Wednesday 18 April 2012

Battenburg Cake History Again!

Delving into the true history of our foods is always much more rewarding than blindly accepting the tired old clichés and myths that are often used to explain their origins. I have already in two earlier postings tried to unravel the complex history of the popular Battenburg Cake, but the more I look at this subject, the more puzzling it becomes. A popular theory about its origin tells us it was made to celebrate an important Victorian royal wedding in 1884. In a 2003 newspaper article, food historian Catherine Brown tells us,

'But there was nothing to compare with the German pastry cooks' sophisticated use of marzipan, colours, shapes, flavours and allegorical designs. The British were impressed. They tried their hand at the German techniques and some native pastry cooks became almost as good as the Germans. Such was their confidence that when Queen Victoria's granddaughter, Princess Victoria of Hesse-Darmstadt, married Prince Louis of Battenberg in 1884, it was decided that a celebration cake was required, in their own design of course, but appropriately German in style to celebrate the marriage. What else to call it but a Battenberg cake? It was to be unique: a cake to stun British cake-lovers. They took inspiration from the German rococo style of architecture which featured gold (marzipan) with pastel colours (pink and yellow sponge).'*

This all sounds plausible, but Brown does not inform us of her sources. I would love to know who it was who decided that a celebration cake was required. Until Catherine Brown can point out the primary sources for these statements, I am inclined to believe that she is simply repeating a popular anecdote which appears to have surfaced fairly recently and has no basis in fact. In a recent Great British Bake Off programme, the television historian Kate Williams repeated the same myth.

My good friend Robin Weir, knowing my interest in the Battenburg, was amazed to recently come across an illustrated recipe for an identical cake called Gateau à la Domino in a July 1898 edition of the Victorian food and housekeeping magazine The Table, published and edited by the remarkable Mrs Agnes Berthe Marshall. Although Mrs Marshall's four books on cookery and ice cream are now fairly well known, The Table is rarely cited, though it is one of the most extensive and richest sources on the domestic life and food of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She launched it on 12th June 1886. There were 1690 weekly issues until June 1918. It was then renamed The Table and Housekeeper's Journal and was published fortnightly with 547 issues until its demise in September 1939. In its day The Table was the most important food magazine published in Britain. Mrs Marshall died in 1905, but The Table went on and on.

Mrs Marshall's recipe for Domino Cake appeared in 1898, the same year in which recipes for two almost identical cakes - Frederick Vine's Battenburg Cake and Robert Well's Neapolitan Roll were published. In appearance, Vine's cake is identical to Marshall's with nine panes of alternate pink and white genoese enclosed in an overcoat of almond paste. Well's cake on the other hand, with its four panes is closer to the modern version that we call Battenburg Cake today. If you have not read my earlier posts on this subject, here are some images to show you what these three cakes looked like. 

Mrs Marshall's Gateau à la Domino from The Table,  July 2nd 1898

Frederick Vine's Battenburg Cake from Saleable Shop Goods 1898 - nine panels


Wells does not illustrate his cake. so I made his Neapolitan Roll from the recipe he published in Cakes and Buns (1898). Unlike Marshall's and Vine's versions, Well's cake was dusted with pink desiccated coconut and has only four panes. 
It may be that there are other recipes. I have not had a chance to look through the late nineteenth century numbers of the trade magazine The British Baker and Confectioner, which was edited by Vine, so the jury is still out as to who first devised the recipe. To me however one thing is sure, that the myth about the cake having four sections to commemorate the four Battenburg princes is total rubbish. And I am also now very sceptical about the unsubstantiated claim that this cake was originally invented to commemorate the wedding in 1884 of Prince Louis of Battenburg to Princess Victoria. If this was so, why does Mrs Marshall twelve years after the wedding call it a Domino Cake and Wells a Neapolitan Roll?  Below is Mrs Marshall's full recipe, published here courtesy of Robin Weir, who is Britain's leading authority on this remarkable lady.  I have a nagging suspicion that Mrs Marshall may have invented the cake, but cannot prove it. With its vanilla and maraschino flavoured almond paste, her version is more sophisticated than either Vine's or Well's, whose simpler recipes were designed for the trade rather than the domestic cake maker. She also copyrighted her recipe - see below - and declared that it was new. Perhaps the other two pinched it and renamed it in order to disguise their source. So to take a terrible liberty with Gertrude Stein's well known phrase relating to a well known flower, "A domino cake, is a Neapolitan roll, is a Battenburg cake.'

Domino Cakes were normally small rectangles of genoese decorated with icing in the form of dominoes, as No. 4 in this fine chromolithograph by Kronheim from Mary Jewry, Warne's Model Cookery and Housekeeping Book (London: 1868).
What is overlooked in all the Battenburg Cake myths is that there were actually two weddings between English princesses and Battenburg princes. The first was that of Princess Victoria, Queen Victoria's grandaughter, to Louis of Battenburg in 1884. The second took place the following year, when Louis's brother Henry married Queen Victoria's youngest child Beatrice. The bride cake illustrated above is that presented to Henry and Beatrice at their wedding in 1885. When they cut this remarkable cake, I wonder if there was a pattern of red-white-red-white running all the way through it.
*Catherine Brown, Battenberg Cake; A celebration confection fit to grace a royal wedding. The Herald, March 29th 2003.

Read my other two posts on Battenburg Cake -


  1. Nataliya Deering has left a new comment on your post "Battenburg Cake History Again!":

    Ivan, what a nugget your blog is! Absolutely fantastic to read, pure pleasure. I am not a baker, but I love baking and am very interested in history behind every famous European cake. Thanks a million and more for your great job done on research and more thanks for sharing with us those fabulous recipes. I was delighted to discover while reading your previous article on Buttenburg Cake history that my instincts about coloring the red sponge were not very wrong: I used raspberries rather than red food color. Wishing you very best, your new fan, Natalia.

  2. Nataliya,

    Thank you for your kind words. I am glad you enjoy the blog. Unfortunately, I am too busy to write as frequently as I would like. But keep in touch. best regards Ivan

  3. After reading your posts, I am convinced that Battenburg cake was a variation on a common theme. But why did the English name it after the German family if its creation didn't have anything to do with the prince? I am no food historian myself but I specialize in history with a particular interest in that branch of historical research which examines how and why myths are created. Perhaps there is evidence that supports the making of the 'wedding cake' theory or even the four princes 'myth', which has not yet been discovered. I hope you will keep your readers up to date if and when this happens.

  4. Its kind of weird but has lots of information. Are you sure that its all true?

  5. Replies
    1. Well spotted, but you are wrong. I have stuck to the 19th century English spelling used in all of the earliest recipes for this cake. I explain why at the end of the earliest post on the cake on this blog. Read the last paragraph of

  6. Interestingly I am researching a friend's family tree and her family have always belived that a Master baker called Giessler invented the battenburg (and the Angel) cake. He arrived from Hessen in about 1881 and most of his children followed on the profession.

  7. Thanks for this. I would love to hear more about Herr Giessler, particularly if you come across any documentation linking him to the Battenburg cake. Ivan

  8. I can't speak for the recipe, but towards the end of 1895 John Scrymgeour of 4 Nethergate, Dundee took out a series of advertisements in the Dundee Courier, the earliest seen being on 12 November 1895:

    "... Also the new BATTENBERG CAKE, flavoured by Fresh Fruit, 1s each".

    Note the spelling - Battenberg, not Battenburg - as well as the fresh fruit flavouring.

    Little more than a year later, on 4 January 1887, Thomas Sims of 148 High Street, Cheltenham was advertising in the Gloucester Echo "THE BATTENBERG CAKE, 1lb, 6d, LEMON".

    That spelling again....

    Source, British Newspaper Archive.

  9. Sorry, the Scrymgeour advertisements in the Dundee Courier were from 1885, not 1895!

    1. Thanks for the information about John Scrymgeour and Battenberg/Battenburg cake. The spelling is a movable feast at this period in British recipe collections. I am very interested in Scrymgeour. I do not know if you have noticed, but there is a post on this blog about two of his gingerbread moulds which I am fortunate enough to own.