The very lucky guests of this weekend’s royal wedding will enjoy a delicious – yet quite untraditional – treat: an elegant and (relatively) understated cake made with Amalfi lemons and English elderflower.
The cake stands in sharp contrast with the over-the-top confections that British royals have served up at weddings and other formal ceremonies for centuries. That's because, as the New Yorker’s Bee Wilson reports, Prince Harry and his bride-to-be, the American actress and philanthropist Meghan Markle, are conspicuously breaking with tradition by not serving fruitcake.
Reportedly, their decision to throw “aside this strange and perverse custom” in the inimitable words of the New York Times’ exhaustive Royal Wedding F.A.Q., came down to serving up a treat that focused more on flavor than spectacle.
As Claire Ptak, owner of Violet, the hip East London bakery that crafted the royals' wedding cake, tells Wilson, she sees the traditional royal fruitcake—so solid that legend has it they once needed to be cut with a saw— as “sort of a cruel joke.”
Questions about taste notwithstanding, fruitcakes have been a British royal tradition since the medieval period. Demand for time-consuming confectionary design coupled with a lack of refrigeration made the naturally self-preserving cakes a safe choice. According to food historian Polly Russell over at the Financial Times, though early wedding fruitcakes were lavishly decorated with “subtleties,” cake ornaments crafted by talented confectioners, bakers often favored form over taste – wrapping the marzipan interior in a layer of hard wax that came to be known as “royal icing” to preserve it.
Despite leaps in modern food preservation technology, recent British royal weddings have continued to favor these traditional, spectacular confections. Princess Elizabeth’s 1947 wedding to Philip featured a nine-foot-tall, 500-pound tower of a fruitcake covered in royal icing. Prince William's 2011 wedding to Kate included an eight-tier, brandy-infused fruitcake with symbolic sugar-flower decorations (though the couple also requested a decadent dark chocolate cake to accompany it). Modern British royal fruitcakes, as it happens, have proven to be just as durable as historical precedents – “impressively preserved” slices from royal weddings dating back to 1973, for instance, are set to be auctioned off next month.
It’s possible that Harry’s lack of a plausible path to the British royal throne (he’s currently fifth in the line of succession) has allowed for more leeway as he and his fiancée navigate the centuries of tradition that underlie the pomp and circumstance of a royal wedding. Still, as Ptak points out to Wilson, the royal couple’s cake does draw upon cultural tradition in a broader sense. She explains that she crafted the organic lemon elderflower concoction with the “bright flavors of spring” in mind, which she characterizes as a “rather traditional” inspiration.
Meghan and Harry’s 2,640 wedding guests will be relieved to know that flavor was paramount in the choice of dessert. And for those of us who were tragically snubbed from the invite list, there’s still the opportunity to sample a knockoff version of the cake as recipes for the soon-to-be iconic royal treat begin to abound online.