Love It or Loathe It: A Brief History of the Holiday Fruit Cake

It’s hard to believe the Christmas holidays are just around the corner. Along with all the regular festivities, several traditional foods are due to make their annual appearances. One of the quintessential desserts of the season is the fruit cake. Described as either a rich, moist and flavorful cake filled with holiday cheer or a dried out, tasteless leaden brick chockfull of bitter candied fruit. We seem to have a love-hate relationship with this fruit-filled, spirit-soaked cake garnished with sugar-coated nuts. But why was it invented? How did this tradition start?

fruit cake photo

It turns out that fruit cake has staying power. Its origins may be linked back to the ancient Egyptians who made rich fruit- and nut-laden funerary cakes for their departed loved ones, meant to sustain the dead on their journey to the afterlife. Others trace its early roots back to the ancient Romans’ references to a type of energy loaf, which combined barley mash, pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and raisins. A more modern version of fruit cake became popular in the Middle Ages in Western Europe as dried fruits, honey and spices became more widely available. Regional variations of the cake sprang up shortly afterwards depending on what ingredients were available locally. People in Italy favored serving a dense, sweet and spicy panforte literally meaning “strong bread” around Christmas. German bakers created a more bread-like tapered stollen loaf dusted with powdered sugar. In Spain and Portugal, the Bollo de higo or Bolo Rei, a traditional fruit cake dessert made from figs, almonds and walnuts was served during the holidays. In Britain, a liquor-soaked variation of plum cake that was passed out to the poor who sang Christmas carols in the street became popular during the holiday season.

Christmas tree and table set with food, Levason house, Lake Saskatoon, Alberta, 1925. Photo Credit: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A14875

Christmas tree and table set with food, Levason house, Lake Saskatoon, Alberta, 1925. Photo Credit: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A14875.

By the end of the 18th Century, the mighty fruit cake fell from grace becoming synonymous with decadence. The traditional holiday desert was even briefly outlawed for the very things that made it once popular. Laws restricting its use appeared throughout Europe because fruit cake was considered sinfully rich. With the advent of the Victorian Tea, the wickedly delicious cake bounced back in popularity, as laws limiting its use were repealed. The fruit cake became a staple for the best tea time spreads in all the finest establishments in Victorian society. By this time the making of fruit cake had become more complex, requiring investment in costly ingredients and preparation time. The cakes were often wrapped and re-wrapped, in rum- or brandy-soaked cheesecloths, for months in advance of the holidays. Once unwrapped for festive meals, the liquor-infused cakes were often coated with almond paste or some sort of sugary glaze, and finished off with a generous coating of nuts. The tradition of making decadently indulgent fruit cakes for special occasions was now firmly entrenched in many cultures.

In the early 20th century, mass produced mail order fruit cakes became available and was a popular item to send to soldiers away from home. In Canada, fruit cake is rarely eaten outside the Holiday season. Our Canadian version is similar to the dark, moist, fruit-filled British version of the dessert often minus the alcohol and lacking the dusting of icing sugar. Having said that, variations in recipes still abound and the influence of diverse ingredients across cultural groups is evident. In 1959, five different recipes for fruit cake were published in the St. Basil’s Ukrainian Catholic Women’s League Culinary Treasures cook book in Edmonton.

Fruit cake recipes from St. Basils Ukrainian Catholic Women’s League book, “Culinary Treasures."

Fruit cake recipes from St. Basils Ukrainian Catholic Women’s League book, “Culinary Treasures.”

As a staple of many holiday dinners, these little cakes are regularly gifted at Christmas gift exchanges to unsuspecting friends and family. Whether you want to eat this decadent cake or use it as a hefty doorstop, this holiday dessert seems to divide people like no other. Whether you’re a fruit cake aficionado or a fruit cake hater, we can all agree that the holidays are not complete without trying at least a slice of this traditional treat.

Written By: Pauline Bodevin, Regulatory Approvals Coordinator

References

“Ultimate Guide to Fruit Cake” Julie Douglas, How stuff works lifestyle online retrieved Dec 04, 2015. http://recipes.howstuffworks.com/menus/fruitcake1.htm

“Fruit Cake 101” by Jesse Rhodes, Smithsonian website retrieved Nov 26, 2015. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/fruitcake-101-a-concise-cultural-history-of-this-loved-and-loathed-loaf-26428035/?no-ist

St. Basils Ukrainian Catholic Women’s League, “Culinary Treasures,” Bruce Peel Special Collections Library Online Exhibits, accessed December 04, 2015. https://omeka.library.ualberta.ca/files/fullsize/6a9c6952e4782ec9e41576daaddcdff4.jpg

3 comments

  1. It wouldn’t feel like Christmas without a chunk of dark heavy fruit cake. When I used to go big game hunting west of sundre, staying in a tent for week, back on the late fifties, our portable lunch was a hunk of garlic sausage and a fist sized piece of Mom’s dark heavy fruit cake stashed in one of the pockets of a pair of heavy woolen pants.That would keep a man warm and going all day

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