Five thousand years old and still tastes great…
It’s rich and fruity, embellished with nuts and laced with brandy. Decadently iced with layers of almond marzipan or a syrupy glaze pooling around pecans and glace cherries. Equally synonymous with winter holiday festivities and grandma’s pantry, fruitcake is a time-honoured tradition that’s grown up with civilisation itself.
Culinary lore finds fruitcake as far back as ancient Egyptian times, and when the recipe got across the Mediterranean, the Romans took it up and it became part of army rations. In those days it was a combination of pomegranate arils, pine nuts and barley mash, a hearty stimulant for the miles of marching. Later in Colonial times, newly acquired raw sugar was added, along with an array of exotic dried fruits from the far-flung colonies, including raisins, pineapple, cherries, and citrus. It was in the Victorian era that alcohol was added, usually either rum or whiskey which made this timeless favourite a heady, weighty concoction with an extended shelf life. During both World Wars fruitcake again took to the front line, thanks to its density and long shelf life and many a soldier was cheered with a carefully wrapped parcel containing a rich, dense fruitcake – a welcome break in their monotonous rations.
As fruitcake has changed through the times, it has also changed from country to country. From boiled or baked, iced or glazed, light and sponge-based or rich, dark and sticky, round, square or log-shaped but each laden with a delicious variety of fruit and nuts and spices.
Panforte or ‘strong-bread’ is the Italian variety, a weighty dessert packed full of fruits, nuts and honey. Also originating in Italy, panettone is a bread-like fruitcake full of raisins, candied fruit peel, almonds and brandy that is now seen in festivities in many European and Hispanic countries. In Germany, stollen is a tapered loaf full of nuts, spices and dried or candied fruit, and coated with melted butter and powdered sugar. In the UK, different methods abound, but the most common fruitcake is round, decorated with almonds and cherries and is traditionally enjoyed Herriot-style with a sharp cheese and glass of Scotch whiskey.
Although not everyone’s cup of tea, in many family archives there is a well-worn, hand-written fruitcake recipe. Each method has its own unique selection of spices, dried fruits and a good dash of something strong, because after all, there’s nothing quite like fruitcake to generate lasting memories.