Cake talk


What hoots of derision there were when we saw the cake, with its naked sculptures of bride, groom and baby, its garishly coloured fondant icing, its tiers of Eden-ish apples. It was patently a cake to be seen, not eaten. Why couldn't they have stuck to white? And as for the graphic sugar depiction of the marriage bed . . . So vulgar.

To which snobbish remarks, brayed over our copies of OK, Mr and Mrs Beckham would be entitled to reply that a non-vulgar and non-symbolic wedding cake has yet to be baked. The standard white-iced confection has many more layers of meaning than it does of sweetmeat. It's a semiotician's dream. Anthropologists have analysed it. Dr Simon R Charsley has even written an academic book about it - Wedding Cakes and Cultural History (Routledge, 1992). The Beckham cake was rare among such creations in wearing its symbolism openly on its sugar-work, not hiding it in hypocritical white tracery.

The multi-tiered fruit cake, which we think of as inseparable from summer marriage vows, is actually quite recent in origin. In the medieval period there were no special wedding sweets. Over the centuries, plum cakes or "great cakes" became increasingly associated with festive occasions, though not exclusively nuptials. In the 17th century British weddings were marked by "bride's pies" - instead of cakes, thick crusts filled with fruits and mince and sometimes a laying hen, a sign of fecundity. There were bridal breads, too, to be ceremoniously broken. Only in the 19th century was the almond-pasted, hard-iced fruit cake established as intrinsic to wedding parties, along with the cutting ritual. And only in the late Victorian era did tiers, decorated with orange blossom, become the norm - before that, the "bride's cake" was most often a single massive cylinder.

The bride is specially linked to the cake, as the groom is not. Both are encased in stiff, virginal white, and the cake-cutting foreshadows, at least in theory, the breaking of the hymen. The top layer, kept and put aside for an assumed future christening, is another bond between the bride's life cycle and the cake's. Royal icing is as rigid and baroque as public declarations of love and rings on cushions. Fruit cake's longevity, meanwhile, assumes that the ties of fidelity between man and wife are not fleeting. Some couples keep a tier of cake right up to their silver anniversary.

It cannot be accidental that the American wedding cake, by contrast, goes off after only a few days. The "bride's cake" in the United States is usually a plain white gateau, frosted with perishable buttercream icing and topped with a molasses-black "groom cake". It's more romantic than our cakes (soft and moreish and chastely white inside, as well as out) but less concerned with the duties of "till death us do part". Elvis Presley's wedding cake, cooked by the Aladdin Hotel, Las Vegas, was six layers of white angel food cake, covered in pink hearts, made with "Sweettex" and dried milk. The frosting contained 25lb of special powdered sugar and two quarts of egg whites. Even Elvis couldn't make much of a dent in that. The absurd optimism and extravagance of modern weddings is better expressed in the American cake than the British. The French preference for glorious croquembouches, or towers of joined-up choux buns, is halfway between the two. Hard caramel echoes the stern formality of the marriage vows. But the quivering little custard-filled buns hint at more tender passions.

My own wedding cake I made myself. Since my husband hates glace cherries, I put peaches into the mix instead, along with brown sugar and coriander. I baked it in a huge heart-shaped mould and decorated it with white squiggles, whose symbolism even I am unable to explain.

This article first appeared in the 26 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, I took tea with Pinochet