The history of cake

A slice of Britain’s history of baking

Posted on: 22/02/2016 with tags: alysa levene, cake, history of baking

Chances are, if you ask a Brit about their favourite cake, you’re going to unleash a wave of nostalgia. We might not have our own national cuisine but we certainly do a good line in cakes. What’s more, many of those cakes are attached to institutions we think of as peculiarly British too: the WI (who can forget Calendar Girls: jam, Jerusalem, and a perky cake or two?), village fairs, agricultural shows and afternoon teas. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us: it was a British woman who supposedly invented afternoon tea, after all – Anna, the Duchess of Devonshire, who was a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Victoria in the late 1830s. And while we’re on the topic, Queen Victoria of course lent her name to one of the most quintessential of British Cakes; she used to serve it at afternoon teas at her Isle of Wight home, Osborne House. No cream for the queen though: she preferred a simple layer of jam.

The Victoria Sandwich, then, must top the list of top British bakes; in fact it was named the most popular cake in the tea-rooms of that other British institution, the National Trust, in 2013. It does pre-date its royal name-sake: it came into being in the late eighteenth century, when finer flours, imperial sugar, domestic enclosed ovens, and the invention of chemical leavening agents all converged to produce something really new from the nations’ kitchens. ‘Mrs’ Isabella Beeton was among the first to produce a recipe for something called a ‘Victoria Sandwich’ in the first edition of her magisterial Book of Household Management of 1861, though it was served in fingers, like the other bits of ‘knicknackery in the way of sweet eatables’ which she said made up a Victorian afternoon tea. Just don’t call it a sponge – a true sponge cake contains no fat.

What else is on our list of favourite British cakes, then? A perusal of local cafes (all in the name of research, you understand) reveals a few perennial contenders: the lemon drizzle, the Battenburg, a chocolate layer cake, a Madeira cake, a carrot cake, forever associated with the health food movement of the 1970s (wishful thinking by those trying to kid themselves it’s healthy?) perhaps a dainty Fondant Fancy. The National Trust certainly came up with a very similar list when it surveyed the favourite bakes at its tea shops in 2012. But where should we look for the others? To our history? Then we would include a fruited Twelfth Cake, the originator of our modern Christmas Cake; Queen Cakes – small, dense little cakes, arguably the precursor to the Cupcake; a Cornish Saffron Cake and a dense Gingerbread, a Banbury Cake or an Eccles Cake. Our attachment to shop-bought favourites, like the Jamaican Ginger Cake, the Swiss Roll or the Tunnock’s Tea Cake? Or should we look to our modern taste for fusion flavours and American excess? A Mississippi Mud Cake might be in order then, or a lavender-infused or chocolate-orange Cupcake topped with two inches of swirled buttercream. Perhaps even one of the latest trends, a gravity-defying cake, like the soda pop one Nadiyah made in one of the early rounds of the 2015 Great British Bake-Off. Or that 1980s favourite, the decidedly non-British piece of decadence that is the Black Forest Gateau. One thing is certain: our tastes are eclectic and insatiable. But they are also quintessentially British – for what more benign and calming symbol of national character could there be than the simple Victoria Sandwich, understated, but with pretensions to royalty? Just don’t call it a Sponge.

by Alysa Levene, author of Cake: A Slice of History


Author: Alysa Levene

Alysa Levene is the author of Cake: A Slice of History

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