You know how you wait forever for a bus then three come along at the same time? Well, I had not thought of Victoria sponge for years then in the space of one week, I heard it referenced three times. I know I am not alone when I say that the first mention of it took me back to my childhood. The other two piqued my curiosity and sent me on a voyage of discovery.
The Victoria sponge was, of course, named after Queen Victoria who, it seems, was partial to a slice of cake with her afternoon tea. The food historian Alysa Levene, in her book Cake, a Slice of History, reports that Queen Victoria truly did enjoy a Victoria sponge (or more correctly ‘sandwich cake’), decorated with a single layer of jam, alongside other cakes and edible treats, at tea parties on the Isle of Wight.
Thought to be one of the first non-yeasted cakes, a Victoria sponge, unlike a plain sponge which is made without butter, is made by creaming fat and sugar then incorporating eggs and flour. But it was the ‘invention of baking powder in 1843 by English food manufacturer Alfred Bird (which) allowed the cake to rise higher than was previously possible‘.
While Queen Victoria’s sandwich cake would have been layered with jam, the more modern version adds a layer of whipped cream to the jam to sandwich the two layers together. In both versions, the top is simply dusted with icing sugar.
Students of gas technology and installation would be wise to respect this cake since it is used by oven factories to test the temperature reliability of new ovens.
There are lots of accounts that mention this as a cake made by mothers and grandmothers – so there is plenty of room for nostalgia. But this nostalgia does not concern just a generic recipe for a Victoria sandwich cake. The nostalgia is specific to and tied up in everything that is implied when the Be-Ro Recipe Book’s Victoria Sandwich is thought of. Just as the Edmonds Cookbook has achieved iconic status as New Zealand’s fastest-selling cookbook, the Be-Ro Recipe Book has a similar status in many UK homes and cookery consciousnesses.
Both of these books had a similar impetus – to make self-raising flour a market standard. The Edmonds cookbook was first published as The Sure to Rise Cookery Book in 1908, as a marketing tool by baking powder manufacturer Thomas Edmonds. This first edition of the Be-Ro Recipe book was given, in 1923, as a free gift in order to promote Be-Ro’s self raising flour.
The Be-Ro website tells us that:
‘Thomas Bell founded a wholesale grocery firm near the Tyne quays and railway station in Newcastle in the 1880s. Among his top-selling brands were ‘Bells Royal’ baking powder and a self-raising flour. Following the death of Edward VII, it became illegal to use the Royal name. As a result, Bell decided to take the first couple of letters from each of the two words of the brand name and turn them into the more catchy sounding ‘Be-Ro’.’
In the early 1920s, Be-Ro says,
‘The most commonly used type of flour was plain flour. Self-raising flour was more expensive and considered a novelty – consumers bought plain flour direct from the miller and self-raising flour was only sold into independent grocers. In a bid to make self-raising flour more popular among the general public, the company staged a series of exhibitions in the early 1920s where freshly baked scones, pastries, and cakes were sold for a shilling to visitors. These were so popular that people demanded to have copies of the recipes so that they could bake the dishes at home.’
And so the Be-Ro Recipe book began its life. Now almost 100 years old, it has gone through a number of iterations and changes in its offerings. The wartime use of margarine has gone to be replaced by butter, there is less emphasis now than in the original for women and daughters to be the users of this book, there is advice on the use of microwaves and on home freezing, there is even a useful section on how to remedy baking disasters.
So, first published in 1923, and now in its 41st edition, the “Be-Ro” recipe book is arguably one of the best-selling cookery books ever, with more than thirty-eight million copies having been sold. Judging by many of the people I talked to, every home had one of these recipe books and many are still used after several generations. You can download the book for free, or buy it from the Be-Ro site.
Today, the Victoria sponge is fashionable again with the WI awarding a rosette for the best produced, most cookbooks offering the authors version of it, and even the dailies noticing, for instance, Felicity Cloake of the Guardian writes persuasively of its merits, while Bee Wilson of the Telegraph considers it the finest of teatime treats. It is, though, the Be-Ro Victoria Sandwich recipe (from an earlier edition of the book) which is, for me, the reminder of childhood baking, and it is this recipe that I present below.