My interest in the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle goes little further than the good wishes one extends towards any couple. Yet while I approve of the smashing of conventions by this particular pair, I’m not convinced by their choice of cake. This will be the first royal nuptials since Queen Victoria in 1840 not to be marked with a marzipan-covered doorstop of dried fruit: apparently the lemon and elderflower sponge commissioned from Hackney-based, California-born baker Claire Ptak has been chosen to “incorporate the bright flavours of spring” instead.
It’s true that things got rather out of control in the pastry section – the Queen and Prince Philip’s behemoth weighed more than 35 stone – but rather than ditching the trusty currant in favour of floral flavours, Harry could have followed his brother’s lead and resurrected the old tradition of a groom’s cake instead: shapes such as footballs, trucks and even cows are popular in the US. Frankly, I worry that a delicate sponge won’t do much to line stomachs, let alone survive the hostile environment of the dance floor, but then maybe it’s not that kind of wedding.
Or perhaps the Windsor-Markles are just going for a humbler vibe: after all, Victoria and Albert’s cake was described at the time as “consisting of all the most exquisite compounds of all rich things with which the most expensive cakes can be composed, mingled and mixed together with delightful harmony by the most elaborate science of the confectioner”. Though its single tier, albeit three meters in circumference, looks restrained beside Princess Anne’s 5’6” version, or the live turtle doves imprisoned within Prince Rainier III and Grace Kelly’s cake in 1956, released by a single stroke of his sword.
Such is the importance attached to the wedding cake that it even survived rationing – after a fashion. The Imperial War Museum archives contain an account of one child’s excitement at the vision in white icing that appeared to mark her brother’s wedding in 1942 – and her disappointment when it turned out to be a cardboard model, concealing a smaller fruit cake within: “I think I could have burst into tears.” Elaborate fake cakes are quite usual in modern Japan, where they often include a slot designed to facilitate “cutting” for the cameras.
Victoria may have been a royal trailblazer, but fruit cakes were already well established by the mid-19th century: the first recipe, boasting 10lb of currants and flavoured with ambergris and musk, dates from the mid-17th century. Before cakes came on the scene, British weddings often featured tottering piles of spiced sweet buns, rather like an edible game of Jenga. If the couple were able to kiss over the top without sending them flying, it was held to be a good omen for the union.
The first recipe associated with a wedding, however, isn’t for anything sweet, but a “Bride’s Pye”. Featuring in Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook of 1660, it is made in the shape of a Tudor rose and filled with cockscombs and testicles, sweetbreads and a pint of oysters – but that’s not the most unusual thing about it. “It being bak’t and cold,” May writes, “take out the flour in the bottom, & put in live birds, or a snake, which will seem strange to the beholders, which cut up the pie at the Table. This is only for a Wedding to pass away the time.”
And let’s be honest, we’ve all been to weddings that could have done with livening up with a snake or two.
This article appears in the 10 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran