Samuel Muston: In praise of Battenberg, prince - and his brothers - of cakes

 

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Indy Lifestyle Online

It is a celebration as muted as the cake itself. To mark the opening of Melrose & Morgan’s six-month pop-up in Selfridges, the purveyors of fancy cakes and posh deli food have created an “exclusive” new Battenberg cake.

It is, in essence, your standard mid-afternoon perker, only a bit bigger and in a cuboid shape. No complaints from me, though. It’s the sort of celebration I can do business with – restrained and covered in marzipan, too.

Still, nice as it is, it seems a bit misplaced to associate that cake with celebrations. For me, growing up, it never had the slightest connection to parties. Battenberg has always been a low-key cake. Not for it the vulgar icing of the cupcake or the alcoholic wallop of the Christmas pudding. No, this was a modest daily cake, something always in the bread bin and, more often than not, on the table come afternoon.

That is why I nod heartily when Nick Selby, of Melrose & Morgan, describes it as being both the quintessence of British cakeyness and “perfect nostalgia”. It is both of those things, and that is, in part, why it scores so highly in the nation’s top trumps of cakes. It is the cake of England – middle-of-the-road and pretty moderate.

And yet has a foodstuff, and especially one with designs on being the national cake, ever been so misunderstood? Its pedigree is as clear as a playing-field puddle. It is the cake history forgot.

Most assume it was baked in 1884 to celebrate the marriage of Prince Louis of Battenberg to Princess Victoria, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter and Prince Philip’s grandmother, the four squares being for the four Battenberg brothers; and that the cake was then orphaned in 1914, when Louis was forced from office as First Lord of the Admiralty by the same anti-German feeling that caused dachshunds to be kicked, the Royal Family to become the house of Windsor and, in due course, Battenberg to literally translate himself into a Mountbatten.

It is a nice story. But no more than that. Food historian Ivan Day points out that the first recorded recipe for it is in the cook MB Marshall’s household magazine The Table. It appeared in July 1898, a full 14 years after the wedding, is called Gâteau à la Domino and has nine windows. It seems highly unlikely that the Nigella Lawson of her day would name it so negligently. It seems more likely that the recipe originated with her.

That is not the only myth. Another, more pernicious, is that it is easy to make. Actually, if made in a kitchen, not in a factory, it is a test of a baker’s prowess. The two sponges that are halved to form the windows must be just the right consistency – not too dense, but not so soft and airy that they fall apart as the cake is being constructed.

The same applies to the jam – not so much that it overwhelms, but not so little that the cake-blocks fail to adhere. And bugger about with marzipan at your peril.

It is, in fact, a complex operation. One no less deserving of respect than that afforded to the pâtissiers and their éclairs. This is a thing we should cherish and make a fuss of. If it were French, Battenberg would probably have its own national day; if it were American, someone would have souped it up and round-the-block queues would already be forming.

Call me a cake nationalist, but this is a wrong that ought to be righted.

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