Wedding cakes haven't always been as we see them today, let's go back and have a look:
In Roman times, wedding ceremonies ended by breaking a "cake" of wheat or barley over the bride's head (the cake was in actual fact was more like a hard biscuity cob than a cake, probably quite hard and probably hurt a bit!) The couple then ate some of the crumbs. This was supposed to bring good fortune to the happy couple.
Photo source: The Romans in Britain
Here's another snippet before we leave the Romans, "confetto" was handed to the guests, a mix of sweet honeyed almonds, nuts and dried fruit, to throw over the newlyweds - this became handfuls of rice, and then petals or bits of coloured tissue paper in our modern day wedding celebrations - confetti.
In 1596/7, a recipe for Bride Pye "Tarte that is a courage to a man or a woman" was written by Thomas Dawson, more of a pie than a cake, which included such ingredients as cock sparrow brain and sweet potato, and in 1685 Robert May wrote a recipe for a bride pie which was essentially many pies in one - shellfish, cockerel's combs and lambstones (testicles), artichokes and stuffed larks. Tasty!
In the mid-1600's there was a bit of a change from a pie to more of a cake - although this was in fact a sweet yeasted bread flavoured with spices and dried fruits - but also flavoured with musk and ambergris (ah...whale vomit!) In 1658, the following recipe was published by Price in a book called The Compleat Cook:
Countesse of Rutlands Receipt of making the rare Banbury Cake which was so much praised at her Daughters (the right Honourable the Lady Chawerths) wedding
Instructions - Take a peck of fine flower, and halfe an ounce of large Mace, halfe an ounce of Nutmegs, and halfe an ounce of Cinnamon, your Cinnamon and Nutmegs must be sifted through a Searce, two pounds of Butter, halfe a score of Eggs, put out four of the whites of them, something above a pint of good Ale-yeast, beate your Eggs very well and straine them with your yeast, and a little warme water into your flowre, and stirre them together, then put your butter cold in little Lumpes: The water you knead withall must be scalding hot, if you will make it good past, the which having done, lay the past to rise in a warme Cloth a quarter of an hour, or thereupon; Then put in ten pounds of Currans, and a little Muske and Ambergreece dissolved in Rosewater; your Currans must be made very dry, or else they will make your Cake heavy, strew as much Sugar finely beaten amongst the Currans, as you shall think the water hath taken away the sweetnesse from them; Break your past into little pieces, into a kimnell or such like thing, and lay a Layer of past broken into little pieces, and a Layer of Currans, untill your Currans are all put in, mingle the past and the Currans very well, but take heed of breaking the Currans, you must take out a piece of past after it hath risen in a warme cloth before you put in the currans to cover the top, and the bottom, you must roule the cover something thin, and the bottom likewise, and wet it with Rosewater, and close them at the bottom of the side, or the middle which you like best, prick the top and the sides with a small long Pin, when your Cake is ready to go into the Oven, cut it in the midst of the side round about with a knife an inch deep, if your Cake be of a peck of Meale, it must stand two hours in the Oven, your Oven must be as hot as for Manchet.
In 1685, a man called Robert Herrick wrote a poem which described much sweeter and, to be honest, more appealing fare:
Photo source: English Heritage
Most wedding cakes by this time were plum cakes - the early version of our traditional rich fruit cake nowadays - glazed with a white icing (it's said that the whiter the icing, the more expensive the sugar, thus bringing the white wedding cake into the realms of being a status symbol). In 1769 Elizabeth Raffald's recipe in the very first edition of The Experienced English Housekeeper included almond paste as a cake covering underneath royal icing. By now, we can see the beginnings of the traditional rich fruit wedding cake as we know it today.
Photo source: Refried Books
On now to the Victorian times, and the extravagant wedding cake served at Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's wedding breakfast in 1840 - it was a single tier plum cake, weighing in at an impressive 300lbs, 14 inches deep and about 3 yards around! It was decorated with orange blossom and myrtle leaves in a nod to Victoria's wedding bouquet, and was topped with figures of Victoria and Albert, and various other elements. You can find out more about Victoria and Albert's cake here. Incredibly, pieces of the actual wedding cake survive today in The Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace!
Photo source: www.queenvictoria.victoriana.com
Let's take a look now at the wedding cake of our current Queen, Elizabeth II. On 20th November 1947, the Queen married the Duke of Edinburgh, with typically beautiful English pomp and ceremony. Their cake was baked and decorated by McVities and Price (which became the popular biscuit brand McVities), and used ingredients sourced from Australia and South Africa, giving it the nickname "the 10,000 mile cake". The finished article was four tiers and 9 feet tall, the extra height given by pillars and decorated with beautiful detailed royal icing panel work.
Photo source: Daily Mail
I hope you've enjoyed our little exploration of wedding cake throughout the ages! I am certainly glad we've moved on from the times of serving up lambstones and ambergris at our weddings!