Let them eat cake

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    I’m not sure what got into me. This year, having never made a Christmas cake in my life, I made three. I even bought a bottle of brandy to “feed” them; the cheapest brandy on the shelf, it smells like sleigh bell cleaner. Although I had my doubts, pouring this noxious fluid onto my fruit and nut mixture improved it immensely – it’s a Christmas miracle!

    As usual, I am flying in the face of fashion. Christmas cakes are out, uncool, undone. The English chain store Selfridges are now selling seven times more Italian panettone than Christmas cakes. In a shock announcement, Nigella Lawson says she is making a ‘Winter Wonderland chocolate and raspberry cake’ instead of a Christmas fruit cake, after lobbying from her children. 

    Young people, who have enough on their plate already, tend to resist Christmas cake, even with a side of cheese, as suggested by Nigella. A consumer survey in 2022 found under-35s think of fruit cake as the ‘most boring’ of all cakes. 

    This isn’t going down well. In certain parts of English clubland, Christmas cake is a revered national monument. Forcing down Grannies’ Christmas cake has been a rite of passage since Tom Brown’s School Days. It’s festive character-building torture, like pretending to love socks. The Spectator, the conservative English weekly, is, in consequence, having a tantrum.

    “The displacement of dried fruit by chocolate is a symptom of our increasingly debased tastes,” sniffed The Spectator’s Melanie McDonagh in a column headlined Why Christmas cake died. “Dried fruit, prized ingredients since crusader times, is being edged out by the ubiquitous ingredient of this generation, chocolate.” 

    Nothing says England like imported dried fruit, right?

    The fuming opinionista consulted the author of Scoff, a history of British food, who told her: “Much of the sugar in fruitcake comes from dried fruit which is far slower to release its energy (than chocolate). Fruitcake is the tortoise of cake satisfaction,” he told McDonagh, “and most people opt for the hare.”

    But there are rational reasons for the demise of the Christmas cake, and McDonagh trips over one without seeming to realise it.

    “Not so long ago, by the first week of December, the home baker would already have made the Christmas cake, which took ages,” she writes mistily. “Icing it took hours, from rolling out the marzipan, masking it in royal icing and then piping Happy Christmas on top. It was surmounted by Father Christmas on a sledge or possibly a little tree.”

    Modern parents have rents and mortgages to pay. Who has the time or the money for a 15-ingredient-cake, along with the Christmas presents? It might be worth it if everyone liked the stuff, but they don’t. I’m sure Nigella’s children really do prefer chocolate and raspberry cake. Christmas cakes may last for years and satiate a large family, but that’s not what we need them for anymore.

    Time poverty and inflation, rather than ‘debased tastes’, are surely the real reasons for the demise of the homemade Christmas cake.

    I suspect the Tories’ passion for Victorian English Christmas card food stems from their ill-disguised longing for those days of cheap labour, when cook kneaded marzipan in the kitchen and nanny grated nutmeg over the eggnog. 

    Christmas cake recipes are more like archeological sites than changeless totems. They have always adapted to their times: evolving along with the price of spice, the arrival of sugar, the invention of baking powder. 

     “Conservatism,” Wikipedia reminds us, “is a philosophy that seeks to promote and preserve traditional institutions, customs, and values,” no matter how inconvenient they become.

    Our new coalition government, busily sailing into the past, appears as devoted as any conservative to ‘traditional institutions, customs, and values’, as long as they are not those of Māori. 

    “We’re seeing what ‘conservatism’ means on a daily basis,” warns Wellington writer Giovanni Tiso. “Freeze-frame the country, like a perpetual sale at Briscoes. Keep the genders as they were. Keep the [roadsigns, etc] as they were. Bring back smoking. Restore Te Tiriti to its pre-Tribunal status. Say you’re into phasing out oil and gas, but give consent to new exploration. Say you’re pro-EVs, but cancel the incentives. Say you’re putting the country back on track. Literally halt investment in actual tracks. Spend money solely on roads, but not to make them safer.”

    ‘Let them eat cake’ is an old translation of the French ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche’, the words of ‘a great princess’ on being told that her peasants had no bread. (Marie Antoinette usually gets the blame, but was only nine at the time). It captures the new government’s moral philosophy perfectly.

    Far be it from me to turn down a slice of my own ridiculously impractical, ludicrously expensive, flawed, hopelessly trad but pleasantly boozy Christmas cake; one inscribed with a newly subversive message for you all. 

    Meri Kirihimete! • Jenny Nicholls

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