Fruit cake…the one that hangs about!

For those of you that bake, you will know that it is a science! It involves precise measurements, exact temperatures, careful folding or fast whisking…etc. You only have to look at the vast amount of trouble shooting guides on the internet to see how easy it is to get a soggy bottom, dry crumb or sunken centre! So, it makes me wonder…how did people come up with these recipes in the first place! Clearly there must have been a huge element of trial and error, but all I can picture is some cave men and women, sat around a primitive fire working out how to make the perfect souffle…and it makes me chuckle!

At Origin, provenance is at the core of everything we do. This doesn’t just stop at researching any new suppliers we work with; it also goes back to looking at the origin of the products themselves. We introduced Elizabeth Botham’s fruit cake a couple of weeks ago on our Provenance Press emails and it got me thinking as to where it originates. We all know that fruit cake lasts a long time, what I didn’t realise was that it’s stuck about since the Roman times.

The oldest reference to a fruit cake recipe is from 2,000 years ago and included pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and raisins mixed into barley mash. In the Middle Ages the recipe grew to include honey, spices and more preserved fruits. It is said that hunters and crusaders carried the fruit cake whilst on long journeys from home to sustain themselves.

Dried fruits have been used in the Mediterranean for thousands of years, probably from gatherers noticing that fallen fruit dried out by the hot sun were still edible, stable and had concentrated sweetness. Recipes containing dried fruits were found scribed in the daily language of Babylonia on the Mesopotamian tablets from 1,500 years ago. So, when dried fruits started to reached Britain in the 1400s, the love of fruit cake started here too.

Some quick fun facts;

· In the 1700s, at the end of the nut harvest a ceremonial fruitcake would be eaten in the hopes it would symbolise another successful harvest. Then they would mix the nuts from that year’s harvest into a new cake for following year…we told you they last a while!
· But not as long as the 142-year-old heirloom fruit cake has lasted in Michigan, USA. Fidelia Ford would bake a fruit cake each year and let it age but in 1878 she died, aged 65, before her cake from that year was eaten. It has since been handed down through four family generations and is kept in an antique glass dish and regaled about at various family get-togethers each year.
· Another proof of the fruit cake’s longevity is the (nearly) edible fruitcake found a century after Robert Falcon Scott abandoned it during his British Antarctic Expedition. It was found whilst excavating a shelter he had used and was in “excellent condition” inside a corroded tin. Sadly, Scott never got the chance to eat the cake or make it to the South Pole as he died during the attempt.
· In the 18th century the fruit cake, known as plum cake, was outlawed throughout Europe for being “sinfully rich” as it had a high content of sugar and butter.
· But, from the 19th century fruit cake became the traditional wedding cake and un-married wedding guests would place a slice under their pillow so they would dream about who they would marry.

The humble fruit cake is now enjoyed all around the world, in their own versions and celebrated with different traditions. From the German stollen, Italian panettone, Polish keks to the Caribbean version with lots of rum! In Portugal, the bolo rei has an interesting tradition where each cake is baked with one fava bean and whoever finds it must buy the cake the following year. This seems to the be the opposite to the English tradition which also started with a single dried pea or bean being baked into the Twelfth Night Cake (celebrated on the 5th January to celebrate the end to Christmastide). However, if found it meant that you were the King or Queen for the night. Over the years the bean was upgraded to coins; originally a Silver Farthing and then after World War 1 it became a threepenny bit and then the silver sixpence.

Fruit cake has never been at the top of my list of favourites! In fact, in 2010 my wedding cake was a naked 3-tiered sticky toffee pudding cake with a topper. It was probably the strangest, but by far the tastiest, wedding cake I have ever come across. But, with all the history behind it…I still hope that the fruit cake will still be about in a few centuries. Maybe with a new recipe? Maybe with a new tradition?

If you have a different fruit cake tradition, get in touch because we would love to hear about it!

As an added bonus, here is a recipe from ‘Lady Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book’ written in 1604, but be aware that a “peck” is about 12.5 pounds (nearly 7kg) as this would serve about 120 people…so if you can figure the rest out, you might want to scale it down a bit!

“Take a peck of flower, and fower pound of currance, on ounce of Cinamon, half an ounce of ginger, two nutmegs, of cloves and mace two peniworth, of butter one pound, mingle your spice and flower & fruit together, put as much barme as will make it light, then take good Ale, & put your butter in it, all saving a little, which you must put in the milk, & let the milk boyle with the butter, them make a posset with it, & temper the Cake with the posset drinkl, & curd & all together, & put some sugar in & so bake it.”

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