Bread, Food Facts & Lore

Flying Fruitcake & Queen Victoria’s Good Manners

A brief overview of fruitcake through the ages… and through the air.

The Romans made a fruit and nut-based bread containing pine nuts, raisins and pomegranate seed mixed into a barley mash. You know, that actually sounds quite good. This type of food sustained troops during campaigns away from home.

Asterix, a famous cartoon character in a French illustrated series set in Roman times says, “Ils sont fous ces Romains!” Translation: “Those Romans are crazy!” Could Romans, great builders and shakers of civilization and armies, have been fruitcakes? We dare not jest in their presence, so back to the actual cake.

In the Middle Ages, preserved fruit, honey and spices were added to a fruit bread recipe. It is believed that Crusaders took this food along for their journeys. We doubt they shared, though perhaps this is precisely when fruitcake got its bad reputation?

Mediterranean dried fruit arrived on British soil in the 15th century. This is when the British took a liking to fruitcake. An English custom consisted in placing a piece of fruitcake under the pillows of unmarried wedding guests at night. This, according to the belief of the time, enabled the sleeping beau or beauty to dream of the person they would some day marry. It also no doubt provided a midnight snack atop sheets for the rodent bourgeoisie. What a treat!

By the mid to late 1800′s, fruitcake was served alongside the customary Victorian Tea. Of course, proper etiquette is always in good taste, as is moderation. It is said that Queen Victoria once waited a year before eating a fruitcake she had received as a birthday gift. She felt this showed restraint and good taste. The contrast between this restraint and Manitou Springs’ carefree approach is remarkable. Read on.

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We have found a rather creative, or shall we say dynamic way to serve fruitcake. Every January, in Manitou Springs, Colorado, the community gathers at a park for the annual Great Fruitcake Toss. “We encourage the use of recycled fruitcake,” points out an organizer from the Chamber of Commerce. The all-time Great Fruitcake Toss record is 420 feet. As many as 500 people attend this event, including the press. One question: Is there such a thing as a non-recycled fruitcake?

Then, we must not forget the grand perspective. Back in 2005, a Tokyo pastry chef created  a rather rich fruit cake for an exhibit called “Diamonds: Nature’s Miracle.” Yes. It included real diamonds, 223 of them. It took six months to design the cake and another entire month to assemble it. It was fully edible, except for the diamonds. Price tag: $1.65 million.

Finally, perhaps we have lost our appreciation for fruitcake because we have forgotten its origins and significance throughout history. There are several accounts of a beautiful 18th century, European tradition involving fruitcake. At the end of the harvest season, a ceremonial fruitcake was baked, saved and eaten at the beginning of the following year’s harvest. Every new harvest season meant a new fruitcake would be made and saved until the next season.  This symbolized thanksgiving for the current harvest and hope for the coming one.

Such traditions were not encouraged due to their “pagan” inclination. Nevertheless, taken at face value, as an innocent and natural celebration by folks who lived close to nature, this is truly a tasteful way of marking the seasons of the land and the hard work of those for whom it provides sustenance.

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