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

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss