How we fell out of love with fruit cake

In our over-sugared times, traditional fruit cakes are being ditched in favour of sickly-sweet sponges

Forget the eggs; what’s it to be this Easter? Simnel cake or Italian colomba? The simnel cake is the English take on the season: a light fruit cake with a layer of marzipan running through the centre and on top, with 11 marzipan balls representing the apostles minus Judas. The Italian colomba is a light, buttery dough cake, like panetonne, but, for Easter, in the shape of a dove. Actually, the bird shape isn’t immediately apparent; just upend it and use your imagination. It doesn’t contain fruit, but candied peel and, like with panetonne, a number of variations (chocolate, limoncello, apricots etc) are now available.

Both are very good and authentically seasonal, and proper Easter cakes.  But the addition of colomba to the British Easter repertoire is a sign of the times. Just as panetonne is a way of replacing traditional Christmas cake – a dense fruit cake with marzipan – with a light yeast-cake alternative, so colomba is an even lighter version, with sugar nibs and almonds on top. In fact, the Carluccio’s version is covered with icing to boot.

There is, in fact, no getting away from the fact that the traditional fruit cake is sliding out of general currency. The simnel cake is  a good deal lighter than the dark Christmas cake, but it too is getting the kiss of death. Great British Bake Off  winner Nadiya Hussain, who has added fresh fruit and dried berries, which sounds very nice, but isn’t an actual simnel cake.

A classic Italian colomba

The other sign of the times is, as with so much else, Harry and Meghan’s wedding; at the reception, it’s going to be a lemon and elderflower cake from the American cake-maker, Claire Ptak of the Violet Bakery, and obviously you don’t get marzipan and royal icing with that; it’ll have buttercream. Which pretty well confirms what has been apparent for the last five years: couples are increasingly giving fruit cake a miss in favour of alternatives, though thank God, we’re seeing rather fewer wedding cupcakes. So, the days are gone when bits of the cake could be posted off to relatives who couldn’t attend the wedding in special little boxes, or the top tier put aside for a christening cake.

The reasons say a lot about current food trends. We’re over-sugared nowadays; a contemporary cupcake with a thick layer of buttercream has way more of an instant sugar hit than a fruit cake. Dried fruit – raisins, currants, sultanas – aren’t a treat in the way they once were; they were the long-lasting dried ingredient of choice from the Middle Ages. We’re more sedentary than we were – a rich fruit cake, dense and moist, is anathema for the contemporary palate, that craves a quick sugar rush. We don’t need keepers, cake that’s a good standby for visitors who drop by; that’s another world. And habits change: there’s a replica of a menu that the Rolling Stones had at Le Caprice once: for dessert, there was Genoa cake. Hard to imagine pop stars eating it now.

And then there’s the more pernicious trend, which is that chocolate has taken over the world; it’s the flavour of choice for children; it’s the reflexive option for every single festival: Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s, Mother’s Day. It’s taken over the universe, and not in a good way. See the latest innovation from Waitrose: chocolate Easter panettone, with sweets on top. Oh dear. But not half as ‘oh dear’ as the abomination from Sainsbury’s this year: chocolate chip hot cross buns. Christ…

By comparison, the Italian colomba is a pleasant addition to our Easter tables. And in a funny way, the yeasted panetonne-style cake is not that far away from the original sweetened, spiced yeast breads with or without fruit which were the original cakes, often made in a batch during bread baking, while the proper bread was proving, and cooked in the same oven.

Yet, as Elisabeth Ayrton wrote in The Cookery of England, ‘The English rich fruit, such as pound cake, rich Genoa or Dundee, is accepted as a masterpiece of culinary invention.’ It’s a great thing. Simnel cake is less rich than any of these, but it too is a wonderful thing. If you want a good recipe, try the one by Spectator Life’s Vintage Chef, Olivia Potts. Or if you can’t spare the time, Fortnum and Mason do two versions: traditional, and with ginger and orange, which is well within the boundaries of a decent twist on the original. Or Marks and Spencer’s has a very pretty simnel cake, with marzipan flowers as well as apostle balls.

The colomba isn’t quite as ubiquitous as the panetonne but it’s becoming more mainstream. Here are three of the best…

Waitrose: smaller than most but pleasingly light and sweet and very affordable at £10. www.waitrose.com

Carluccio’s: Columba with Limoncello. This was inevitable…the fruit and candied peel are replaced by a sweet but bland limoncello filling and decorated with white chocolate and sugar sprinkles; a whopping 950g at £17.95. They also have a very good, and to my mind preferable, traditional panetonne, 750g at £14.95. carluccios.com

Lina Stores: The blockbuster colomba, fabulously presented, from the excellent Soho Italian delicatessen. There’s the Traditional Colomba BreraMilano, from G. Cova, one of Milan’s most famous bakers. Or there’s the apricot flavoured Perbellini Colomba, a new arrival; also from a traditional family baker. Both £29.95. A fabulous Easter present if you’re over chocolate eggs. www.linastores.co.uk


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