I recently had the pleasure of meeting Dr Annie Gray, resident food historian for BBC Radio 4's 'The Kitchen Cabinet.
It was a dull, drizzly afternoon as I walked into Morley Town Hall for a talk on the history of cake by Dr. Annie Gray.
Casually dressed and well groomed with impossibly shiny dark hair, Annie Gray approached the stage of the modestly sized but grandly decorated hall with vigour. The audience of around sixty ranged from teenage to octogenarian. As a Food Historian, specialising in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Annie had come to inspire, inviting the audience to listen with open mind and the opportunity to ask questions thereafter, amid a ‘flurry’ of cake and tea.
Cake, in a word
Annie introduced the literal meaning of cake as a block, bar or slab but when the British talk of cake, they mean a baked food, made from a mixture of flour, sugar and eggs. Cake has through history, became ‘a patriotic symbol’ to us Brits and we happen to be very good at making it! Interestingly, even the fashionable French do not have a word for it, referring to their own ‘disappointing’ version as ‘le cake’. It seems that they do not have the equivalent sponge or fruit cakes in their repertoire.
Early cake was always risen with yeast and would have been baked in sealed brick, or clay ovens, for up to three hours, resulting in a product similar to that of a hard hotcross bun.
The Tudors loved sugar but sweet things such as tarts or sugared almonds were an indulgence affordable only to the rich. (Apparently, Queen Elizabeth I had such a fondness for sugar that her teeth turned black and many fell out due to decay!)
In the 17th century, there was something of a revolution as we gained control of the ‘sugar islands’: the mass development of plantations, making sugar cheaper and easier to obtain. (Described as a dark period in British History, millions of enslaved Africans undertook the majority of the hard graft required for its production, bringing great wealth to Britain.) No longer the preserve of the aristocarcy, we became a nation addicted to sugar and recipes which included it became more popular.
The earliest surviving British recipe for sponge cake, not including yeast, is believed to date back to 1615. Eggs were used as the raising agent and no decent kitchen would have been without a copper mixing bowl which gave the best foam. The proteins in the egg white and copper react to create a self raising agent. Annie humorously remarked that a real copper bowl would set you back £60 or £70 nowadays. She cannily picked one up at a flea market for £12 - the seller had mistaken it for a flower pot! Early sponge recipes required much hand mixing, some as long as 2 hours, to give the best results!
In the 18th century, cake was becoming established as a mark of ‘Englishness’ but it didn’t play a part in everyday meals. We began to look for excuses to eat cake, developing these into traditions. Many of these we are familiar with today, iced Wedding, Christening and Party cake, although perhaps not so elaborately iced and multi- tiered as then! One particular celebration cake which Annie described was the Twelfth Night Cake. This lurid and brightly decorated cake,(no natural blue colouring existed then or today) typical of its time had a dried bean in one half and a dried pea in the other. Whoever got them in their slice would be the Twelfth Night King or Queen. Our tradtition of putting a sixpence in a Christmas pudding or Scottish Clootie Dumpling came from this
In the early 1840’s, middle and upper classes began to eat later in the day and needed something to keep them going in the form of a ‘light snack’ such as dainty sandwiches and slices of sponge cake. Tea, already popular in coffee houses throughout the country provided the perfect accompaniment. (Victorian Sponges would traditionally have been made in squares and served already cut. This allowed for serving the next day or using as leftovers for puddings.) Women’s groups flourished as a result of afternoon tea. It was also a ritual for men, providing them with a window of opportunity to meet a wife. Often stiff and formal affairs, Annie quipped that ‘women did not take their hats off if they did not intend staying!’
Bucolic picnics were in vogue and street parties were held for the ‘deserving’ poor, only the ‘deserving’ you understand.
Cake was however, being eaten across the classes. The working classes ate ‘humdrum’ cake such as plain sponge and the upper classes ate ‘unhumdrum’ cake, bright, brilliant and layered. By the end of the nineteenth century, commercial cakes became available and tea rooms became very popular.
Modern Day Cake
The decline of tea rooms, a surge in supermarkets across the country and as Annie put it ‘cooks cheats’, such as raising agents and cake mixes with additives have made it a struggle for ‘proper’ cake to survive. However, Annie was not despondent, praising ‘The Great British Bake Off’ which has inspired many and the existence of traditional tea rooms such as Peacocks in Ely. She encouraged the audience to do what generations have done before and have the confidence to bake using traditional methods in the way our great-great grandmothers would have done! She was adamant that cupcakes do not have a place in modern life which was applauded by the audience and we should not feel guilty about eating ‘real’ cake!
With that in mind I hastily made my way to the adjoining room where in celebration of National Cake Week, tea was served by Friends of Morley Festival and Annie was joined by Lynn Hill of Clandestine Cake Clubs. We enjoyed fresh sandwiches, rich fruit cake, light sponges and dainty cakes on stands.
Annie Gray was generous with her time, knowledge and humour. There was no doubting her love for her subject or delight in sharing it. Don’t be deluded by thinking she lives in the past however, she is equally passionate about present day and the importance of the nation having the skills to cook nourishing food from scratch with fresh unadulterated ingredients.