A brief history of wedding cakes: from spiced buns to lamb’s testicles

Now We Know: The Romans preferred a cake of wheat or barley, while the tiered tower was seen as a display of wealth

The whiteness of the cake often reflected the family’s wealth, so was seen as a status symbol. Photograph: iStock

The whiteness of the cake often reflected the family’s wealth, so was seen as a status symbol. Photograph: iStock

 

How are you holding up this wedding season? Depending on your demographic, popularity and ability to rock a boat, you could well be in the throes of wedding fatigue. In between finding the right frock and perfecting your small talk, have you ever wondered why we eat cake at weddings?

It turns out that tiered cakes are relatively new when it comes to symbolic sweet treats at wedding ceremonies. Cake historians agree that the Romans were fond of a sweet treat to mark a wedding party, though the tradition was delivered in a different way.

“Ancient Roman wedding ceremonies were finalised by breaking a cake of wheat or barley over the bride’s head as a symbol of good fortune,” writes Carol Wilson in her article Wedding Cake: A Slice of History, for Gastonomica.org. “The newly-married couple then ate a few crumbs in a custom known as confarreatio – eating together.”

According to Wilson and other sources, towers of spiced buns were the rage in medieval England, perhaps an early precursor to the towering tiers of today. Around this time, savoury bridal pies were also popular. “The earliest British recipe specifically noted for a wedding is Bride’s Pye, recorded by Robert May in the 1685 edition of The Accomplisht Cook,” says Wilson. “This was a large round pie with an elaborately decorated pastry crust that concealed a filling of oysters, pine kernels, cockscombs, lamb stones [testicles], sweetbreads, and spices. There were also humbler, less expensive versions containing minced meats or just mutton.”

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White as a colour associated with weddings is quite a modern phenomenon, and is often credited to Queen Victoria, who wore a white lace dress when getting married to Prince Albert in 1840. Previously, wealthy brides wore dresses of many colours and fabrics to represent their family’s status and wealth. Have a look at weddings.lovetoknow.com for a timeline of wedding dress styles throughout the ages and around the world.

Even before Queen Victoria’s influence, the accessibility of refined sugar would have played a big part in bridal confectionary trends. By the mid-16th century, sugar was becoming plentiful across Europe.

“The more refined the sugar, the whiter it was,” writes Abigail Tucker for Smithsonian.com. “Pure white icing soon became a wedding cake staple.” Tucker elaborates on how the whiteness of the cake often reflected the family’s wealth, so was seen as a status symbol. “Later, tiered cakes, with their cement-like supports of decorative dried icing, also advertised affluence,” Tucker writes.

These days, cakes are often tiered, sometimes naked, and generally topped with decorations that reflect the happy couple. In Ireland, we love a good fruit cake base. This is my personal hunch, but I believe tradition could be influenced by the fact that a fruit cake can stand for days (okay, well, hours at least) in a warm room full of people dancing, singing, shouting, crying and laughing, and will still hold its shape and its taste.

Irish weddings are marathons and it’s not just the guests who need to be made of strong stuff to have the stamina to make it through the day; the wedding cake does, too.

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