Port Meadow is a large and ancient grazing ground in Oxfordshire. It is a floodmeadow, flanked by a thin, brambled-over stretch of the Thames, and no matter the season it is hung with a sense of the sodden. Mud and mists linger above, but there is also the feeling, as you make your way across the soft – ominously soft – ground, of something congressional below. Obscure half-paths emerge from out of the turf, criss-cross briefly, then disappear. The enameled colours of the narrow boats that sidle up against the abrupt riverbanks are the only real brightness anywhere. Cows, sometimes ponies, happen alongside you – sudden companions, made of meat and vapour.
“Freemen” and “Commoners of Wolvercote” have grazing rights on this wide, flat ground that has never once been ploughed, and it is a place where peripatetics become dwellers, and the more conventionally lodged – briskly out for walks in their green wellies - are the transients. One November day on the meadow I stumbled across a small and straggly television crew interviewing a group of Travellers. The water-proofed interviewer asked his wrap-up question: “So what’s the one thing most necessary in life?” Clearly bored by this quest for three seconds of nomadic wisdom, no one answered. Then a young freeman, a dreadlocked girl, leaned close in to the microphone and said, flat as a penny, “Cake.”
I have long been of the same opinion. An early and famous tantrum of mine was thrown over being removed from a café, and thus from the chance of cake, when the price list arrived at the small formica table. I am proud to report that my rage was so shattering, my aunt and uncle pledged then and there to remain childless for life. Since then, nothing much has changed. I happily rearrange my life, and the lives of others, around the pursuit of good cake and if I sniff such a cake on the wind, I am not to be deterred until I am sat down before it, fork in hand. But recently I realized – like the returning memory of a strange and portentous dream, hours later when the day is at its most raw and real – that I have been subduing a long dark craving for a particular kind of cake – a cake I rarely see anymore, a cake that lay submerged beneath my pursuit of other cakeish delights - fruitcake. As the winter months started closing in, I was gripped by the stubborn clutching upward of this old and betrayed taste. It had been, I calculated, seven years since I had made or tasted fruitcake. A week made of years. The need for fruitcake lay in me like a fallen clock weight.
A good fruitcake is made well ahead of itself. In my childhood, our Christmas fruitcakes were made by my Nana in Birmingham and fetched home to be iced by my mother in London. Nana made the cakes because no-one could make them like her. In her kitchen, pounds and ounces meant nothing – her cakes were made from handfuls. I called her recently – she has been eighty-three for at least ten years – hoping to reconstruct the gist of the recipe with her. But like the Travellers on the meadow, Nana was uninterested in passing along her knowledge. She denied that she had any knowledge. There was no recipe to be passed down, just a reminder, made in a thin voice over a crackling international phone call straddling time zones, to use brown sugar.
When Nana made the cakes, she made them a month in advance of Christmas and we drove up to get ours. We always seemed to make the drive at night. Sunk deep into the back seat of the car, I stared up and out of the window to catch the first sight of the illuminated city, promising myself that one day I would live in a high-rise and also be a bright window of light in a night sky. Once at Nana’s, my brother and I were layered into bunk beds. Leaning out a little, I could twitch the nylon lace curtain aside and watch the traffic go by. Double-decker buses satisfied me best. The towerblocks we’d driven past glowed with intimations of varied and sovereign lives. Now those lives roared past my brother and me, the buses glowing, their two decks packed with many faces alive with possibility. Later next day, we got ready to leave and make the drive back down in dreary daylight. I was told to retrieve a cake from where they were stashed under the sideboard, each one housed in a dented biscuit tin – the kind that had once held Christmas biscuit assortments. I pried open the lids to find the ones with cake - there was always one full of old keys.
Our cake came with us down south. We packed it into the car and waved our goodbyes. But that cake was headed south in more ways than one. It was bound for doom and damnation – in the form of Drink. My grandparents’ household was strictly teetotal. I was always told that Poppa’s years of war service on the submarines had shown him the evils of the bottle , and no-one was allowed to bring drink into his house. Herein lay a problem. A fruitcake is the most immortal of cakes, as weighty and mindful as a cheese. But its longevity must be procured through intoxicants. Sherry or rum, brandy or whisky: a fruitcake needs its tipple. So the removal of the cake from Nana’s to our kitchen was a smuggler’s run, and Poppa, who observed the handover in silence, must have known it.
Home again, I watched as the cake was unwrapped from its double-jacket of greaseproof paper and foil, revealing its pocked, seductive surface. The common practice, at this stage of things, is to stab the top of the cake with a skewer, or maybe a knitting needle, and then drizzle your liquor of choice over the holes, allowing it to sink in. Feeding the cake once a week or so renders it succulent and vivacious come Christmas. My mother, however, felt that this was doing things half-mast. Although there was many a knitting needle in our house – including a strange set of metal ones, sharpened to a renovated point by my teetotaler grandfather – my mother eschewed craft for science. She had a nurse friend, who wore starched white and navy uniforms, cinched with an affecting belt. This friend crept on regulation soles down a gleaming, squeaky corridor to a stock cupboard and acquired my mother a large hypodermic needle. Each week we undressed the cake and my mother drew a length of amber-coloured sherry into the syringe, then repeatedly pierced and incrementally released the liquid into the body of the cake, a drop welling up at the site of each puncture. I watched, entranced. Injections are particularly pertinent to the young, because they are such a definite encounter with state-sanctioned pain. They work in a phantasmal future, protecting you from diseases that others got before you, but from which your generation will be saved if you just – and you must! – surrender to the needle. And the fruitcake yielded, too, or perhaps it yielded on my behalf – accepting the slow slide of the long needle without sting, without complaint.
My family recipe, then, is for a brown sugar cake that betrays temperance and accuracies of inventory, and that gains its long life (as many of us do) with a little help from the medical profession. My first task, clearly, was to get hold of a large bottle of brandy. My second was to procure a hypodermic needle. And my third was to find a recipe with actual, measurable ingredients. The brandy and the recipe were easy – a well stocked drinks cabinet provided one and Nigel Slater stood gamely in for grandma, providing the other.
The second of my tasks stumped me for a while. I solicited a medical friend – a doctor. He cheerily agreed, but it turns out that doctors aren’t allowed in stockrooms, and after two abortive attempts to duck into one, he said my chances were slim. Nevertheless a few days later he was successful; a nurse sympathetic to the cause had been enlisted, I was now the owner of a sizeable syringe and a selection of sterile-packed needles – “We’re not trained what gauge to use for fruitcake,” he explained.
Furnished with contraband, I was ready to summon ingredients. A fruitcake must possess the gallantry of crumb, not be simply frenzied with fruit. And the fruits themselves – they should not be painted into living-dead charades of summer colour. They must be dark, they must not deny that they are aged, they must carry with them the signs of their survival. It seems to me that a fruitcake is indeed an audacious creature, but its audacity is a consequence of sly hoardings, dubious exchanges and shameless incongruities. A fruitcake is a brazen and aging hussy, tossing its head at strictures of season and locale, demanding indulgence, flaunting acquisition. It is an American southerner who tells it best; Truman Capote, who knew something about fruitcake, delivers a tale of the making of Christmas cakes that pairs an abandoned child and a simple, elderly cousin, raking ingredients out of the leaves of poverty and disavowal. The cakes are soaked in moonshine, bundled into a baby carriage and mailed to a president.
A fruitcake mixes fruits of the vine with those of the tree and the bush, all stolen from their own time, delayed into another. These fruits are picked at their peak of ripeness only to be dried, wizened for futurity, then revived again, swelled by alcohol itself aged and stored and fermented. A fruitcake violates generation and seasons and then revels in its own untimeliness – prepared in advance, preserved and often eaten long after the festival it marks. An aunt of mine was once at a wake where fruitcake was served. A nippy plate circulator observed my aunt's pleasure as she took the first bite and commented, “Good cake isn’t it? Corpse baked it herself.”
Cake thou art, and unto cake shalt thou return. Fruitcake is dyed with tannins, and it ingests its own avarice, starting to recall the blackest, earliest kinds of wealth, returning the cake to the sod that grew it. I therefore filled mine with the darker fruits - figs and prunes – fruits that saturate and irritate, and with the woodier, less prancing nuts – hazelnuts and walnuts. And my sugar was the most treacle brown I could find. I injected the cake over several weeks, and then I pressed the heavy blade of my largest knife to its firm crust and cut it like peat, its wet, half-ancient geology finally exposed.
Slightly adapted from Nigel Slater
This is a large cake, enough to feed 16.
350g unsalted butter
175g light muscovado sugar
175g dark muscovado sugar
1kg total weight of dried fruits - prunes, figs, candied peel, and dried rather than glace cherries if you can find them. I used an equal mix of Bing and Ranier dried cherries – delicious.
5 large free-range eggs
100g ground almonds
150g shelled hazelnuts
500g total weight vine fruits - raisins, sultanas, currants,
5 tbsps brandy
zest of 1 lemon
zest and juice of 1 orange
1/2 tsp baking powder
350g plain flour
You will also need a 24-25cm cake tin with a removable base, fully lined with a double layer of lightly buttered greaseproof paper or nonstick baking paper, which should come at least 5cm above the top of the tin. If you skip this bit, the edges of the cake will burn.
Set the oven to 160 C/gas mark 3. Cream the butter and sugar till light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl from time to time with a spatula.
While the butter and sugars are beating to a light and fluffy texture, cut the dried fruits into small pieces, removing the hard stalks from the figs. Add the eggs to the mixture one at a time - it will curdle but don't worry - then slowly mix in the ground almonds, hazelnuts, all the dried fruit, the brandy, the citrus zest and juice.
Now mix the baking powder and flour together and fold them lightly into the mix. Scrape the mixture into the prepared tin, smoothing the top gently, and put it in the oven. Leave it for an hour, then, without opening the oven door, turn down the heat to 150 C/gas mark 2 and continue cooking for 2 hours.
Check to see whether the cake is done by inserting a skewer into the centre. It should come out with just a few crumbs attached but no trace of raw cake mixture. Take the cake out of the oven and leave it to cool before removing it from the tin.