As the last entry (for now) in my series of weddings during the Regency and Georgian Eras, and the history attached, today I’ll cover the wedding cake.
As anyone who has been to or planned a wedding knows, the cake is just about the most important part of the ceremony. Modern brides and grooms look at the cake as an expression of personal style and a beautiful focal point in the reception hall more than the ancient traditions. Gone are the deeply rooted superstitions which made the cake so vital to a wedding, and while that is fine in our intellectual age, knowing the history is fascinating… and puts it into perspective!
One point to note, before getting to cake specifics, is that the breaking and sharing of bread has a history dating back to the dawn of time, particularly in religious observances. Communal meals were common in most cultures, and especially for special events or celebrations. Sharing food and drink has forever been a custom, as has the desire to prepare a special edible centerpiece for an honored guest. All of these tendencies add to the foundation for “cake” in a general sense.
So, here is how wedding cakes began—
Specifically, in ancient Rome a traditional patrician marriage form called Confarreatio was marked by a highly solemnized ceremony involving many witnesses and animal sacrifice. In her hand the bride held three wheat ears, symbolic of future plenty, and after the ceremony they would eat a cake made simply of flour, salt, and water. Wheat ears carried a significant imagery to the Romans, and to the Jews, as a sign of plenty and blessing for future success both in material needs and in the wish for many children. Grains were tossed onto the new couple, the shower of wheat kernels deemed a happy augury, and the fallen grains then eaten by the tossing witnesses to extend the good luck to them.
A natural outcome of this tradition was to cook the wheat rather than scatter it to be lost. The first cakes were biscuit-like and probably not too tasty. Nevertheless, sharing a piece of the broken cake with guests was more palatable, and easier, than scrambling on the ground! Per superstitious demands, the cake/biscuit was broken over the bride’s head so the crumbs could fall onto her for luck.
It is probably obvious to deduce that the throwing of wheat and breaking of the biscuit led to rice, flower petals, confetti, and the dozens of tiny things showered onto the bride and groom for luck over the centuries. Indeed this custom is linked directly to the cake, even if not thought of as such today. As cakes became sweeter and mixed with “sweetmeats” — that is, dried fruits and honeyed nuts — the crumbled bits dropped onto a bride’s head were more substantial. Mixtures of sweetmeats alone, called confetto or confetti, were given to the guests to toss onto the bride. And there you have the origin!
As the Roman Empire spread, many of their traditions entered the life of Britons and others in Europe. In time, with increasing trade and contact with varied cultures, customs took on variations while remaining rooted in the past origins. Cakes at weddings are a prime example of this.
Historical Tidbits from England and Points to Ponder~~
—For centuries wedding cakes ran the gamut from basic shortbread sprinkled with sugar to elaborately decorated. None were very large or tiered levels. There was no such thing as a “standard” type of cake, or even a standard for having a cake at a wedding. While some folks grabbed onto the traditions, mixing with their own regional or religious superstitions, it was not universal.
—Medieval British formed a wedding cake of numerous spiced buns or small cakes stacked into a tower. If the bride and groom could kiss over the top it was a promise of prosperity. The Croquembouche to the right is a French wedding style cake created in the late 1700s, but is a visual, possibly, of how this might have been done. Another is the one above in the middle, if more were stacked atop.
—Rumor has it that in the 1660’s, during the reign of King Charles II, a French chef (whose name is now lost) visited London and was appalled at the cake-piling ritual. The chef noticed the inconvenience of piling smaller cakes into a mound and conceived the idea of constructing them into a solid stacked system. He utilized short-cut broom sticks to separate their layers and covered with lard to keep from drying out. Alas, the need to prepare such cakes days in advance without the means to store safely, prevented the trend catching on…. if this story is even true!
—In the 1685 edition of The Accomplisht Cook, Robert May recorded the first specific wedding recipe. It was for a “Bride’s Pye” filled with oysters, pine kernels, cockscombs, lamb testicles, sweetbreads, and spices. Yum!
—Bride pies grew in popularity in England. Ornate pastry crusts filled with meats, typically. Ofttimes a ring was hidden inside. Guests had to eat a piece to ensure the bride’s happiness, and the young lady who found the ring was fated to next be married.
—A separate groom’s cake originated in England in the 17th century. Smaller, darker, and heavier than a bride’s cake, it was cut and given to the guests to take home. Tradition dictated the recipient place the cake under his or her pillow (Yuck!) to pass the good luck onto them and dream of future spouses.
—White frosting of meringue and sugar first appeared in the 17th century. These early frostings needed to be heated in an oven to firm. Icing recipes recorded in the 1700s varied, but all required additional cooking to harden, were tricky to do right, and much more expensive. Having a white iced cake was an outward declaration of affluence. Pure white was sought after for the imagery of purity, especially after 1840 when Queen Victoria went crazy with the white theme at her wedding!
—Sugar was readily available in England after 1650, but only in granulated form. Sugar could be “double refined” or ground by hand to create a smoother texture, but this increased the cost. True confectioner’s sugar (powdered sugar) did not exist until the late 1800s.
—In the Scottish Highlands an oatmeal cake is broken over the bride’s head by the best man and bridesmaid as she enters the house on her return from church. Then the pieces are distributed to the company.
—Originally the bride cut the cake alone. The symbolism came from the days of the cake being broken over her head, thus it becoming her touch to the cake and distribution to her guests that passed on the blessings. In time, as cakes grew larger for bigger weddings, inviting the groom to “help” became necessary.
—As part of the previous, the bride gave her groom the first cut piece, and then he gave it back, both eating from the slice. It was a sign of their mutual commitment to always provide for each other.
—By the 18th century cake at a wedding had become an entrenched tradition. What the cake looked like or was made of still varied, but for sure the cake was a centerpiece designed for taste and aesthetics.
—The first tiered cakes were mock-ups with the upper tiers made of spun-sugar, and were so expensive that only royalty or the very wealthy could afford them. By 1870 bakers gained the skill to stack tiers atop each other without the cake collapsing. Not until the early 1900s were cakes separated by columns.
The painting below is by Joris Hoefnagel in 1580, titled “Wedding Feast at Bermondsey.” Note the bride cup filled with embellished rosemary being carried aloft by the man with the sash, and the very large bride cakes. It is also interesting to see the minstrels and people dancing, and the long table strewn with flowers where the guests presumably will dine together.
A final point on the painting below: Where are the bride and groom? Are they not depicted? Are they one of the dancing couples? Or the others to the left? It seems logical that the painting would include the bride and groom (the descriptions on art websites did not specify), so assuming the newlyweds are shown, then note that their garments are not unique from the others.