Dr Alysa Levene traces the sweet special relationship that the University has with cakes, particularly from the Victorian era onwards.
The award-winning Oliver & Gurden bakery in Oxford in 1975
By Dr Alysa Levene
(Modern History, Lincoln)
Cake has long been part of the relaxed side of University life. From JCR teas to summer garden parties, what student – or member of staff for that matter – doesn’t appreciate the chance to pause from an afternoon of hard work to indulge in a sweet treat and a chat? That is one of the chief functions of cake, after all: to facilitate a break for congenial leisure with a shot of sugar and fat; comfort eating at its best.Merton College, by The Cake Shop in Oxford's Covered Market
It may sound like a big claim, but cake does even more than this: it eases sociability and cements social relationships. Many nineteenth-century dons would take social calls in their rooms, accompanied by cake and tea, and Charles Dodgson entertained the young folk too: the guests were a little younger than was usual: his children’s tea parties included the daughters of the College Dean, Henry Liddell.
One of literature's most famous tea parties, from the imagination of Oxford don Charles Dodgson
Tea and cake wasn’t just something for the wives and children though: in the 1920s, Charles Ryder, of Brideshead Revisited, had his cousin Jasper to tea in his rooms in his first week at Oxford, serving a Fuller’s Walnut Cake alongside some sweet buns and anchovy toast. This particular cake was an American import (it was a layer cake, covered and filled with boiled white frosting and decorated with halved walnuts), but it seems to have been the height of sophistication for the Bright Young Things: the down-at-heel Radlett children fell on one at their cousin Fanny’s Oxford home in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate. Fanny was, by then, the wife of an Oxford don, and well used to entertaining his students. Perhaps a familiar treat like a slice of cake was good for breaking down the awkwardness of tea with one’s tutor.
For Charles Ryder, meanwhile, the ‘cakes and knicknackery in the way of sweet eatables’, as the 1880 edition of Mrs Beeton’s famous Book of Household Management put it, drew out a useful introduction to Oxford life from his pleasantly sated cousin. Meanwhile, a conversation piece on the city as it was in the nineteenth century – published in 1952 by the then Provost of Worcester (and later Vice Chancellor of the University), J. C. Masterman - featured a description of a gentleman student taking his afternoon tea in a hot hip bath. Chocolate cake accompanied the traditional muffins and crumpets; an indulgence matched by the hot water – cold baths were de rigeur for the healthy young man’s morning ablutions.
The famous Oxford bakery, Oliver & Gurden, was set up in 1919 by William Oliver and Aubrey Gurden, who were chefs at Keble
In the sex-segregated University of the mid twentieth century tea and cakes performed an even more vital social function as one of the few times men and women could meet - since they were not allowed in each other’s rooms before lunch or after six. Novelist Nina Bawden, who was an undergraduate at Somerville in the early 1940s, recalled cakes from the Cake Factory on Banbury Road at these events (possibly Oliver & Gurden, which was a prize-winning bakery on Middle Way, which runs parallel to Banbury Road). Since the cakes went stale quickly a fresh one was a real testament to a young man’s interest.
It may come as no surprise that Oxford also plays host to some of the more unusual cake customs I have come across. The traditional annual beating of the bounds of St Mary the Virgin parish takes a pause for cherry cake at All Souls, commemorating the cherry orchard which stood on the land that the College was built on. Nearby, sweet buns are thrown from the top of Abingdon County Hall on special occasions, including, most recently, the Queen’s diamond jubilee (a safer version of the hot pennies which are thrown from top floor windows at the beating of the bounds at Lincoln College). Here, cakes stand in for the traditional distribution of largesse to the poor. More conventional treats are to be found in Banbury, where the much prized cakes which bear the town’s name are controversially based on pastry (are they really a cake at all then?). They certainly have a long pedigree; there is a recipe for Banbury cakes in the famous collection The English Hus-Wife by Gervase Markham, which was published in 1615.
Beating the Bounds in 1892, which traditionally involves the eating of cherry cake at All Souls
Another recipe book published a few decades later featured a ‘Great Oxfordshire Cake’ which was in the then-traditional guise of a weighty fruit cake. It required sixteen eggs and three pounds of butter which had to be beaten into the flour for three hours. Not the sort of thing you would whip up without a college Cook at your disposal.
And who could forget the most iconic Oxford cake of all: the one Alice in Wonderland finds at the bottom of the rabbit hole, and which instructs her (in currants) to ‘Eat Me’? A speciality of the Christ Church kitchens, perhaps?
Alysa Levene is a social historian at Oxford Brookes University, and an enthusiastic amateur baker. She is the author of Cake: A Slice of History, out now through Headline.
Images: Merton College, Bodleian Library, Oxford University Images
Read more on Oxford Today: