one as he left money for the bell ringers from St Ives’ parish church. The reason being because of a very familiar story seen elsewhere is bell tolling bequests. It is said that Langley was lost in a snowstorm on nearby Hemingford Meadow walking to St Ives. Upon hearing the parish church bells he was guided back to safety and thus in gratitude he left money for the bell ringers to ring a peel. This apparently also happens in January, however the trustees did not know when.

It is heartening to see Langley’s bequest continues to give support to those in need…although he clearly had little thought of mobility in snow ladden Januaries – perhaps not the best time for aged widowers to travel about!

Custom contrived: Guildford Twelfth Night celebrations

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Guildford’s Twelfth Night celebrations, always held on the night is a great smorgasbord of the customs associated with the old celebrations associated with the day and a more rousing and enjoyable twelfth night celebration you couldn’t find I’d say.

The Twelfth Night at Guildford founded by Pilgrim Morris founded in 1972. The groups dressed as characters from a plough or Mummer’s Play tour a number of Guildford’s pubs injecting a necessary shot of jollity into a drab winter’s night. As they tour around a fair number of followers are attracted to their infectious fun. Their costumes in themselves were a riot of craziness and eccentricity covered with ribbons and adorned with Chrimbo iconography one even included a miniature Father Christmas!

I arrived at the first pub having travelled across the capital from the Jeffrey’s museum’s Twelfth night and came across them mid mummer’s play as St George was being speared by a Saracen in such a rather cramped location that I feared as he feel he would hit his head on a table.

At the play’s conclusion seeing the revival of St George to cheers one of the Morris mean appeared with a cake and urged people to eat. Some were rather reluctant whereas others upon finding the purpose dived in and took a piece hoping to find the pea and bean. The pea and bean, hidden in the cake, being a Twelfth Night tradition, whosever would find it would be King or Queen of Misrule. The taker was unsuccessful. However, soon a partaker looking like they’d swallowed something a bit odd, reached into his mouth and extracted a hard bean – a cheer went out and he was celebrated as the King for the night.

There was then a sword dance again in the rather small area and it was perhaps thankful the swords were not the sharp kind.  One of the Morris then moved a chair and upon standing on it began to chalking the beam as traditional for epiphany. Their version slightly different:

“Finally, at each place, three crosses are chalked onto the beams to protect the house and bring good luck for the next year.”

There were more cheers. 

Off we went to another pub and hear the wassail bowl was out. This a wooden bowl filled with spiced ale and was being offered around and drunk enthusiastically like a communion wine and in a way this was the intentions.

Phil Gorton noted in the Guildford gazette

“In each of the five places that we visited, the Guildford Mummer’s play was performed followed carols and wassail songs – not the boring standard issue ones but traditional versions, some of which are local to Surrey.”

These songs were particularly uplifting at their final pub The Royal Oak where gathered around the stairway and up on the balcony the Morris dancers and accompanied impromptu choir sung their hearts out in their mixture of traditional and not so familiar carols. The custom is so well established now that it has its own followers who regularly attend and know the words of the more obscure and localised carols much as they do around Sheffield.  As noted by Phil again:

“There are always plenty of singers who come along to bolster the unofficial choir and, as happens each year

The local newspaper recording:

“Up to 150 wassailers, traditionally celebrating twelfth night, toured some of Guildford’s pubs last night (Jan 6th) causing merriment at every venue.

One of the celebrants, morris man Phil Gorton of Farncombe said: “The pubs were packed and it was a riotous night!””

If you are in Guildford or perhaps not and are free on Twelfth Night join the wassail at Guildford for a great experience – second to none as it has something customwise for everyone – including free food and drink!!

Custom demised: Biddenham Parish Bull on St Thomas’s Day

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Edwards in his 1842 Old English Customs and Charities notes:

“An ancient annual payment of 5l. out of an estate at Biddenham, formerly belonging to the family of Boteler, and now the property of Lord Viscount Hampden, is regularly paid on St. Thomas’s Day to the overseers of the poor for the purchase of a bull, which is killed, and the flesh thereof given amongst the poor persons of the parish.”

This is an unusual bequest because it was usually St. Martin’s Day that spare cattle were slaughtered and this may have been an issue. It is recorded that the churchwardens overseers and principal inhabitants assist at the distribution of the meat the portions being given to those who have the families. The report considers:

“For many years past the annual fund, being insufficient to purchase a bull, the deficiency has been made good out of other charities belonging to the parish. “

Tunnicliffe, C. F. (1901-1979), 'The Chartley Bull', Wood Engraving, 1939/2007 £300.00 - Fine Art prints paintings drawings sculpture uk

 

It was noted that the value of the bull has varied in the 1800s from £9 to £14 which may have resulted in the customs disappearance however a suggestion was made:.  

It was proposed some years ago by the vicar that the 5l. a year should be laid out in buying meat, but the poor insisted on the customary purchase of a bull being continued, and the usage is accordingly kept up.”

 It was said that the money came from a transfer of £200 from the trustees. This is possibly linked to land bought in 1706 by Elizabeth Boteler. Sadly the custom did not survive the 20th century. 

Custom contrived: Chocolate advent calendars

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Advent calendar - Wikipedia

Each year in November parents run around the shops preparing for Christmas and the first thing perhaps that needs to be purchased is the advent calendar. However these are not the card board ones which I remembered and are worthy of a separate discussion, no these are the chocolate ones. But how did the paper ones turn into the chocolate ones and when?

It is thought that advent calendars first started in German around the early 1900s although the company which first made these appeared to cease production during the Second World War but it was revived in 1946 and by the 1950s it had arrived in the US.

A date for the choco-holic?

It was not long into the 1950s that some had the idea of replacing the images in the advent windows with chocolate and secularisation begun. The first chocolate Advent calendar appeared in 1958. These continue to be made during the 1960s but it did not appear to catch on and I remember in the 1980s in the UK the advent calendar we purchased just had the scenes of the nativity in it – and to be honest I was quite excited to see them as well.

The beginning of the dominance perhaps could be traced to 1971 when chocolate giant Cadbury introduced one in the UK. However, they still not catch on and they were only produced intermittently between 1972 and 1986. They were not put into continuous production until 1993. By the 2000s they appear to have become the mainstay and the excepted. Such that it is now difficult to find the original none chocolate ones. Indeed, Martin Johnes in his Research notes and resources on the histories of Wales and popular culture blog notes:

“It is tempting to see the move to giving children a chocolate every day as another sign of the commercialisation of Christmas and ever growing levels of festive consumption. The emergence in of the past few years of luxurious calendars with toys and even food, drink and gifts aimed at adults has added to this sense and led to accusation that religious ideas are being colonised and trampled.”

Of course one could criticise the commercialisation of the original cardboard ones but somehow the addition of chocolate is somewhat more commercial. However, like the original card one, the countdown to Christmas day is still the principle role and children still get excited to see the windows open and see that they are one day closer to the big day itself and the joy that that brings.

For the folklorist the fact that it was not until the 1990s and 00s that this custom became established and then becoming the expected tradition just shows how quickly a custom can establish itself and become part of the smorgasbord of Christmas. Of course, that is if you can stop your children from eating them all in one go! Perhaps they are trying to win the record set by Kevin Strahle. He holds the record for eating the advent chocolates for the fastest time: 1 minute 27.84 seconds. A record which definitely flies in the face of the spirit of the custom!

Custom survived: The Southwell Ploughing Match

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Plough a deep furrow

The Southwell Ploughing match is one of the oldest agricultural traditions in the country. It was established in 1855 by the Southwell and District Agricultural society consisting of four ploughing classes with the first ploughing match being undertaken in 1856. This was at Averham Park. Unfortunately the group folded in 1880 but was re-established in 1908 by the Southwell Farmer’s Club. The First World War put an understandable stop to such activities only being restored in 1922. Modernisation begun when in 1937 tractor pulling was added in 1936 but it did not last long stopping in 1938. Post war in 1947 it was re-started. It has not had an unbroken run since unfortunately with foot and mouth in 2001 stopping it, heaving rain in 2017 and the Coronavirus pandemic. 

To plough ahead

The ploughing remains central to the event. One can see the beauty in creating a straight furrow although how it was exactly judged was a bit of an arcane art. Being a few yards away from it also made it a bit difficult to follow. From the distance I stood it looked like a rather strangely staggered relay match with tractors. There were massive seed drills, old and ancient some looking like they had just out of a museum for the day. The tractors were centre stage of course in their many forms old and new. The smell and the sounds of threshing machines and old engines are very evocative. However, the event is more than just watching the ploughing and there is a whole range of country and rural related events and trade stands. These range from dog shows to farmer’s market. I spent a lot of time looking at the cheese available and admiring the dog’s agility.

Southwell Ploughing Match & Show

A deep furrow

These events are very much the stage and advert for the agricultural community so needed. An essential place for all to attend especially those who by our increasingly urban communities have been disconnected from the countryside.

Its position in the calendar of the year shows how calendar customs can be in tune with nature like a descent of the lost harvest homes; the event links to the end of the harvest and the necessary preparations of the land for the crop next year. Thus despite this being a ‘showing off’ of the ploughing communities best talents it is also a subtle way to show best practice. It has become as it has grown a way to celebrate the agricultural way of life and to stress the importance of these traditions to keep our rural communities alive.

 

 

 

Custom demised: Eastbourne Great Tythe feast

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Lundens, Gerrit; Peasants Feasting in a Barn; National Trust, Melford Hall; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/peasants-feasting-in-a-barn-171766

In Royer’s 1787 History of Eastbourne, 1787 a curious custom is described:

“On the three first Sundays in August a public breakfast, says  p. 126), is given at the parsonage-house by the tenants of the great tythes to the farmers and their servants, each farmer being entitled to send two servants for every waggon that he keeps. So that if a farmer have five waggons to do his necessary business he may send ten servants, and so on in proportion for a less or greater number.”

Thus was laid out a feast:

“The farmers are entertained in the parlour with a sirloin of hot roast beef, cold ham, Sussex cheese, strong ale, and Geneva; the men are entertained in the barn with everything the same as their masters except the beef. It is presumed that this custom had its origin from the time the tythes were first taken in kind in this parish, in order to keep all parties in good humour.”

Chambers’ Handbook of Eastbourne, 1872 records

“A petition to Parliament for the abolition of this custom was presented as far back as 1640, and, in 1649, an ordinance was enacted that 20l. per annum should be paid for the relief of the poor in lieu of the feast. “

It would be clear that during the Commonwealth the custom did stop but during the reign of Charles II:

“In 1687 the custom was revived; more recently an annual payment of 20l. for the education of poor children was substituted, and this amount now figures year by year in the accounts of St. Mary’s schools as paid by the Duke of Devonshire.”

It seemed that it was that the event encouraged poor behaviour rather than the custom’s cost. As summed up by the Sussex Archaeological society’s 1861’s Sussex archaeological collections relating to the history and antiquities of the county:

“That the Eastbourne Sunday is no matter of regret are dying out to which no good morals would be applicable.”

When it finally demised is unclear but it was certainly before the above account. It probably died out when many of the other harvest homes demised.

Custom demised: Holne Ram roasting on May Day.

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 In 1853, the curate of Holne in N. & Q. 1st S. vol. vii. p. 353 records a curious:

“At the village of Holne, situated on one of the spurs of Dartmoor, is a field of about two acres, the property of the parish, and called the Ploy (play) Field. In the centre of this stands a granite pillar (Menhir) six or seven feet high.”

Now folklorists have seen some significance with the association of the custom with a menhir suggesting an ancient custom and as such the following is of considerable interest. The author continues: 

“On May-morning before daybreak the young men of the village used to assemble there, and then proceed to the moor, where they selected a ram lamb (doubtless with the consent of the owner), and after running it down, brought it in triumph to the Ploy Field, fastened it to the pillar, cut its throat, and then roasted it whole, skin, wool, &c. At midday a struggle took place, at the risk of cut hands, for a slice, it being supposed to confer luck for the ensuing year on the fortunate devourer. As an act of gallantry the young men sometimes fought their way through the crowd to get a slice for the chosen amongst the young women, all of whom, in their best dresses, attended the Ram Feast, as it was called. Dancing, wrestling, and other games, assisted by copious libations of cider during the afternoon, prolonged the festivity till midnight.”

The custom appears in Black’s Guide to Devonshire who records:

“PLOYFIELD playfield where the ram feast is celebrated every May day a lamb being caught slaughtered and roasted and old games following the banquet.”

When it  died out is unclear. However, it is thought that the custom moved to July the 6th and involved catching ram from the moor,  dressing it with roses and leading to the Plat Park’ where it was slaughtered and then roasted. The meat was then apparently sold off and a day of games continued. In the end a ram was provided for the roast with little ceremony and in its final entity became the village’s fete which apparently still continues it a sanitised format today.

Custom demised: Braggot Sunday

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T. F. Thistleton-Dwyer’s 1875 British Popular customs present and past sort of spiced ale called Braggot, Bragget, or Braggat, was used in many parts of Lancashire on these visits of relations, whence the day was called Braggot Sunday.

Minsheu in his 1617 Ductor in Linguas tells us that Braggot is composed of two Welsh words. Brag, malt, and Gots, honeycombs. In Ben Jonson’s masque of the metamorphosised gipsies 1605 has the following lines:

“And we have serv’d there, armed all in ale, With the brown bowl, and charg’d in bragged ale.”

Robert Nares, James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, Thomas Wright 1859 A glossary; or collection of words, phrases, names and allusions to customs, proverbs, etc., which have been thought to require illustration in the works of English authors, particularly of Shakespeare, and his contemporaries notes the recipe for making bragget:

 “Take three or four gallons of good ale, or more as you please, two dayes or three after it is densed, and put it into a pot by itselfe ; then draw forth a pottle thereof, and put to it a quart of good English honey, and set them over the fire in a vessell, and let them boyle faire and softly, and alwayes as any froth ariseth skumme it away, and so clarifie it, and when it is well clarified, take it off the fire and let it coole, and put thereto of pepper a pennyworth, cloves, mace, ginger, nutmegs, cinamon, of each two pennyworth, beaten to powder, stir them well together, and set them over the fire to boyle againe awhile, then bring milke warme, put it to the reste, and stirre all together, and let it stand two or three dales, and put barme upon it, and drink it at your pleasure.”

Despite a small mention on some website and apparently a brand of braggot ale being available as well as the detailed method Braggot ale it does not appear to have been revived as a culinary experience. Perhaps the quote by Liza Frank on her blog on folklore may suggest why:

“My snifter remains unfinished and the rest of the bottle will shortly descend the drain, but if you like your liquor a bit weird and worthy of a flagon, you might as well sup of the braggot.”

Sakiskiu Alus - Tonka Bean Braggot

So alternative name for Mothering Sunday as Braggot Sunday has been forgotten by many and does look like being revived soon!