MANY people believe, as late American television host and comedian, Johnny Carson declared in the early 1990s, that there is only one fruitcake in the world and that it is passed on from family to family each year. That is because, as a Cape Town baker told me recently (anonymously, she insisted, for fear of reprisal by fans of the fruitcake fraternity) that the traditional Christmas cake “is like the cockroach: it would, if circumstances required, outlast full-scale nuclear war”.
I, however, know with certainty that Carson was wrong. There is no question of that. In fact, fruitcakes abound the world over. I am convinced of this because – for as long as memory serves – I recall watching my mother, as dutiful and constant as Santa’s little helper, bake massive consignments of fruitcakes throughout October and November.
As the weeks passed, hotter and hotter under the African sun, fruit-laden and brandy-soaked slabs aplenty formed long, dark and moist tailbacks on every available counter top across her kitchen.
With Christmas closing in, they were carefully wrapped in newspaper, tin foil and brown paper (in that order), packaged, tied, sealed with red wax and hauled off the farm on the back of the old Isuzu bakkie to the village post office.
From there they were despatch as gifts to a vast herd of eligible family and friends. (Only disenfranchised great aunt Joyce was deprived of a cake, delisted decades earlier after writing, in her thank you note, “it comes in handy, darling, to stand upon when adorning the jolly Christmas tree”.)
As my brothers and I grew up and left home, the hefty parcels never failed to find their mark and to locate to us in the army, at university and/or in far flung fleapits across the globe. Not even the post office found means to damage or safely dispose of the imperishable gift.
Indeed, to this day, my siblings and I meekly make our way to the collections counter to receive our annual shipment of maternal Christmas blessings, grateful (at least) in the knowledge that it contains a year’s worth of the recommended daily allowance of mixed fruit and spirits.
But, may I warn you Mother, that not everyone so appreciatively receives his or her yearly fruitcake. In the United States (US) some years ago, cinnamon bun retail chain, Cinnabon, invited customers to trade in unwanted Christmas cakes for free cinnamon buns at any of its outlets nationwide.
And, when brother Glen collected his cake from the local post office during his year on a dairy farm in that country in the early 1980s, he later told me that the postmistress leaned over the counter and whispered sympathetically and conspiringly in his ear, “the fruitcake toss takes place in the park next month”.
Glen was taken aback by her suggestion and, particularly since he was homesick at the time, drew the parcel protectively to his chest. The woman narrowed her eyes and said with a sneer, “Go on then, young man. You can always use it as a pencil holder, I guess, or to hold up your Christmas tree.”
In fact, the Great Fruitcake Toss is an annual event in the US during which participants are invited to fling, or use a tennis racquet, golf or baseball club, or even a mechanical device to hurl fruitcakes through the air. The all-time Great Fruitcake Toss record is 430 metres. This was set in January 2007 by a group of eight Boeing engineers who built a mock artillery contraption that was powered by compressed air, pumped by an exercise bicycle.
While I am not aware of the existence of anything as radical as a South African version of the fruitcake toss, I am aware that there are those among us who are disparaging of the classic fruitcake. According to Jacqui Biess, who is the owner of one Cape Town’s most beloved sweet tooth stops, Charly’s Bakery, the demand for conventional raisin rich Christmas cakes among her clientele is trifling.
“We get a few of requests for fruitcake at Christmas time. Generally though, people want anything but heavy, moist, dark and fruity stuff, which they associate with the cakes that their parents brought back for them from weddings, smeared with marzipan icing and with suspicious longevity” she says. “These days, the demand is for delicious rich chocolate Christmas cake that is decorated with our funky Father Christmas or the classy red roses, and which can be served with berries and ice-cream. Let’s face it, that is much more suited to our climate.”
Hassan Khan of Continental Baker in Overport, Durban concurs: “We make traditional Christmas puddings, which are fruity, rich and popular but not many people want classic fruitcakes anymore. Our Yule Log Christmas cake is however, very popular. So perhaps people no longer want the heavy, richness with their tea any more. At least, as a pudding, you have the rich fruit as a small portion with brandy sauce, custard and/or ice cream.”
Maybe though, foes of the fruitcake are limited to coastal towns. Glenda Lederle of The Patisserie in Illovo says she is selling as many un-iced traditional fruitcakes – decorated with glace cherries and roses – at Christmas as ever and that her sliced fruitcake is equally as popular throughout the year, “particularly when served with a slice of cheese”.
Many fans of the fruitcake, including my mother, believe that traditional Christmas cakes are as integral to the festive season as Bony M music. They concede however, that the full monty – that is, the intricate topping of marzipan, apricot jam, royal icing and what have you – may have left the room with the Three Wise Men.
“After all,” says Mother, wrapping another fruitful missile for despatch, “it is the fruit and brandy that your body really needs.”
(This piece was written for the Food & Travel section of The Weekender in November 2008. The picture is from Bettercakes.com.)