“Cheese?” I asked, with knife poised. I had just cut a slab of rich fruitcake and put it on the plate. The half-stifled “ewww…” and the horrified expression was all the answer I needed. I sighed. People don’t know what they are missing. You simply cannot eat the dense, dark confection without cheese… or at least, not if you come from Yorkshire.
It is one of those oddities of taste that does not seem to have wandered far from its roots, though it did make it across the Pennines and into parts of Lancashire, I am told.
There is no knowing just how far back this culinary tradition goes, but it has been around at least since Victorian times when the modern Christmas Cake became part of the festive fare. It may have descended from an even earlier traditon, and certainly my great grandparents, who were born when Victoria held the throne, would always bring out the cheese with the cake. The cake itself had already made it into the realm of folk magic, and formed part of the New Year tradition of ‘first footing’, when the first person through the door…always a man and preferably dark-haired… would bring a piece of coal, a silver coin and a slice of cake into the house. The cake would be ceremoniously wrapped and kept , with the coal and coin, until the following New Year. In this way, there would always be money, coal and food in the house.
The traditional Christmas could be kept that long because there was little in it that could deteriorate. Packed solid with dried vine fruits, heavy with sugar and best butter, what little actual cake there was holding the stuff together would be effectively embalmed by the judicious and copious application of brandy, sherry and/or rum. Apparently, my great grandmother’s strict interpretation of Methodist temperance did not extend to her kitchen.
The cakes would be made in late summer, cooled, triple wrapped in waxed paper and laid away in sealed tins. Every couple of weeks they would be carefully unwrapped, pricked with a skewer and drenched in a libation of alcohol. By the time Christmas had arrived, one slice was potent enough to knock a small army on its back.
During the war years, with rationing making the baking of rich fruit cakes nigh-on impossible, great-granny developed a substitute recipe. Margarine took the place of butter. Dried egg powder was often all they had and was supplemented with a tablespoonful of malt vinegar. Gravy salt was added to darken the mixture and the dried fruits, were boiled to make them plumper, moister and go further. Grated apples and carrots were added too, for sweetness, given the sugar rationing and to supplement the currants and raisins. There was no shortage of ingenuity.
Great granny passed her recipes down and, when the boys were at home, there were always boiled fruit cakes in the cupboard to add to lunchboxes and, at a pinch, serve with custard as a dessert. The proper fruitcakes were reserved for celebrations, being rather expensive to make, and many people, not knowing the origins of the recipe (or its ingredients!) preferred the slightly lighter and much cheaper wartime version.
These days, I seldom bake… except for special occasions and requests from my menfolk for my lemon meringue pies…. so with Christmas stock well and truly on the supermarket shelves, I will treat myself to a slab of their own brand Christmas cake and a nice, sharp cheese. Having become a lazy so-and-so these days, and with a view to saving on dishes, two slices of cheese slapped either side of a slice of cake will hold it together to be eaten without crumbling, in the manner of a sandwich and in place of a meal. I would normally, at this point, insert an illustrative picture…but I ate it.
If anyone fancies trying granny’s recipe, adapted to more modern tastes, it is very easy. All weights approximate… it is a very forgiving recipe:
240g (8oz) self-raising flour (or plain with baking powder)
320g (12oz) mixed dried fruit
30g (1oz) glace cherries
I small can crushed pineapple, drained (optional)
A spoonful of chopped nuts (optional)
120g (4oz) butter or (block) margarine
1 beaten egg
15cl (1/4 pint) water (plus the juice from the pineapple, and/or a splash of brandy or fruit juice)
1 tablespoon malt vinegar
120g (4oz) dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon spices to taste (mixed spice, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg)
- Put all liquids (except the vinegar), margarine, sugar and fruit into a large pan. Once boiling, cover, turn down and leave to simmer gently for 20 minutes. Leave to cool.
- Once cooled, beat the egg with the vinegar, and and this, the flour and spices to the pan. Stir well, making a wish as you go (it’s traditional).
- Grease and line with greaseproof paper either one 20cm/8″ cake tin or two small loaf tins. Bake in a low oven, (150C/300F/Gas mark 2/3) for about an hour. The cakes are done when they are firm to touch and a warm skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
- Cool on a wire rack, wrap in greaseproof paper and seal in an airtight tin. Leave them alone for a couple of days at least to get the best from the cakes.
If you can’t wait, try baking a small quantity in a cupcake tin, just so you can try it 😉