Britain loves cake. It is there for all of our most significant moments: birthdays, weddings, greetings and farewells, for every special day … and also for the everyday moments of relaxation and rejuvenation, a comforting slice next to the cuppa, a tiny moment of luxury and reward.
For many of us, baking a cake is fun and therapeutic too, and if that seems like too much hard work we can always kick back and enjoy watching other people make – or fail to make – them: the 14th series of The Great British Bake Off gets under way on Tuesday.
In all these ways, cake is a central part of our national life, but one perhaps that we take for granted. One day a couple of years ago I was enjoying a day off in London and treated myself to a cup of tea and a slice of Battenberg cake in Fortnum & Mason’s tea room in Piccadilly – a much more affordable treat than lunch or dinner.
I was sitting there sipping tea and nibbling cake, and I started to wonder how the cake I was eating came by its name – was it something to do with the Royal family? Then I wondered what the chequerboard design was all about … and before long I was pondering deeper matters, such as Who Invented Sponge Cake Anyway, Where Does the Word Cake Come From, and What is Going on with Colin the Caterpillar?
Serious topics, I’m sure you’ll agree, which couldn’t be solved over a single cup of Fortnum’s tea, for all the excellence of that brew.
But I love a mission, and over the following year or so I devoted much of my spare time to researching the history of cake in Britain and then travelling to relevant spots to consume different cakes in places relevant to their stories.
The project, initially regarded as “barmy” by my mother, “crackers” by my wife and “lame” by my daughters, eventually cohered into a book, published next week, which may confirm my family’s opinions – but they’ll have to read it to be sure.
I restricted myself to cakes that have established a place in British life, acknowledging happily and immediately that in cake, as in so much else, this country has always assimilated delicious ideas and ingredients from far afield.
Not every cake in the book is purely British – that would be a ridiculous and unenforceable restriction; but one of my criteria was that the cakes I pursued should be well established in the affections of British eaters. Another characteristic that I wanted to pursue was the stories behind the cakes I chose: so I was looking for cakes with a tale of their own, with some kind of cultural significance and a distinctive character. Cakes whose history I could get my teeth into.
And as the project took shape I realised that simply looking things up and then eating them was not going to suffice. I needed to eat those cakes in the right circumstances.
It’s easy enough to send out for cake – or practically any other foodstuff – and I could have assembled the edible elements of this book at home within a couple of days at most. But that would be lazy, gluttonous, self-indulgent and dull. How much more interesting it would be, I thought, to set myself a kind of quest: not only to draw up a list of the cakes that the people of these islands cherish, but to investigate their stories – and then, by way of a challenge, try to eat a chunk of each, as it were The True Slice, in a place appropriate to its story.
Sometimes the choice of location was fairly straightforward: Dundee, Eccles and Banbury for the cakes named after, and first created, in those communities. Other locations are to do with the history of a cake itself, or of the people who inspired or particularly enjoyed it. Then there are “occasion” cakes, which prompted their own special places to visit: a wedding in Hampshire; Charles Dickens’ sitting-room at Christmas-time.
My Grand Tour of the cake sites of Britain took about a year to complete, travelling at weekends and on occasional days off from my job at the Telegraph. Not every trip went according to plan, but if I didn’t always locate the cake I was after I certainly learnt something every time I set out – even if it was only the early-closing schedule of certain regional bakeries. The quests – even the cakeless ones – were thoroughly enjoyable, because I love to travel, and I love it even more when I travel with a purpose.
I organised the cake stories and journeys not in the order that I made them, but in something approximating a chronology of the history of cake in Britain. I say “approximating” because the evolution of cake is not, thank goodness, a Darwinian process: ancient cakes survive alongside modern innovations, and the story of one kind of cake overlaps with that of others.
Precisely where in history to locate ginger cake, for example, was not an easy decision. But it seemed to me that there was a clear progression from primitive cakes, to medieval “great cakes”, on to the industrial and marketing innovations of the Victorians and finally to the extravagances, vulgarities – and fun – of the present day.
Along the way I found that cake is a wonderful medium for unlocking memories. This was hardly an original discovery. Marcel Proust, for one, knew it, kick-starting the million-plus words of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu with a chunk of cake crumbled into herbal tea – but it meant that as well as exploring mainstream cake history I found myself uncovering chunks of family history that I had almost forgotten, or never knew.
I revisited the combination of sponge fingers and Bird’s Custard, for example, because I found that I remembered eating this combination in the home of my early childhood half a century ago. More wonderfully still, my mother, who is 99 and will happily admit that she can’t remember who came for lunch yesterday, recalled in great detail an excellent story about her mother and the delivery of a special Christmas cake via Green Line bus in the early 1960s.
Action was required, as well as research and recollection: I scorched oatcakes on an open fire in a recreated Anglo-Saxon settlement, seeking to channel the spirit of the cake-burning King Alfred; trudged through drizzle in the suburbs of Manchester in search of the perfect Eccles Cake, and smuggled chocolate fridge cake into the throne room at Windsor Castle, among many other adventures.
I’m a Baker by name rather than a baker by training, so rather than make cakes myself I recruited experts to contribute a recipe at the end of each chapter: the only exception was for the section about The Great British Bake Off. Unable to obtain entry for the real thing – too late and too incompetent – I joined my elder daughter in a big tent in east London for a rough approximation, and made a cake pop … and a mess.
Through all the hectic travelling, sampling and researching, I never lost touch with my enjoyment of cake itself, and the way that it brings people together and creates moments of joy and togetherness. I may not have answered every question in my search for the meaning of cake, but I arrived at one incontestable conclusion: it is best when shared.
Cake: A Slice of British Life by Andrew Baker is published by Mudlark next week
The word ‘cake’ ...
… is first recorded in what is recognisably modern English in the late 14th century, but how it came into the language is not clear.
Commentators with varying degrees of academic credibility claim confidently that the word came into English via Scandinavian settlers and their Old Norse word “kaka”, meaning lump or clod. In this case the word is describing the shape of the thing – in the same way that we describe a cake of soap – rather than describing something which is cooked, or which has a certain taste.
This is perfectly plausible, and would provide a nice historical irony by suggesting that the things King Alfred burnt would come to be known by a name taken from the language of his enemies.
But it also seems possible that, instead, the word cake survived, corrupted, from the Roman occupation of Britain and came into the language via Old and Middle English as a variant of the Latin coquere, to cook.
We may never know the truth. But alongside this ancient etymology it is interesting to note that one of the most recent recruits to the English language is also cake-related. The term, admitted to the Oxford English Dictionary’s New Words List in 2015, is “cakeage”, analogous to corkage and relating to the charge levied by a restaurant for cutting and serving a cake brought in by a customer.
This is indeed named after a member of the Royal family – of several royal families, in fact: His Serene Highness Prince Louis of Battenberg, from what is now Germany, who married Queen Victoria’s granddaughter – also called Victoria – and became, eventually, First Sea Lord in charge of the British Royal Navy.
His name and antecedents became a little awkward when we actually went to war with Germany, so Prince Louis of Battenberg became Sir Louis Mountbatten … which is why the Royal family’s surname now is Mountbatten-Windsor. So Louis had a cake named after him, but then lost the name.
He also lost his job with the Royal Navy, and most of his money and property, and died in drastically reduced circumstances in 1921 in rooms in Half Moon Street, just off Piccadilly and just over the road from where I am eating Battenberg cake at Fortnum & Mason in these photographs.
The story of sponge cake
We don’t have an exact date for the invention of sponge cake, but common sense suggests that it was likely to have coincided with the widespread adoption of implements suitable for the beating of eggs … and the fork did not catch on in Europe until the later Middle Ages.
So rather than “invented”, it might be better to say that sponge cake evolved in Europe in the Middle Ages, most likely in Spain; though it was first recorded in the work of the Italian Renaissance chef Bartolomeo Scappi, while the English poet and chronicler Gervase Markham set down the first recipe for something that we would recognise as sponge cake in 1615, though without calling it that.
At this stage the cakes – containing no fat, but simply eggs, flour and sugar – were still dense and biscuity, at best like a sponge finger or madeleine. For the next couple of centuries the quality of sponge relied almost entirely on the heft and stamina of the cook doing the beating, a good hour with fork and bowl being recommended for a satisfactory rise in a substantial cake.
The origins of the name are similarly obscure, though it may well have arisen through a pre-fork method of getting bubbles into egg whites, by squeezing them through a (natural, harvested from the sea) sponge. The earliest citation for the word in a cake context in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from a letter by Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra of June 17 1808, in which the novelist declares: “You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me!”
The breakthrough into fluffy lightness without arm-ache for the chef came with the invention of baking powder in 1843 by Alfred Bird, a Birmingham chemist who is also justly celebrated for the creation of Bird’s custard powder – both originally conceived in order to combat his wife’s intolerance of yeast and eggs.
The ubiquitous fruit cake
Why are fruit cakes still so popular, and why do they pop up in different contexts in British life: at the village fair, as Dundee cake, iced as traditional wedding cake and Christmas cake?
Any nation’s cuisine is bound to be based on the raw materials available, and in Britain there is abundant fruit, from hedgerows and trees: it’s inevitable that it would have been used to augment basic recipes from the very earliest days of cooking.
We know from the writings of Apicius that the Romans had a cake or loaf of dried fruit, honey and nuts held together in grain mash, and some version of this will inevitably have travelled with them to Britain – where the residents may well have come up with a similar idea independently.
A descendant of this, raised with yeast but still dense and heavily fruited, became the Great Cake of medieval feast days, direct ancestor of our ubiquitous fruit cakes today. The embellishments that distinguish one from another are merely matters of style and custom: as the great American talk show host Johnny Carson put it: “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.”
Why? Because fruit cake is a portable, resilient, reliable store of goodness. It is versatile: it can be iced as a dessert, topped with cheese as a main course (in Yorkshire), taken on an Antarctic expedition as a lifesaver. It is democratic: dressed up for a royal wedding, dressed down for a church fête.
And it keeps: in the right conditions, fruit cake lasts for centuries. While fancier, flimsier cakes decay and disappear, fruit cake will always be with us.
In After the Funeral, an Hercule Poirot murder mystery by Agatha Christie, one of the characters is poisoned by a slice of wedding cake laced with arsenic and then posted through her letterbox in a little parcel.
This custom, a way of sharing the cake with guests who could not be present at the reception, is now dying out as caterers turn to less hefty – and thus less postable – forms of cake. But it’s not dying out as rapidly as Christie’s characters do.
Colin v Cuthbert: the supermarket caterpillar cake wars
The names alone of the supermarket caterpillar cohort speak volumes: Colin and Connie from Marks & Spencer are the baked invertebrates with which many of us are most familiar.
Up against them are ranged Cuthbert, of Aldi, of whom more below; Clyde from Asda; Cecil from Waitrose; Charlie from the Co-op; Curly from Tesco, Clive from OneStop and – bravely departing from the C trend – Wiggles from Sainsbury’s. Free-from variants include Frieda from Asda (see what they did there?); Carl from Tesco and Eric from Sainsbury’s, the latter two perhaps nodding to the author of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle.
Most recently, to coincide with the Coronation of King Charles III, Waitrose brought out Jewel the Jack Russell, who was disguised with a crown and a face not entirely unlike that of the monarch, and claimed to be a small dog, but still looked very much like a caterpillar to me.
Of all these, Cuthbert has attracted the most attention, not through originality or outstanding culinary achievement, but through the courts. In April 2021, newspapers were delighted to note Marks & Spencer’s announcement that it had lodged an intellectual property claim for infringement of three trade marks with the High Court against Aldi in relation to their rival’s Cuthbert the Caterpillar.
In its complaint, Marks & Spencer claimed that Aldi’s Cuthbert the Caterpillar was too similar to their own Colin the Caterpillar cake, which could lead consumers to believe that they are of the same standard and allows Cuthbert to “ride on the coat-tails” of the M&S cake’s reputation. I’m not sure that caterpillars – or indeed cakes – have coat-tails, but that is of no importance because in February 2022, the lawsuit was settled between both parties for an undisclosed amount.