Thar cakes (also known as Thor, Tharve, or Theor) is so named from the Old English, ‘theorf’: coarse and unleavened, and were originally baked to commemorate the dead around the Feast of All Souls in early November.The original cakes, or flat biscuits, were – in keeping with the solemn occasion – plain affairs.
They became later known, in some regions, as soulmass cakes, and were made both commercially and privately up to the end of the 19th century.
Peter Brears notes that in North Yorkshire these soulmass cakes, made commercially: ‘…were square farthing loaves with currants on the top, often given as presents from bakers to their customers. Sometimes they were kept as good-luck charms, one Whitby lady having one a century old in 1869.’ (Brears, 2014, p.292)
Over the years, they became more associated with the more popular celebrations around Plot or Bonfire Night (5th November) and the recipe became less austere and more Parkin-like in its ingredients and flavour. In time too, Thar Cakes gave way to parkin as the more popular recipe for celebrating Bonfire Night.
The Thar ‘cake’ was widely made across the North of England, with each district, region or individual cook, bringing their own twist to the recipe. Here’s one from West Yorkshire that produces more a biscuit than a cake. It has a pleasing ginger-oat flavour and texture to it:
- 1 lb(450g) fine oatmeal
- 1½ tablespoons sugar
- 4 oz (113g) lard
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon ground ginger
- Between 1 -2 lbs black treacle
- Mix together the dry ingredients and rub in the lard
- Work in just enough treacle to form a very stiff dough
- Roll out to about ¼ inch thick on a floured board and cut into rounds
- Bake on a greased baking sheet for 25-30 minutes in a moderate oven, around 180C/350F/gas mark 4
- Allow to cool a little before removing with a spatula.
In some parts of Yorkshire, a similar version of this was made on a bakestone, rather than in an oven.
Source: Peter Brears (2014) Traditional foods in Yorkshire. Prospect Books