The butt of many Yuletide jokes, the fruitcake has a long and illustrious history.
Recipes for original fruitcakes can be found as early as the reign of the Romans, rich with figs, pomegranates and other native fruits mixed with barley mash. By the 1400s, dried fruits from the Mediterrean including figs, raisins and dates made their way to England and launched a fruitcake craze. Mainly reserved for special occasions, including weddings and Winter Solstice, the dear prices meant fruitcakes were a luxury item for the well to do.
Think today’s debates about law and fast or fatty foods are a sign of the times? In the early 18th century fruitcakes (specifically plum cakes) were outlawed throughout continental Europe for their “sinfully” rich properties…but by the Victorian era became a staple of tea time. In fact, in addition to ices Gunter’s was famous for its huge plum cake. Not coincidentally, the import of sugar from the American colonies helped make the fruitcake available to prince and pauper.
Over the centuries, local traditions, fruits and copious amount of liqueur and sugar have put regional spins on this tried and true festive loaf. While no one is exactly sure how it became so engrained in Christmas tradition, it is likely a derivation of the long standing treat of fruit in one’s stocking and the history of the cake being seen as a rich treat.
Having such a scandalous history definitely makes me appreciate the fruitcake more, but honestly…I still don’t want to eat it.
“But next to the creams and ices vended there the chief object of attraction is a huge plum cake a cake the idea of which could we think have occurred in a dream only to some imaginative schoolboy so vast in its expanse so ponderous its size so rich its ingredients so delicious its fragrance” History of the Anti-Corn Law League By Archibald Prentice, 1853.