Crumbs! It's Cakegate

It had the ingredients of a perfectly ordinary burglary. But a recent break-in at the Banbury

Cake Company may actually have been a sneaky blow in a ruthless battle for supremacy.

This is a town where cake isn't everything - it's the only thing.

When Tony Carney arrived at the bakery that Thursday morning, he sensed an intrusion immediately. "I thought, `Oh crumbs! Something's not right'." So it proved. There weren't, as it happens, any crumbs. But there was a line of footprints on the floury floor; a pane of glass, neatly laid by the window from which it had been removed; and an empty space where, a few hours earlier, two trays of cakes had been.

It seemed like a simple case of a burglar with a cake habit - unless there was a previously unsuspected market for "hot" cakes. Then Carney spotted the empty filing box where the recipes had been kept. This, it seemed, was the work of a professional.

Carney is one of two partners in the Banbury Cake Company, which claims to make the world's only authentic Banbury cake. In the cake world, that's a big claim. Banbury cake - a flaky, elliptical pastry with icing and sugar on the outside and a curious mincemeat mixture within - is celebrated, rightly or wrongly, the world over. Queen Victoria was an admirer; so was Ben Jonson before her and James Joyce after.

And the Cake Company's recipe for it is a much-prized secret. The break- in 10 days ago was almost certainly an attempt to steal it. Fortunately, the company had recently removed the recipe to a secret location, where it is kept under lock and key. "All the thief got away with was some recipes for bread rolls, sausage rolls and doughnuts," says Carney. "And 240 cakes."

"I can understand you thinking it's entertaining," says David Campbell of the Thames Valley Police. "But for us it's just another crime to sort out." Yet the break-in has been front-page news in Banbury, where they take their cakes as seriously as Frenchmen take their wine. They've been making them for 400 years.

In the 19th century, the great baker Samuel Beesley exported them to America, India and Australia, selling nearly 140,000 cakes in 1840 alone. One local paper is actually called the Banbury Cake. If ever a town's identity was tied up with a sweet, tea-time foodstuff, Banbury's is.

Part of the appeal lies in the mystique of the recipe, which has remained a secret, passed down from master baker to master baker over centuries. There's rarely been more than one recognised maker of the "true" cakes at any one time, and most aficionados know the succession: Beesley got the recipe from Betty White and passed it on to Mr Lamb, who sold it to Mrs EW Brown (a Quaker who insisted that only male workers could bake her cakes, while only women could ice them). The secret stayed with the Brown family for nearly a century, and was then passed, via a Mr Warren, to Ray Malcolm. Malcolm's 22-year reign as king of the Banbury cake bakers ended earlier this month, his retirement prompted partly by the loss of several staff to a new Morrisons supermarket. It looked as though the cake might vanish with him. Then Carney and his partner, Peter Hobden, stepped in, bought the recipe from Malcolm for a "substantial" sum, set up the Banbury Cake Company, and announced, to the delight of traditionalists, that they had "saved the cake for Banbury".

"It's good news that Tony and Peter are going to keep the tradition going," says Brian Little, a local historian. "We lost our cattle market earlier this year, the Banbury Cross that everyone comes to see isn't the original one - the Puritans took that down in 1646. So the Banbury Cake is more important than ever as a link with the past." Take away the cake, and the only cultural symbol Banbury is left with is Gary Glitter.

But collective passions can breed divisions, as most of Banbury now knows. Even before Carney and Hobden stepped in, feelings were running high. Earlier this year, Morrisons began to sell its own "Banbury cakes", made in Warwick. Purists protested to no avail. Then a local farmer called Phillip Brown, a descendant of Mrs EW Brown, publicly cast doubt on the authenticity of Ray Malcolm's recipe, claiming that the original was in his hands.

Malcolm was unimpressed. "His recipe's not been used for years," he says. "I bought mine from Mr Warren, who got it from Browns. And anyway, I didn't claim ours was original - just genuine."

Brown isn't selling any "original" cakes, but that still leaves three different kinds of Banbury cake on sale in the town (the Banbury Oven, just off the High Street, makes its own); and, as Little says: "It's terribly difficult to know which is the `real' recipe. But Browns haven't made the cake since the early 1980s, so it's definitely Tony and Peter who are keeping the tradition going."

The Banbury Cake Company makes some 2,500 cakes a week, each selling for 50p, so it's not an especially lucrative tradition. But Carney, a former Mayor of Banbury, is confident that the company can soon revive a worldwide export business. Is that what the Cakegate burglars wanted a slice of? It's hard to tell. As Ray Malcolm points out: "Just because you'd stolen the recipe wouldn't necessarily mean you'd know what to do with it. You build up a skill for making the cakes over the years."

None the less, industrial espionage seems the only plausible motive. "There used to be more of this sort of thing," says John Newnham of the Biscuit, Cake & Confectionery Alliance. "It's more transparent in these days of compulsory ingredient-listing, but you still need to know what proportions to use, and how to mix them. A recipe can be very valuable." Yes, but to whom?

The crux of this particular recipe seems to be in the mincemeat-like filling, whose ingredients include candied peel, currants, rum essence, rose-water and - in Brian Little's words - "a little bit of this and a little bit of that". Does it really justify the fuss and skulduggery?

"I'm afraid," confesses Little, "that I'm not desperately fond of the Banbury cake. I suspect that it's probably just as well that we don't know exactly what they put in it."

Yet others, clearly, remain enthusiastic. Shortly after the break-in at the Cake Company, there was another burglary in Banbury, at the railway station canteen, one of the handful of outlets in the town which sell "genuine" Banbury cakes. Large quantities of stock were taken. British Transport Police are still investigating; but there is a strong rumour that the stolen goods included cake.

Richard Askwith 1998

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