Ice magic: a tribunal has ruled the Snowball is officially a biscuit. Photo: Corbis
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Felicity Cloake: Let the Gingerbread Man go naked . . . and save us some tax

A court has ruled that the Snowball is a cake, not a biscuit, and is exempt from tax. It’s not the first snack to wriggle out of extra charges. 

Stop the presses! Hold the front page! On 27 June, Scotland’s first-tier tax tribunal ruled that the Snowball, that gloriously gooey, chocolate-coated, coconut-dusted marshmallow confection, is officially a cake, rather than a biscuit.

This may seem a trivial matter, especially if you live south of the border, where the Snowball’s coconut-free cousin the teacake is the better known, but I can assure you it is not. Cakes, unlike chocolate biscuits, are exempt from VAT, which means that the decision was worth £2.8m in back tax for the two Lanarkshire bakers that brought the appeal. A sweet victory indeed.

It was the little details of the judging process I particularly enjoyed: as well as the usual legal pleas, the judges were presented with a plate “comprising a number of confections including one each of a Jaffa Cake, Mr Kipling Bakewell tart, Waitrose meringue, a tea cake manufactured by each appellant, a Lees Snowball and a mini jam Snowcake”.

These were apparently tasted “in moderation”, leaving the pair with tellingly “sticky fingers” of the sort one might end up with when eating “a cake such as a vanilla slice”.

The Snowballs were found to have other significant cake-like characteristics – including an inherent unsuitability for consumption on the hoof. The tribunal was in agreement that “most people would prefer to be sitting when eating a Snowball and possibly, or preferably . . . with a plate, a napkin or a piece of paper or even just a bare table so that the pieces of coconut which fly off do not create a great deal of mess”.

You may recall McVitie’s won similar recognition for its Jaffa Cakes in 1991 by baking a giant 12-inch version to prove its point, while M&S spent 13 years fighting for its chocolate teacakes to be recognised as cakes, rather than the chocolate biscuits the taxman claimed them to be. (A few grams of chocolate can make a good deal of difference: a gingerbread man can have chocolate chip eyes and still retain his zero rating, but if he sports fancy chocolate buttons, he’ll be taxed for his vanity.)

Why cakes and plain biscuits (and, oddly, chocolate body paint) should still be regarded as essential foodstuffs in the face of a swelling obesity crisis is a mystery, but it’s not the only absurdity of the 41-year-old value added tax. Frozen foods are exempt unless they’re designed to be eaten in a frozen state – which makes a baked Alaska tax-free, while the poor old Arctic roll is not.

Potato-based savoury snacks are taxed while tortilla chips, vegetable crisps and Twiglets are zero-rated. (I use the phrase potato-based advisedly: Pringles, which are less than 50 per cent potato, lost their appeal; they are, for tax purposes anyway, officially potato crisps.)

Tapioca-based prawn crackers are considered an essential foodstuff but those made from other cereals are a luxury – though if they’re served in a restaurant they’ll be taxed regardless of what they’re made from. If you get them with your takeaway, however, they’ll almost certainly arrive cold, meaning you don’t have to pay tax on them, which seems fair.

And on the subject of takeaways, who can forget 2012’s Pastygate affair, when outraged sausage-roll lovers forced the Chancellor to back away from his attempts to simplify their taxation?

Admittedly, we’re not the only country whose tax system invites mockery; more than one US state taxes pumpkins differently depending on whether they’re destined to become a dessert or a decoration, which may finally explain the curious American taste for pumpkin pie.

But much as I love the Snowball and its squidgy, sticky, debatably cakey cousins, I’m not sure they deserve a tax break. Let us all eat cake – but let us pay for it, too.

Next week: John Burnside on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

Martin Knoller/Wikimedia
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End of an orator: the ancient Roman machinations of Robert Harris's Dictator

Dictator, the final installment in the "Cicero trilogy", finds the great lawyer exiled from Rome.

If ever a Roman was lucky enough to win a great military victory without losing too many of his men, he could return to the city in triumph. He would be paraded through the streets alongside placards proclaiming his successes, trophies and spoils, prisoners and horses. Cicero, who was never one for frivolous excess, triumphed in a different way. It was just a pity that his kind of triumph was also his undoing.

At the beginning of Dictator, the much-anticipated final instalment in Robert Harris’s “Cicero trilogy”, the great orator and lawyer has been exiled from Rome. What Cicero considered to be his great triumph – the quelling of a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic in 63BC – was all his enemies had needed to get him out the way. Illegally, he had put the conspirators to death without trial. A protracted absence from Rome was just the first way in which he would pay for acting so precipitously.

We see him through the eyes of Tiro, his trusty secretary, who is a delightfully subjective biographer of his master’s last 15 years. Tiro has had plenty of time to discover that, for all his kind-heartedness, Cicero can be incredibly tiresome. So when Cicero threatens to kill himself rather than endure the ignominy of his new life in exile, Tiro stands aside, as if to let him get on with it. “He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood,” he says, “let alone his own.”

Self-pitying and incredulous how a man of his intellect could fall from such a high status so quickly, Cicero grows his beard and awaits news from Rome, where the ruthless demagogue Publius Clodius destroys his house on the luxurious Palatine Hill, replaces it with a temple to Liberty and generally dispenses with all justice.

All of which makes this novel just as thrilling but altogether more sorrowful than the first two books. Grim inevitability lurks in the background of every page, as all that Cicero loves most about the Roman Republic goes to pot. When he returns to the city the situation grows still worse: the “triumvirate” alliance uniting Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus begins to crack and the politicians hurtle into civil war, which dominates the second, busier half of the novel.

The events and political upheavals of these years are some of the most complicated in ancient history. Undaunted, Harris remains impressively faithful to the ancient sources, embellishing the gaps with terse dialogue, exhilarating exchanges and witty observations of some of the lesser-known senators.

Tiro is an indispensable guide, proving himself a more objective historian than he is a biographer of his master. Indeed, there are times when he is just as conscientious about describing the significance of events as a modern-day historian would be: “Even allowing for a degree of exaggeration, it was plain from the Commentaries that Caesar had enjoyed an astonishing run of military successes.” Not that this does anything to distract, as Harris skilfully navigates these fraught years in Cicero’s life. His novel often feels like the best kind of narrative history, at once frenetic but measured in its assessment of the characters who brought the Republic to an end.

Although it is true that Cicero is one of the most documented figures of antiquity, capable of providing a fair self-portrait through his own letters, it can be hard to differentiate between how he saw himself and how he was seen. This is where Dictator triumphs. Although it is hard to blame him, given the crises that unfurl between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, Cicero becomes a caricature, ever certain of his own greatness, ignorant of how unhinged he must look to everyone around him. And yet, it is impossible not to warm to him, especially as the darkest days draw near. He was, historically no less than in this novel, a loving father, a defiant believer in a cause, an excellent writer and public speaker, and an intellectual.

Harris’s trilogy leaves one pondering: was Cicero born at the wrong time, or precisely the right time? Without setting himself up to challenge the inevitable return to one-male rule in Rome, he would never have found the fame and legacy he so yearned for, but nor would he have suffered the painful demise that Harris charts so spectacularly. Catapult him back two centuries earlier into the Republic, and his life would have been far more pleasant – pleasant enough for us never to have heard a thing about it.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” will be published next year by William Collins

Dictator by Robert Harris is out now from Hutchinson (£20, 464pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror