Shopping: Check it Out - SIMNEL CAKES AND COLOMBAS

IN JUST a few days' time Easter will be upon us. Chocoholics will already have been dropping unsubtle hints concerning the importance of celebrating the occasion with an egg or two.

But what if you don't like chocolate; how can you mark the end of Lenten abstinence? By eating cake, of course. The British have baked Simnel cakes at Easter for hundreds of years - the first literary reference to them occurs in the reign of Edward the Confessor. Rich, spicy fruit cakes, they are decorated with 11 marzipan balls to symbolise Jesus's faithful disciples.

The thought of buying all the ingredients to make a cake can be off- putting, especially if you get the cooking bug only once in a blue moon. By the next time you are motivated to seize the wooden spoon, all those partly-used packets of sugar and dried fruit will be doing a fair imitation of rock-solid concrete, fit only for the bin. This makes cake-baking an expensive proposition. The perfect solution, for the occasional cake-maker, is Whitworth's Easter Simnel Cake Baking Kit (pounds 6.49) available from Safeway, Sainsbury's and the Co-op. The box contains nearly everything you need (perishables, such as butter and eggs, are not included). The tin is exactly the right size, and I discovered, by following their instructions to the letter, that you don't even have to grease or line it. The cake was surprisingly quick and easy to mix, and delicious.

If you know time won't be on your side over the Easter break, try ordering a cake from a mail-order bakery. Meg Rivers Cakes has a hearty 1kg simnel cake for pounds 16.50; the 1.5kg costs pounds 21.50 (plus pounds 2.95 p&p). They are also available from her shop in Middle Tysoe. Rivers is a staunch advocate of keeping English food traditions alive; her enthusiasm extends to 14 apostles on top of her cakes, but what's an extra apostle or two between friends? Apostles are obviously a tricky bunch to pin down. The Village Bakery's simnel cake has no apostles, while the Fresh Food Company's has three.

The Village Bakery in Melmerby, Cumbria mixes all its cakes by hand, before baking them in wood-fired ovens. Their Soil-Association-certified simnel cake is available in two sizes (454g/pounds 4.95; 680g/pounds 7.50). These cakes are wheat-free and guaranteed to be free of genetically modified organisms. They taste far from worthy though, being fruity with a hint spiciness, and not the slightest bit stodgy.

The Fresh Food Company, pioneers of nationwide home delivery of organic foods, list a simnel cake (1kg/pounds 18.95 including p&p) for the first time this year. GMO-free and made from an 1890s yeasted recipe, it's more like a German stollen than a heavy English fruitcake, and utterly moreish.

The Italians' traditional Easter cakes are lighter than ours. Colombas are similar to panettone but come shaped as doves (of peace), or more recently, lambs.

There are several varieties - with fruit, with roasted almonds and studded with sugar crystals, with chocolate or vanilla cream - and several sizes.

Victor Contini, director of the fabulous Italian deli in Edinburgh, Valvona & Crolla, says "They are generally eaten at breakfast time on Easter Sunday. Just wrap them in foil and pop them into a warm oven for 15 to 20 minutes. They're good with a cappuccino. Or try them after your main meal, with a glass of moscato or prosecco."

If you're lucky enough to live near Valvona's you can pop in to see the wide range of Colombas in stock. Otherwise, ring them for the last word in advice. Prices start at pounds 4.99 (plus pounds 3.65 p&p) for a 500g Bauli La Colomba Traditional.

Make sure you place any cake orders by five o'clock on Monday afternoon or your oh-so-traditional cake will arrive unseasonally late.

Fresh Food Company (0181-969 0351 , www.freshfood.co.uk); Meg Rivers Cakes (01295 688 101 ); The Village Bakery (www.villagebakery.com, 01768 881 515 ); Valvona & Crolla (0131-556 6066 ); Whitworths (www.whitworths.co.uk, 01933 653 000)

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