Millennium Post

Know your Fruit cake

As the Christmas approaches, Chef Vikas talks about fruit cakes and their importance in the historic tales. He also shares the recipe of ‘Rich dark fruit cake’

My earliest recollection of a fruitcake is one that we used to see during the Christmas feast at my Missionary School at the small town in western UP where I grew up. Coming from a strictly vegetarian family, the feast with its multiple meat dishes was prohibited for me, even though I always found the various delicacies to be rather inviting, especially the cakes, all of which were prominently earmarked 'with egg'. Years later when I started studying in Calcutta, I was spectator to a humongous queue of people waiting outside Flurys and just when I thought of joining the queue myself, certain that some freebie is being doled out, I was told that all these people were actually waiting their turn to buy the celebrated Flurys fruit cake, for good reason, I am now sure.

So what is the history of the ubiquitous fruitcake, the one speciality that many in various parts of the country, irrespective of their religion (or lack of it) relish devoutly during Christmas and increasingly throughout the year? Let us try and find out a little bit more about the world's favourite cake, something that is not only a sweetmeat but has inspired various stories, anecdotes and some rather uncharitable jokes as well. In English slang, a 'fruitcake' is a person who is eccentric or borderline insane and 'fruitcake weather' forms part of various cherished Christmas tales, denoting the chilly weather just around Christmas time.

For something as common as a fruitcake, obviously, there is no common ground that has been met on its origins. Some say that the oldest reference to fruit cakes can be found in the Egyptian civilisation where the ancient Cairenes used to place the earlier version of fruitcake on tombs of loved ones as a likely food for the afterlife. In Roman times there is mention of Roman soldiers carrying fruitcakes on their expeditions, a product made out of among other things, pomegranate seeds, barley mash and pine nuts. Later on, with the advent of refined sugar, the fruitcake became a sweet dessert while during the Victorian Era alcohol was added on to fruitcake recipes to improve longevity and to make it richer and for the rich of the time. In fact in the early 18th century Fruit cakes became to be seen as something that was 'sinfully rich' and was outlawed in many countries of Europe since it was seen as too indulgent.

Based on where you are in the world, your fruitcake will be slightly different. The Germans, for example, swear by the 'Stollen'– a kind of yeast-raised cake that is made rich with almond paste and dried fruits whereas in Italy the 'pan forte' is their version of the fruitcake with a heavy dose of honey. The Portuguese have their 'bolo rei' which is a rich fruit cake with a dried fava bean in the centre and whoever finds that bean buys the next year's Christmas cake, whereas the famous Scottish Dundee cake is decorated with a ring of almonds and the ones from Jamaica have an overload of rum, but obvious. Even in India, we have our own fruitcake known as the 'Allahabadi cake' made with ghee, flour, dry fruits, petha and fennel, oftentimes Rum or brandy is also added.

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