Oxford in cakes (and an All Souls Cherry Cake)

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I was asked recently to write an article on cake and Oxford for the University’s alumni magazine. I said yes on the basis of one sentence in my book about one of the main characters in Bridehead Revisited eating some cake in his College rooms. Fortunately it was only a short article but I knew I’d need a bit more to work with.

First, I indulged in some reminiscing about cake in my own student days with some old College friends. That was fun, but we didn’t come up with much of historical significance. It did, however, point me to Oxford Food: An Anthology by Ursula Aylmer and Carolyn (appropriately enough) McCrum. This and some supplementary internet research means that I now know a little more about cake in Oxford.

Did you know, for example, that Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) used to entertain children to tea and cakes in his College rooms at Christ Church? Among them, of course, was the younger daughter of the College Dean, Alice (in Wonderland) Liddell?

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Alice after eating the cake she found in Wonderland. Source

You are, perhaps, more likely to be familiar with the cake which Alice finds at the bottom of the rabbit hole after falling into Wonderland: the one that has ‘Eat Me’ marked on it in currants, and which makes her grow very tall.

The cake which Brideshead Revisited‘s Charles Ryder served up, meanwhile, was a Fuller’s Walnut Cake. Fuller’s was an American company and the cake was a two-layer affair, sandwiched and topped with boiled white frosting, and decorated with halved walnuts. Fanny serves on up to her young cousins in her Oxford home in Love in a Cold Climate too; they were clearly height of fashion in prewar Oxford.

A bit closer to home was the Cake Factory on Banbury Road (possibly Oliver & Gurdon, which was a prize-winning bakery on Middle Way, which runs parallel to Banbury Road). Novelist Nina Bawden had fond memories of their cakes featuring at tea parties where men and women could mix. Since the cakes went stale quickly a fresh one was a real testament to a young man’s interest.

Just a little further one can find the pastry-encased Banbury Cake, which has been one of the staple trades for that town for centuries. There is a recipe for them in the famous collection The English Hus-Wife by Gervase Markham, which was published in 1615.

And on the other side of Oxford, the town of Abingdon buys up sweet buns to throw to the gathered crowds from the top of County Hall on special occasions.

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But the cake that most caught my attention was the cherry cake which is apparently served every year at the beating of the bounds ceremony at All Souls College. Beating of the bounds is an ancient tradition where residents of a given parish travel to the far edges of their land, staking their claim to it by beating a staff on the ground. All Soul’s College lies within the parish of St Mary the Virgin, and the traditional cherry cake is a reminder of the cherry orchard which used to stand on the land.

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Oxford Food contained a recipe for cherry cake – whether it’s the one used by the chefs at All Souls isn’t specified – but I decided to give it a go. Cherry cake recipes seem to be very similar from what I can see, but this one certainly produced a light and tasty cake. Tossing the cut cherries in flour helps them to stick in the batter rather than sinking to the bottom. I only made two thirds of the full recipe (because I only had two eggs!) and it took about 50 minutes in the oven. I took the cake to a talk I gave yesterday at the Oxford Literary Festival, and was quite distracted by the rather lovely smell wafting towards me from the plate as I talked. My audience was a little shy at first, but it soon disappeared – and some of the tasters also bought the book which must be the ultimate endorsement!

Cherry Cake (from Oxford Food: an anthology)

6oz (175g) butter

6oz (175g) fine sugar (I just used caster)

6oz (175g) plain flour

1 tsp baking powder

3 eggs

6oz (175g) crystallised cherries

4oz (100g) ground almonds

grated lemon peel (optional)

Mix in the usual way by creaming the butter and sugar together, then gradually beating in the eggs with a little flour; mix in the remaining flour sifted with the baking powder, the ground almonds, and lastly the cut cherries, previously coated in some of the flour. Scrape it all into a greased 8 inch tin adn bake it for about 1 1/2 hours at gas mark 3 (325F or 170C). Leave it in the tin for half an hour after taking it out of the oven.

**With thanks to Vicky, Tamsin, Tamasin and Sarah for their helpful reminiscences and source-finding 🙂 **

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