Are you nuts about fruitcakes or just nutty as a fruitcake?
I actually love fruitcakes but I rarely buy them myself. I normally wait for family, friends or relatives to send some over during Christmas or when they happen to bake or buy some. And I so happen to have some with me now, and I thought, how did the fruitcake come about anyway?
It’s not cheap to get fruitcake in Malaysia. You probably have to break your bank account to get really good and popular brands if you want quality fruitcake. Also, because we are a mostly-Muslim country, it’s against the law for food to contain alcohol, so it will be a challenge to get fruitcake that is properly made with alcohol, namely rum.
The fruitcake is not just something we eat, though, but it is also used as parts of jokes in the Sunday comic sections of newspapers and on boxes of greeting cards. It was even rumoured that one entrepreneur manufactures fruitcakes not for human consumption but to be used as doorstoppers! How strange.
Different Types of Fruitcakes of Historical Past
The fruitcake goes very far back in its roots of historical associations with the Holy Land, much to the surprise of mankind, and its internal bounty is said to represent the gifts of the Wise Men. Also, because the fruit came from the Holy Land, it was also revered and saved for feasting, particularly Christmas and Easter.
The ancient Egyptians began making fruitcake for their departed loved ones to carry with them into the afterlife. The density of the cake and the preserved fruit were thought to withstand the journey, and the riches of the fruits and nuts told of the wealth of the consumer and the family’s esteem for the deceased.
The Austrians had re-discovered the bounty of the Middle Eastern fruit when the Turks laid siege to Vienna in the 17th century. Thankful for having survived that face-off, the Viennese served German turban cake, or gugelhupf (below) with a filling of raisins, citron, lemon and orange peel, almonds, and spices on Christmas morning.
Similarly, the Scandinavians baked various fruit breads and cakes called julekage, julekakke (below) or julebrod during Christmas; and like fruitcake, these baked goods were also glazed and contained fruits, nuts and exotic spices.
Not to be outdone, the Germans baked their version of the fruitcake known as stollen (above) while the Italians made holiday bread known as panettone (below). These variations are characterised based on the choices of fruit and nuts as well as the optional addition of rum or brandy. The panettone is actually a Milanese tradition that was surrounded by legend, and it only became associated with the unification of Italy during the uprisings in 1821 when raisins were replaced with red cherries and green citron to represent the Italian tri-coloured flag.
Other similar fruitcake traditions included the Russian Easter bread known as kulich (above) and topped with lemon icing, while the Irish fruit bread known as barmbrack (below) accompanied the Halloween and All Saints Day festivities.
The English fruitcake or Christmas cake, however, only reached its heyday in Victorian times when religious traditions exploded into colourful and season-long celebrations. Fruitcake and other fruit-bearing holiday treats like plum puddings and the Irish plum cakes were made well ahead before the holidays kicked in. These cakes were then wrapped in cheesecloth soaked in brandy (sometimes the cheesecloth was re-soaked and the cakes were re-wrapped so they would absorb the liquid) before being coated with marzipan or almond paste, and further coated with royal icing that dried and hardened, and given a bath of apricot glaze.
So you see, we shouldn’t knock the fruitcake around so much as it has such a colourful history! These cakes had demonstrated such an abundance of cheer and tradition that the same kind of cake is used today in England as a wedding cake, and it even has the advantage of being well-preserved for anniversary celebrations.
Now excuse me while I enjoy a slice of fruitcake and bask in its traditional goodness.