The excitement around Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s wedding cake proved something to us once and for all; as a nation, we’re foodies. Forget everything else, we wanted to know what flavour buttercream the royals were enjoying at the reception. As they get more and more elaborate at every wedding we see, it’s important to remember why we have wedding cakes and how the tradition has changed over the years.
The wedding cake is an important center piece within the wedding with elaborate tiers and decorations, but where did the tradition originate? Whilst we’re all for the tradition of cake at every event, it’s always interesting for us to know about the quirks and traditions of the wedding day.
The roots of tradition, as they often are, are quite far removed from the stunning cakes we have today. Traced back to medieval times, it was made from wheat and thrown at the bride as a symbol of fertility and the hopes of bearing children in her marriage. There were other baked treats at the wedding, scones and biscuits which were piled high over which the couple had to kiss over the top without knocking anything off the pile. If they succeeded, the legend was that they were in for a life of prosperity together.
It was in the 1600s that a French chef, upon his visit to Britain was shocked at the customs and suggested a tier system to organised the chaos of the piling ceremony. Improvising using bits of broom handles, the tier system didn’t catch on until later, but this is where it’s said to have begun.
In the 17th century, the wedding cake evolved once more; at this point, the ”bride pie” was at the height of fashion. The actual pie was varied; sweet breads and mince pies or mutton pies – we’re not sure why there was such a difference but presumably, it was due to the cost of ingredients and the families budget for the wedding. Baked in the pie was a glass ring which was an early example of the bouquet; the finder of the ring was supposed to be the next bride, just like our bridal bouquets when they’re thrown over the brides shoulder today.
Legend states that the tiers of the wedding cake really became popular and then hence traditional in the late 18th century by a bakers apprentice in London. William Rich, the apprentice, fell in love with his boss’s daughter and wanted to woo her with an elaborate cake that was really showstopping, with an influence of St Bride’s church to go with his wedding proposal.
When Queen Victoria wed Prince Albert in 1840, their wedding was an elaborate affair. The wedding is iconic for the traditions it’s given to modern brides; including white wedding dresses and a white tiered wedding cake. It was around this time that sugar was decreasing in monetary value and therefore was becoming more attainable for the ordinary families to afford. This decrease in value meant more brides could have a wedding cake and emulate the cakes only the upper classes had previously enjoyed.
During wartime rationing, there’s heartwarming stories of villages and communities coming together to all contribute their rations for a couples wedding cake. The eggs from one family, butter from another; all coming together to celebrate the love of a couple and provide them with a cake for everyone to enjoy. That’s one thing we love about weddings, they really do evoke a whole feeling of happiness and love; a little bubble over not just the couple but their extended group of family and friends. If ingredients weren’t available for the wartime bride, there was other things that they could do to make do; gravy browning to make cakes look richer or cardboard cakes rented in which their real cake was concealed inside.
Today, we see all sorts of designs, from those with real flowers tumbling down one side to multi tier cakes full of various flavours to satisfy everyone. The tradition that most married couples abide by is to keep the top tier of the wedding cake. You’ll have heard everyone remind you to do so; the baker as you order your cake, your parents and definitely every bridal guide you’ll read. The reasoning behind it is to eat either at your first wedding anniversary or at your first child’s christening (which at one point was usually within the first year – but is now tending to be whichever event comes first – anniversary or christening.) Eaten a year on, it’s a superstition many of us partake in as it’s supposed to bring prosperity when the couple enjoy the cake a year later. Either way, it’s a special way to remember the day and reminisce on your special day, bringing the memories of the literal day into your anniversary. It does mean however that you need a two things: an extra tier on your cake that you must factor in on top of how much cake you will need for your guests and also the task of preserving the cake and keeping it safe. If you leave for honeymoon straight from your wedding venue, remember to hand it to your parents, maid of honour/best man or a member of the wedding party you trust to keep it safe until you’re home! There’s lots of guides online how to preserve the cake but consider freezing it – taking the necessary steps to avoid freezer burn of course.
Wedding cake toppers were an American custom which has spilled over to now be common in the UK. Rising to popularity in the 1950s, it represents togetherness. Today, you often see funny toppers with the ‘bride’ and ‘groom’ injecting some humour or holding something that represents their hobbies; dressed in a tutu for a ballet dancer or holding a fishing rod for example. These are such lovely keepsakes for after the wedding – some have them year round on their mantle or you could just bring them out as a Christmas decoration if they’re themed for a winter wedding.
Though first known as the Brides cake and only eaten by her and her guests, the cake has grown in size and in turn, the groom now helps her cut the cake, often holding the knife on top of her hands. Not only great for a photo opportunity, it’s a symbol of the couple working together in lifes tasks. After it’s cut, the bride and groom share a slice of cake before it’s distributed to the guests, a symbol of their promise to provide for each other forever and share in their tasks.
Upon attending a wedding, it’s always the little touches that seem to stick in a guests mind. Wedding traditions are lovely aren’t they, the fact that so many brides and grooms have taken part in these superstitions before us in the intrinsic hope it will give them a long and happy marriage.
Plus… everyone loves cake!