In Easter Biscuits we can see some of the clearly defined regional preferences that have largely been blurred by commercial food production and countrywide distribution.
Tracing the exact origin of these biscuits is not easy as they are similar in many aspects to Shrewsbury biscuits, i.e. of a widely found shortbread type studded with dried fruit. However, I believe the origins of the Easter speciality may lie in an area of Somerset known as Sedgemoor. Here, as in Shrewsbury, the biscuits were often called cakes – Sedgemoor Easter Cakes. So the inspiration may stem from Shrewsbury, but what made these biscuits peculiar to the Sedgemoor area? The answer lies in the additional flavouring. In Sedgemoor, Brandy was the defining flavour although cinnamon was also included. Not far away in Bristol, which has a tremendous baking heritage owing to its position as a dock where spices, dried fruit and sugar would first have been landed, Easter Biscuits are still very popular but here the defining flavouring is oil of cassia. Cassia was the poor man’s alternative to the more costly cinnamon, to which it is, loosely, related. Nowadays it is a lot harder to find oil of cassia than it is cinnamon, and certainly no cheaper, but you will find it on the internet – don’t worry if it says that the essential oil is not for consumption, this is standard advice and the small quantity used in Easter Biscuits is fine. However do take care not to get the undiluted oil on your skin. Personally, I don’t like it’s strident, rather bitter, flavour much, but, for my husband and his family, brought up in Bristol, an Easter Biscuit is not an Easter Biscuit without it. Others it seems may share my opinion, because in London the defining flavour is lemon zest. Commercially made Easter Biscuits, rather predictably, cop out of these regional preferences by using mixed spice.
The recipe I have given is the Bristol one that my mother-in-law has bakes, but by all means, do replace the oil of cassia if you prefer with one of the other regional flavourings. There is a recipe for the Sedgemoor version on Baking for Britain blogspot, which also provides the following information vis-à-vis the Easter connection…
Traditionally they are served after church on Easter Sunday, and are presented in a bundle of three biscuits to represent the Holy Trinity. They are eaten alongside hot cross buns, simnel cake and copious quantities of chocolate eggs as part of our Easter festivities.