I was listening to the radio this morning and they mentioned an interesting fact about the second lockdown. One of the most searched-for recipes online in November was for Christmas cake.
During Lockdown Mark 1, there was a huge surge in the popularity of home baking because, with so much time on our hands, it was an easy way to entertain ourselves. People started bulk buying flour and it became extremely difficult to get hold of it in the shops. On one desperate trip to the supermarket I resorted to buying a packet of pizza dough mix when I couldn’t get my hands on any flour. Thankfully, I never had to use it, as I later found a small local shop that still had one solitary bag of flour tucked away at the back of a shelf. Back in the days of Lockdown 1, bread-related items such as scones, banana bread and sourdough were the most popular.
There was also a surge in online searches for recipes that didn’t need flour, presumably because it was so hard to come by. Homes were being filled with things like meringues, that only need eggs and sugar, and banoffie pie, that just needs bananas, cream, toffee sauce and a biscuit base. Of course, in the first lockdown, children were not in school, so parents across the land were involving them in kitchen-based activities which meant that child-friendly bakes, such as flapjacks and biscuits, were also extremely popular.
So in Lockdown 2, we have taken up the bowl and wooden spoon once again, and with Christmas just around the corner, it’s no surprise that many of us are using the opportunity to revive the Yuletide cake-making tradition that has until recently been on the wane. My mum would make a deliciously moist fruit cake every year, and I recall as youngsters, my three siblings and I were all invited to take a turn stirring the mixture in preparation. It would have been a couple of months before Christmas, and was the first exciting hint that the big day wasn’t far away.
The popularity of these cakes diminished over recent years and I still don’t know many people who make them. However, upon hearing that news report this morning, I would be interested to find out if any of you either still make and eat a festive cake, or whether you have used the time during lockdown to revive the old tradition. It used to be that if anyone called in, they would be offered a slice of the Christmas cake, maybe with a chunk of Wensleydale cheese, and possibly even a glass of sherry – does anyone still do that? There is something uniquely special about that particular combination of flavours, and although the custom of serving fruit cake with cheese has spread beyond the borders of Yorkshire, it is believed to have first started here.
The sharing of the Christmas cake is a custom that goes back centuries, although it is difficult to say exactly when it was first associated with the celebration. According to my dad’s archives, a festive pudding was mentioned in Poor Robin’s Almanac, a series of writings by a number of authors, first published in 1663.
‘Mince pies and plum porridge, good ale and strong beer, with pig, goose and capon’ were the favourites according to the almanac in 1695. The plum porridge mentioned is a likely forerunner to the Christmas cake, and although it was usually served quite runny, they turned it into a solid, baked version for Christmas Day. In 1662, an anonymous York poet known only as ‘J.T.’ published the following:
‘Up boys and be ye early housewives lark,
Rise up and run through snow and dark,
And cake of plum and good cheer will she give,
And merry make us while Yuletide live.’
In those days (and as I remember in the 1970s), the cake would be big enough to last many servings. As Dad wrote in one of his old columns: ‘The milkman, butcher, postman and others must receive countless portions during their Christmas rounds.’
The cake is just one of the many delicacies served at this time of year, but why do we only eat things like pigs in blankets and mince pies at Christmas? Then again, if we ate them all year round, then they wouldn’t be so special, would they.
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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 2nd Dec 2020 and the Gazette & Herald on 4th Dec 2020