Tiers of happiness: The coolest couples are ditching fruit cake for chocolate, red velvet or Madeira wedding cake

Who will make the dress is still shrouded in mystery – as is the much speculated upon guest list – but finally we can amuse ourselves with one small detail of the impending Royal nuptials: the wedding cake.

Not ones to stray from tradition, Kate and William, we have been informed, have chosen a classic iced fruit cake for the big day. But this most conventional of choices belies a much wider trend in wedding cakes: the rise of the non-fruit cake. Whether it's chocolate, Madeira, cupcakes or cheesecake, it seems anything goes at weddings these days and couples are much more likely to opt for something contemporary and original to serve their guests.

One high-street company to realise that the iced fruit cake has fallen out of favour is Marks & Spencer, which next month is relaunching its entire range of wedding cakes. There are traditional fruit cakes available, of course, but it will also offer dramatic chocolate tiers, modern designs, individually served cakes and stylish colour trends, all of which are representative of the changes going on in the industry.

"People are looking for different, quirky or more modern alternatives to the traditional wedding cake," says Ali Rodham, cake developer for Marks & Spencer. "The whole formality has changed, and we've seen a real switch in how people operate. The market has changed incredibly quickly, and it's really only been in the last few years that we've seen the popularity surge in things like chocolate wedding cakes."

Now just about every wedding-cake manufacturer offers some sort of chocolate option. Many couples are also opting to mix up the tiers, perhaps having chocolate on one, fruit on another and a regular sponge on the third – the fruit tier always taking its position at the bottom because it's the heaviest.

Having introduced its first chocolate version only last year, Marks & Spencer admits it was a little bit slow on the uptake. However, it is now making every effort to stay one step ahead of the competition.

Another trend that experts have seen is the demand for small, individual cakes rather than a single large one, which is actually a fairly sensible choice. Not only does it spare the messy and tricky cutting and divvying up for guests, the cakes can also be used as a dessert.

"We've seen a real trend for people wanting a wedding cake that can be combined as a dessert," says Rodham. Sure enough, Marks & Spencer is offering Chocolate Cups, small individual chocolate cubes, as a way of tapping into this new demand.

Eric Lanlard, the Royal wedding cake correspondent for the Food Network agrees. "More and more couples want to do what they do in France, Italy, all over Europe really, which is have the wedding cake served as the dessert. And that means you're seeing more fresh fruit, berries and chocolate on the menu."

While you might be saving money, it's also worth noting that after three courses and plenty of booze, the last thing most people want is a hunk of cake. Therefore, by having a cake that doubles as a dessert, you can save money as well as offer your guests something contemporary and different.

There's a similar idea behind the rise of people having cupcakes instead of a wedding cake. After they made several high-profile public appearances, such as on Sex and the City and in various magazine shoots, they were brought over from America in their droves and their popularity subsequently exploded. Cupcakes remain one of the most fashionable cakes around, meaning that plenty are choosing to have them on their wedding day.

Cake trends are often exported from America and it's not uncommon for experts to travel over there to make sure they are up to date on all the latest information and crazes. Rodham spent last summer in Los Angeles and San Francisco exploring the latest bakery fads. "We often see cake trends move over from the States," she explains. "The explosion of cup cakes and whoopie pies both obviously came from there."

Likewise, Rodham and others in her field keep a close watch on big celebrity weddings, knowing how much coverage they get and how influential they can be. "If a star does something unusual then it always gets written about. And lots of these people want to stand out. If the cake isn't mentioned, it's probably something quite traditional. We'll certainly be watching the Royal wedding closely; just as we've seen copycat engagement rings and dresses, they are bound to start a trend with whatever design they have on the big day."

Rodham also points to Robbie Williams deciding on a red velvet cake for his recent nuptials to Ayda Field as an example of this fixation with all things celebrity. Inquiries about red velvet cake, sure enough, rose immediately after his wedding photos appeared in Hello! and Williams declared it his "favourite" in the accompanying interview.

Red velvet cake, another dessert enjoying a fashionable moment, is something Marks & Spencer is looking at adding to its range. However, the use of artificial colouring is against the company's brand values (red food dye is needed to obtain its rich red shade) so they're looking into alternatives. Carrot cake and cheesecake are other variations that are featuring in more weddings and ones that the Marks & Spencer range is hoping to include in future.

When it comes to decorating the wedding cakes, pillars separating the tiers and figurines on top of the cake are out, while fresh fruit and flowers are in. "I suspect the Royal wedding cake will get a modern twist thanks to things like flowers and fruits," says Lanlard. "I imagine they will use sugar flowers that will be replicas of ones from different parts of Britain."

Fashion often informs cake trends and details such as buttons and stencilling have recently made a comeback. "People don't tend to want loads of details on their cakes but the smaller things can make all the difference," Rodham explains.

Most suppliers also stock some rather plain white cakes as many people like to decorate their own to fit in with their colour theme for the day. With this in mind, Rodham has filmed some online clips demonstrating how to personalise your cake, and offering helpful tips, such as how to use ribbon to dress it up.

One popular colour theme for a cake is black and white and you'll find many suppliers stock a monochrome cake, purely because black and white is a very popular colour theme for weddings presently.

"We're seeing a lot of brides wear white dresses with a black belt or sash," Rodham notes. "And lots of brides put their bridesmaids in black dresses, which used to be a bit of a no-no. It's something we wouldn't have done a few years ago but weddings are much more personalised and stylish now."

When it comes to wedding cakes there is still a large gulf between what the younger and older generations want and Rodham points to the rise in people also buying a simple, modest fruit cake with white icing to have alongside their more modern offering, in order to appease grandparents and older family friends.

"We're seeing that with a lot of women organising weddings, when they say that they're getting a chocolate cake, their mothers are horrified and say things like 'But what about saving the top tier for the christening?', to which many brides roll their eyes. So they end up buying a big, fancy, modern cake which is the centrepiece and then also making sure they get a little fruit cake as well, so they can give a slice to the oldies. A lot of people are opting for both." Cutting bars of iced fruit cakes is also popular so guests can take the customary slice home with them.

The royal couple are also indulging in this two-cake trend, as we've been told they will also be serving a "fridge cake", made from McVities biscuits and lashings of chocolate that was a favourite of the young Prince William, except in this case the traditional iced fruit cake will be the centrepiece. "I like the idea of having a chocolate fridge cake on the side," says Lanlard. "It will be the fun and updated side of things. Something a bit more relaxed."

Just as attitudes towards the institute of marriage has relaxed in recent years, so it seems have the wedding cakes. "People used to order wedding cakes almost assuming that it was not going to be eaten," says Lanlard. "These iced fruit cakes would be served later on in the evening and it was expected that everyone would be too drunk or too busy dancing and that nobody would really remember what the cake looked like or what it tasted like. I like to call those traditional iced fruit cakes 'handbag cakes', because guests wrap a slice up in a napkin, put it in their handbag and then find it months later when they get it out again for the next wedding. Things have changed now. Young couples think that if they're going to spend hundreds of pounds on a wedding cake then they want something that people will really enjoy."

Bridal bakes

During the Roman Empire, wedding cakes were made by baking wheat or barley (symbols of prosperity and fertility) into small cakes, not unlike bread rolls. Guests would throw them at the bride to bestow good wishes on her.

In medieval times the bride and groom would share a piece of a barley bread loaf, after which the groom would break the rest over the head of the bride. The breaking of the bread was a symbol of the groom's dominance over her.

Later, it was customary to stack buns in piles as high as possible and the newlyweds were encouraged to kiss over the top. If they were able to, it symbolised a lifetime of prosperity.

At weddings during the 17th century, Bride's Pie became popular. It could be a pie filled with sweet breads, a mince pie, or a mutton pie and a glass ring was hidden inside, whoever found it being the next to wed.

White is the traditional colour of the wedding cake, denoting purity. White icing first appeared in Victorian times and because the ingredients were very difficult to come by, it was thought the whiter the cake, the more affluent the family.

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