I thought I'd better check out my facts before I embarked on a story from a long time ago. Most people in England have heard of Guy Fawkes and know that he had something to do with Bonfire Night on 5th November. And they'd be right. In Bradford, where I grew up, we didn't know much more than that ...but we did call it 'Plot Night' and indeed, Guy Fawkes was a member of a group of fellow Catholics who planned - plotted - to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Guy Fawkes hadn't always been a Catholic but converted to this religion when he was about 16, probably due to the remarriage of his mother to a Catholic.... He had been a soldier in his early life, fighting for the Spanish against the Dutch - and at this time, chose to call himself 'Guido' - not sure why as this isn't a Spanish name.. The main target of the plot was to get rid of the Protestant King, James 1 and the year was 1605. The plot failed and it was Guy Fawkes who was the first of the group to be caught and taken prisoner, before being tortured to provide the names of his accomplices and then, as he was led to the scaffold, he jumped and broke his neck before he could be officially put to death. I always thought 'Guy' was an unusual name but I rather liked it. Until I met one in real life and that put me off the name forever! He was originally from York...
There's another Spanish link too - in 1603, Fawkes went to Spain to seek support for the removal of King James, but the Spanish weren't interested. I put this down to the fact that Spaniards really don't like to eat anything with ginger in it - and ginger is a key ingredient of Parkin and a must for Plot Night - and also they never set off fireworks on November 5th. They only get to hear about the Plot from their native English language teachers...and most of them never mention the Pigs!
That is my official, historical explanation, with some chronology and my take on cause and effect....
Now onto my memories of Plot Night...
Just before Plot Night itself, the children I went to school with would talk about going 'proggin'' (we're famous up North for not pronouncing the 'ng' at the end of 'ing' words...we stop short at the 'n') which was a sort of scavenger hunt for bits of wood and things that could be burnt on our bonfires. I wasn't allowed to go proggin' but didn't really need to as we always had Plot Night at my grandparents' house and my grandpa would build a pretty good bonfire out in the 'croft' - a piece of shared land at the back of our houses. We would sometimes have a 'Guy' - a comical thing made by my granny from Grandpa's old clothes - and we'd always have a selection of fireworks like Catherine Wheels, Roman Candles, Snow Storm and a few rockets - but I always loved sparklers the best of all. I loved trying to write my name in mid-air before the image faded. And the smell...what a smell it was! Apparently it's sulphur residue though I'd always been told it was cordite...not true. Whatever it was, it hung in the air and made everything seem exciting. I really loved Plot Nights.
We ate pork pies and baked potatoes followed by parkin - an oatmeal-based ginger cake - and my Granny's special Parkin Pigs. Again, it would appear that this particular thing was quite local to Bradford and nearby areas of Yorkshire - unless of course, there is anyone reading who can tell me differently. I don't have any photos of our pigs - my mum now has 'the' cutter and she reckons it must be at least 100 years old as it's passed through generations of her family. The pigs themselves must have a currant eye and are thin, crispy ginger biscuits - the recipe is almost foolproof and I'll share it here...I guess it will be OK to make other gingerbread things out of it if you don't have a pig cutter...I do. And because the recipe is very old, it's in imperial measures...
4oz golden syrup }
10oz sugar } - melt together in a large saucepan
4oz butter }
16oz self-raising flour
1 beaten egg
Stir into a soft mass and roll out as quickly as possible. Cut into shapes and bake at 120 degrees (low heat) for 10 to 15 minutes. It's easiest to work with when the dough is warm and slightly soft - I've found a quick blast in the microwave softens it again to make the shapes in batches - stops the cracking that happens when it's cool.
We're going to make some tomorrow when I've bought some golden syrup...I have a wide range of shape cutters but sadly, no pigs...
I am still none the wiser as to why we used to eat Parkin Pigs on Plot Night but we did and my mum still makes them at this time of year and gives them out to 'Trick or Treaters' in Knutsford...who won't have a clue why they've been given a gingerbread pig biscuit (unless they read this blog).
When we lived in Huddersfield, our Plot Night treat used to be a drive up to Castle Hill which overlooked all of Huddersfield and beyond, where we got a real bird-eye view of all the different bonfires and fireworks parties that were going on. Inevitably, there would be other families and groups there and we would always set off a few rockets from this vantage point - nothing too much but always with a sense of community spirit. Since 2009 though, fireworks have been banned on Castle Hill.
Funny to think how customs come and go - if I ever inherit the pig cutter, I shall most definitely continue the tradition. Whatever that might be!