Wednesday 31 August 2011

Battenburg Cake - the Truth

A factory-made Battenburg Cake - 2011 - four panels
There are lots of stories about this popular English cake, which is composed of alternating coloured slabs of genoese enclosed in an overcoat of almond paste. In cross section it looks like a child's drawing of a window, which no doubt is the reason why it is known in my part of Northern England as 'Chapel Window Cake'. The most commonly told tale about the cake relates to its alleged origin. It is said to have been created to celebrate the 1884 wedding of Prince Louis of Battenburg to Queen Victoria's granddaughter Princess Victoria. There are a few more detailed variations on this theme. One of these was aired recently in Episode 1 of Series 2 of BBC's competitive baking series The Great British Bake Off. This is the theory that the four sections of the cake originally represented the four Battenburg princes - Louis himself and his brothers Alexander, Franz-Joseph and Henry. 

The only problem with this story is that the earliest recipes for this kind of Battenburg Cake all call for nine squares and not the four that are found in modern versions. 

The earliest recipe I know for a Battenburg cake with coloured sections was published by Frederick Vine in 1898 in his marvellous book Saleable Shop Goods. Vine was one of the most eminent professional bakers and confectioners of his day. Not only was he the author of numerous books, but was also the editor of the leading trade magazine The British Baker. In his Battenburg recipe, he clearly tells us to create a cake with nine sections, alternately coloured red and white. He illustrates the finished cake in this diagram.

Battenburg Cake - 1898 - nine panels

This image appeared only fourteen years after Louis and Victoria's wedding and was published by London's most respected baker. If Frederick Vine did not know what a Battenburg Cake was meant to look like, then who did? Well, a few others actually. In the early years of the twentieth century, a number of professionals also published recipes and illustrations that agree entirely with Vine's. For instance, the recipe in T. Percy Lewis and A. G. Bromley's The Book of Cakes (London: 1903) also calls for nine panes, as shown in their striking chromolithograph illustration.

Battenburg Cake- 1903 - nine panels
I have been completely unsuccessful in finding any contemporary accounts of this cake that confirm it was invented to honour the 1884 royal wedding. This fact could well be true and perhaps the tradition is based on a folk memory, but it does not appear to be grounded in any written records. Nor are there any accounts that link the number of its sections to the Battenburg princes, unless of course there were five others we do not know about. Perhaps Louis had some other siblings about whom his father kept quiet! The story of the four panels and the princes appears to have surfaced quite recently and is described on Wikipedia without any citation of its source. If there is somebody out there who is aware of early documentation linking this cake with the Battenburg wedding I would be grateful if they would share their sources with me. 

In 1923, the Battenburg cake was still being made with nine panes, witness the photograph below from Richard Bond's Ship's Baker (London: 1923) an image brought to my attention by the sharp eyed Food History Jottings research assistant Plumcake. Bond is another forgotten British food hero who specialised in books about cookery at sea.

Battenburg cake from Richard Bond, The Ship's Baker (London: 1923).
Richard Bond from the frontispiece of his book Sea Cookery (London: 1910).

A neatly made Battenburg cake is a technical challenge for any baker and I can understand why it was chosen as a trial of skill for the contestants in The Great British Bake Off. In the past, the task of constructing one of these cakes was frequently given to apprentice bakers and confectioners to test their prowess and the results were often exhibited. In a 1936? edition of Vine's book, we can see what Battenburg Cakes (well at least showoff versions of them) had come to look like by the thirties. 

Battenburg Cakes - 1936? - twenty- five panels!

The Battenburg Cakes are those on the left and right. It is the thirties and the number of panels has multiplied from nine to twenty-five - Art Deco gone mad!. Perhaps the bakers are now not only honouring His Serene Highness's princely brothers (including the illegitimate ones), but all of his grandchildren and great grandchildren too! Just how many did he have?

So when did Battenburg Cakes end up with just four panels? I am not sure, but it is possible that it dates from the time that they began to be manufactured by large industrial bakers like Lyons, who as far as I know started mass producing them before World War II. I suppose a four panel Battenburg is much easier to make on a production line than one with nine. Could somebody please enlighten me? 

So where did the story come from about the four Battenburg princes? Well I guess that it was probably invented by the same fairy who has made up so many other stories about our traditional foods - of which more anon. 

If there is a hero in this story, it is Frederick Vine. This forgotten British food writer, about whom you will hear a lot more on this blog, was the author of another book called Cakes and How to Make Them. Unfortunately none of the editions of this book are dated, though some evidence points to a publication year earlier than that of Saleable Shop Goods, possibly about 1890. If this is correct, and more research is needed to confirm it, this book contains the very earliest known recipe for Battenburg Cake. However,  it is a completely different animal to the cake that now bears this name. Vine's earlier Battenburg Cake is in fact a simple fruit cake baked in a loaf tin. If you want to make it, here is his recipe - 

No. 84 Battenburg Cakes.

4lb flour.
One and three quarters of a pound of butter.
One and three quarters of a pound of sugar.
Two and a half pounds of sultana raisins.
Three quarters of a pound of peel (mixed).
1 oz of cream of tartar.
1 oz. carbonate of soda.
8 eggs.
1 quart milk.

Method. - Weigh and rub on the board as before directed, and weigh into large size twopenny greased bread pans ten ounces for sixpenny cakes. sprinkle chopped almonds over. Bake in a moderate oven. These cakes sell well wherever introduced.

From Frederick T. Vine ("Compton Dene"), Cakes and How to Make Them. (nd. c.1890), p. 77.

Battenberg Cake - c.1890 - no panels, but lots of juicy sultanas and mixed peel.
Note that Vine, whose pen name was Compton Dene, tells us that "These cakes sell well wherever introduced." This would indicate that the Battenburg cake was a fairly recent arrival on the bakery scene in the early 1890s. The royal couple were married only six years before the recipe was printed. So perhaps this earlier cake has more claims to being the original celebratory cake than the better known cake of many colours. Vine was at the height of his career at the time of the wedding. If he was alive now I am sure he would be able to tell us why a delicious, but nondescript fruit cake was replaced by a flashy, sickly sweet interloper in a matter of about six years. 

Well, I suppose the moral of this story is not to believe everything you see on television, or read in Wikipedia, which I suppose is where the television researchers found the Battenburg history nuggets that were served up in The Great British Bake Off.

For those of you more interested in fact than fiction, here is Frederick Vine's signature and book plate taken from his copy of Alexis Soyer's Gastronomic Regenerator, which is now in my library. It is a treasured possession. You may also have noticed that throughout these notes, I have spelt Battenburg with a 'u', rather than as Battenberg, which seems to be contemporary practice. Well, I have followed Mr. Vine in this matter too, as I think he should have the last word.

Frederick Vine's signature and book plate.
Since this was published, we have discovered much more about this cake - Click on the links below.