Historic baking is the theme of this week's Great British Bake-Off. Following the initial excitement came the disappointment that the Victorian era is the focus. If Georgian cookery is the Elizabeth David of British cuisines (earthy, aromatic and regional), surely Victorian would be Fanny Craddock (overworked display and mass-produced ingredients)? And yet, the first baking challenge is to make a game pie. To put the record straight, the golden age of the game pie was the Georgian era, when gigantic Christmas pies were so popular that Josiah Wedgewood designed special decorative dishes for them. ‘Eaten cake is soon forgotten,’ says an old proverb, and this it seems is the case for British bakery.
By the eighteenth century Britons had developed a wealth of old-fashioned bakery: not only game and meat pies but plum cakes, yule cakes, Madeiras, ginger, chocolate, cherry, and marmalade cakes , jam roll, beer cakes and seed cakes. Besides these were an almost infinite variety of curranty buns, shortcakes, gingerbreads and little cheesecakes such as Richmond Maids of Honour.
Many celebratory cakes were linked to the seasonal calendar, such as harvest-time, Saints’ days and festivals. Their common origin was a medieval spiced pastry filled with currants known as Banbury Cakes (said to be brought home by the crusaders from the East), with variants as Eccles and Chorley Cakes, Cumberland Currant Pasties, Coventry Godcakes, and Mrs Raffald's Sweet Patties shown below. All around the British agricultural calendar, special cakes were made to use up surpluses, such as the Flead Cakes of Kent, made after rendering.
A fascinating sub-set of seasonal baking is linked to fortune-telling, such as the tradition of Dumb Cakes, simple grain and water cakes baked in the ashes. Made at midnight by unmarried women on various auspicious days, the ritual was accompanied by the rhyme, ‘Two must make it, two must bake it, and two must break it.’ That night the baker would hope to dream of her future husband; however it is possible the direction to remain ‘dumb’ throughout the ritual is a later misunderstanding of 'doom', a Middle English word for fate or destiny.
So what remains of these regional traditions? Not very much, for the loss of British regional cooking in the Victorian era was one of the prices Britain paid for being the first industrial and urbanized nation. At my Village Autumn Show last week, the most eagerly entered contest was to bake the best Victoria Sponge, a late invention celebrating Queen Victoria. There were no Cheshire specialities such as flummery, pork pies or soul cakes.
Then again, like most of history, baking is about constant renewal. Recipes, however well loved, are updated. Recently, in an attempt to revive the autumnal delights of Taffety Tart (a much loved Georgian pastry of apples, quince and spices) I devised a Taffety Cake. My recipe, featured in The Clandestine Cake Club's new collection, A Year of Cake, uses the modern inventions of ready-made quince jam and fragrant rosewater. It seems to me both comforting and wise economy to bake by season, so with apples bending the branches of our village trees, it is a pleasure to bake nature’s bounty.
In An Appetite for Violets my cook-heroine Biddy Leigh also uses her apple glut to bake a batch of Taffety Tarts:
My Best Receipt for Taffety Tart
Lay down a peck of flour and work it up with six pound of butter and four eggs and salt and cold water. Roll and fill with pippins and quinces and sweet spice and lemon peel as much as delights. Sweet Spice is cloves, mace, nutmeg, cinammon, sugar & salt. Close the pie and strew with sugar. Bake till well enough.
Martha Garland her best receipt writ on a butter-marked scrap of parcel paper, 1758
Martine Bailey’s debut historical novel, AN APPETITE FOR VIOLETS, is available in paperback and as an eBook from Hodder & Stoughton. Find out more by visiting Martine Bailey’s website and by following her on Twitter.