Such are the scenes, that, at the front and side
Of the Twelfth-cake-shops, scatter wild dismay;
As up the slipp’ry curb, or pavement wide,
We seek the pastrycooks, to keep Twelfth-day;
While ladies stand aghast, in speechless trance,
Look round – dare not go back – and yet dare not advance. (William Hone, 1825)
At the start of this year I went on holiday to Nice (very nice). It meant I was there for Twelfth Night, which fact had occurred to me about three weeks earlier, mid-lecture, and caused me to lose my train of thought entirely and splutter a bit. I lived in France for a few years as a teenager, and hadn’t been back there at that time of year since, and, as I failed to find my lecture words, what was really going on inside my head was a sort of massive yippeeeeeee. I’d only just clocked that me in France + Twelfth Night = galette des rois. And so it was, that every boulangerie and pâtisserie that we passed (ogled), for the days preceding the 6th January was bursting with seasonal, pastry-based goodness. The queues on the 5th were out of the door. Everyone seemed to have their special galette bag, advertising that year’s new design of ceramic fève, hidden inside to choke the unwary. It made me very happy. But it also made me muse, for we used to be the same in Britain. We’ve lost many many traditions, but that of the Twelfth Cake seems to have gone so entirely, it doesn’t even live on as a vague idea. Most people have never even heard of Twelfth Cake here, yet it thrives in France. What’s going on?!
So, as we speed fast away from another Christmas, it seems apt to post an entirely untimely post on a lost British tradition. It’s not that untimely – I’ve only just polished off the last of the mince pies, which I swear were breeding in their cosy tin. Still, for most people Christmas is a distant memory. Indeed, it sometimes seems that Christmas in the 21st century starts around September, and ends promptly, just after dinner on the 25th December. How different to the medieval and early Tudor festival, which started in early December with the advent fast, and really got going on the 24th or 25th December (it depended whether you counted the start of the day from the evening of the night before). You then had 12 glorious days of feasting until Twelfth Night, on the 5th or 6th January (see previous explanation – there doesn’t seem to be a hard or fast rule, and it’s time and culture dependant. In some countries the 24th December is still the key day for the Christmas feast). Each day was associated with a different saint, and could include different customs and foods. There’s an excellent blog post about it all here.
Twelfth Night, therefore was rather more than just a day when people were all back at work, starting diets, going ‘dry’ in the most depressing month of the year, and generally rubbing salt into their Christmas-induced wounds. It signalled the end of the feast season, and the start in earnest of the new year. The early Christian Church harnessed all the various pre-Christian shenanigans to religious festivals, in this case to the Feast of the Epiphany, when according to the Christian mythology, kings from afar brought gifts and knelt before the new-born Jesus. For that reason, it’s also known as the feast of the Kings, and for many centuries we ate King or Twelfth cake as part of what was really quite a small list of date-specific foods. Today, for example, we think of Christmas pudding and mince pies as specific to Christmas Day, but in the past, they were more ‘seasonal with a Christmas bent’ – eaten throughout the winter, not just on Christmas Day itself.
Anyway, back to Twelfth Cake. The concept goes back to the medieval period, when the cake would have been a yeast-risen rich fruit concoction. Each side concealed, respectively, a dried pea and a dried bean, with men and women taking slices from each side until a Twelfth Night King (He of the Bean) and Queen (she of the Pea) were revealed. They’d lead the dancing, or be forfeit, or whatever was customary at that gathering. By the 18th century, when the first printed recipes start to appear, the pea/bean selection process had been replaced by a set of cards with characters on. The various cake-eaters would select a card at random and play that character for the evening. The cake would be cut later. Surviving pictures often depict the cake, which could reach epic proportions, with one or two crowns on top. But that’s easy….They seem to have been a popular choice of baked goods not to cook in-house, and I suspect that they may have been one of the reliable best-sellers for pastry-cooks and confectioners at the time. One advert shows a Twelfth Cake decorated with figures, presumably those commonly depicted in the Twelfth Night cards, and probably made from sugarpaste pressed into moulds. But late Georgian Britain was a place of epicurean and sensory delight – why stop at people and crowns?
Here’s Hone again, as per the opening ditty: ‘In London, with every pastrycook in the city, and at the west end of the town, it is “high change” on Twelfth-day. From the taking down of the shutters in the morning, he, and his men, with additional assistants, male and female, are fully occupied by attending to the dressing out of the window, executing orders of the day before, receiving fresh ones, or supplying the wants of chance customers. Before dusk the important arrangement of the window is completed. Then the gas is turned on, with supernumerary argand-lamps and manifold wax-lights, to illuminate countless cakes of all prices and dimensions, that stand in rows and piles on the counters and sideboards, and in the windows. The richest in flavour and heaviest in weight and price are placed on large and massy salvers; one, enormously superior to the rest in size, is the chief object of curiosity; and all are decorated with all imaginable images of things animate and inanimate. Stars, castles, kings, cottages, dragons, trees, fish, palaces, cats, dogs, churches, lions, milk-maids, knights, serpents, and innumerable other forms in snow-white confectionary, painted with variegated colours, glitter by “excess of light” from mirrors against the walls festooned with artificial “wonders of Flora.” This “paradise of dainty devices,” is crowded by successive and successful desirers of the seasonable delicacies, while alternate tapping of hammers and peals of laughters, from the throng surrounding the house, excite smiles from the inmates’. Tongue-in-cheek? Yes, but still, what joy!
The recipe for Twelfth Cake remained an old-fashioned one, well into the 19th century when yeast-risen cakes were on the decline. To be honest, I’ve never found much difference between a rich fruit cake with yeast in, and a rich fruit cake with well-whisked eggs in. The sheer amount of fruit just outweighs everything else. By the middle of the 19th century, both the recipe and, increasingly the concept, was starting to look a bit anachronistic. The combined forces of Dickens, publicity around the Royal Christmases (think: tree), and mid-19th century soul-searching was changing the nature of Christmas. It had already moved from an uproarious popular and religious festival, to something fashionable folks seemed a little ashamed of. Many aspects were outlawed during the interregnum, and there’s no doubt that when it re-emerged, blinking, into the light in the Restoration, it had lost something. Celebrated, yes, but often behind closed doors, by the end of the Georgian period Charles Lamb was lamenting Father Christmas’s ‘shrunken girth’, while declaring, with a ring more of hope than certainty, that he was still a ‘lusty fellow’. (Father Christmas was, at this time, a sort of Father Time figure, and not a jolly quasi-Cardinal with a habit of slipping down chimneys and furkling in people’s stockings).
The Twelfth Cake, therefore, was in danger. More than that, it was in mortal decline. Increasing emphasis on Christmas Day, and not Christmastide, meant that Twelfth Night celebrations seemed a little outmoded. People were back at work, now living a much more urbanised and less agrarian society than that in which Twelfth Cake had been born. The fruit cake itself remained popular, but was increasingly rebranded, stripped of its fun and potential for disruption, as a Christmas Cake. Bleuch.
So what remains today? The sixpence in the pudding – obviously derived from the pea/bean/token custom, only made its appearance after the final demise of the Twelfth Cake. Crowns in crackers, reminiscent of the paper crowns sometimes used to show who’d found the bean. It’s not a lot. Yes, we still have Christmas Cake, but it makes no sense when you really stop and think. Surveys suggest it’s not always liked. Too much, after all that Christmas food (because now we seem to cram 12 days of feasting into one). Pointless, when we have similar flavours in the pudding. Etc etc. And quite so.
I’d like to make a plea to bring back the Twelfth Cake. Start planting the seeds now. Get your friends and families used to the idea. Then – go for it. As garnish and outlandish as you can make it. Pea, bean, the whole works. Paper crowns, saved from Christmas.
As a spur, here’s my cake from this year – well into the spirit of garishness detailed above. And, just to show how far I go in the name of research, because I sought out and ate both of these (actually, more than one in the case of the first one), here are two modern variations on the theme, from France, where a version of Twelfth Cake still thrives. Both the galette des rois (puff pastry, almond and booze custard) and the gateau des rois (orange flower water flavoured mildly disappointing brioche) have ceramic tokens in. Both are available only in January (mainly). Both come with crowns. Both have their culinary origins in the early 19th century, based on the recipes, so they’re a positively modern twist on the theme. You can do it too.
-*William Hone, The Everyday Book, London 1825 and later editions: full text at archive.org here
-Bridget Henisch (1984) Cakes and Characters
-JAR Pimlott (1978) The Englishman’s Christmas
-Recipe for modern galette des rois from Raymond Blanc (heavenly) here
-And another one, with lovely descriptions of the modern tradition from Trish Deseine here
-Food historian Ivan Day still uses original wooden moulds to make a suitably joyful Twelfth Cake every year, which you can see here along with a selection of recipes. (He also runs cookery courses including one on Christmas food – not running 2015 but back in 2016, he assures me).
While researching this entry, I kept coming up against what seems to be a fairly new and exciting food myth, which suggests Queen Victoria banned Twelfth Cake in 1870. Never a proper reference given. I’ve searched the statue books, and can find no trace of any such thing. Doesn’t mean there wasn’t some legislation which affected the demise of the cake, but I am somewhat cynical. Is this another case of The Simnel Cake Rubbish, or The Great Afternoon Tea Invention Myth? Or does anyone out there have firm evidence (i.e. and pretty much limited to, a copy of the act)? I might have to have a rant about food myths in a future post.