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A Slice of Britain
Around the Country by Cake
When future historians look back on Britain in 2014, what will they make of our seemingly insatiable obsession with cake? Is it a symptom of recession - sugar and flour provide cheap thrills - or a side-effect of low-carb diets that turn cake into forbidden fruit? We spend our days watching people fretting over Victoria sponges on television. Our shops are crammed with baking paraphernalia. Children wear dresses patterned with cupcakes and collect tiny rubbers that look like macaroons. Like tulips in 17th-century Holland, cakes are an object of delusion and desire.
Yet the oddest thing about Britain's cake frenzy is that it comes at a time when our native baking traditions are - despite some valiant revivals - seriously on the wane. In A Slice of Britain, Caroline Taggart sets out to tour the country through cake, starting in deepest Cornwall. But she finds it isn't as easy as you'd think to buy a Chelsea bun in Chelsea or a Bath bun in Bath, where the farmer's market has several Mississippi mud pies and Portuguese custard tarts, but only one stall selling Bath buns. Whatever county you are in, it is easier to find American brownies and muffins than the supposed specialities of the region.
Then there are the 'local' specialities that are not quite as authentic as they pretend. All over England, Taggart notes a tendency to stick the name of the county at the beginning of the cake's name and hope to appeal to those looking for local and traditional products. Norfolk is an especially bad offender. Taggart encounters a Norfolk Cherry & Coconut Cake and a Norfolk Banana & Pineapple Cake, both featuring ingredients not widely grown in the county.
But alongside the endless highstreet Caffe Nero pains aux raisins and Sicilian cheesecakes, she does unearth some true regional treasures. Aberdeen Butteries, for example, as the name suggests, are buttery and flaky and fresh and gorgeous, although they look like shapeless croissants. These butteries were originally designed to be so full of fat that an Aberdeen fisherman could take them away for a week at sea and they would still taste good seven days on. Other forgotten pleasures include the apple cakes of Dorset and Maids of Honour, a curd tart supposedly served by Anne Boleyn to Henry VIII.
Wherever she finds herself, Taggart intersperses strenuous cake-eating with bits of undemanding travelogue and historical anecdotes. Many of the regional specialities she discovers were traditionally linked with particular festivals or seasons. They were once-a-week or once-a-year treats. Kitchels, for example, were a Suffolk confection rather like mince pies that used to be given by godparents to godchildren around Christmas time. In Somerset, Easter biscuits were made, studded with dried fruit and spice, tied up in bundles of three, to represent the Holy Trinity. In Cumbria, they marked christenings with rum butter and any rum left over was used to wet the baby's head.
This is all very genial, but as in The Great British Bake Off, there is a slight air that the history bits are a dreary necessity to be dispatched as quickly as possible, like the obligatory bread and butter on an Edwardian tea table. Enough history; on to the cakes, Taggart remarks at one point.
On the subject of individual cakes, however, Taggart is engaging, greedy and droll. Her joy in cream teas is infectious; I defy anyone to read her chapters on Cornwall and Devon without being overcome with longing for clotted cream, red jam and scones. She explains with a discerning appetite why Bakewell Puddings can be 'almondy' or 'cinnamony' and how the lardy cakes of the Cotswolds come in a surprising number of variations, considering that all of them are really just sugared lardy dough.
It isn't hard to see why lardy cake should have fallen from fashion in our supposedly health-conscious times. As Taggart comments: 'Whoever coined the expression 'One bite is never enough' hadn't eaten lardy cake.' Then again, many other British cake traditions seem to have been abandoned for being not decadent enough, rather than the reverse. Caraway seeds were once our default cake-spice but they now taste medicinal to palates cosseted with chocolate and vanilla. At Fitzbillies bakery in Cambridge, the speciality in the 1920s was an austere fatless sponge cake flavoured with tangerine, but the current owners felt it wouldn't accord with modern tastes. Instead, they sell gloriously sticky and calorific Chelsea buns, oozing syrup.
In her whistle-stop tour of Britain, Taggart seldom pauses to analyse what is going on with our cake fetish. A weakness for cake is more socially acceptable than a love of junk food, but the end point may be the same. In the 1840s, the poet and cook Eliza Acton worried that the British were slowly killing themselves with these 'sweet poisons'. With predictions that half of the UK will be obese by 2050, our reverence for cake starts to look blindly self-destructive.
Maybe part of the reason that local cakes, too, are dying out is because we don't want to set any limits to our choices of baked goods. We certainly don't want to be confined to the nearest county, when there are millefeuille and Sachertorte and cinnamon buns from further afield to be tasted. Unlike our ancestors, we need no special occasion to eat it: for us, every day is a festival of cake.
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