A Very British Institution: the Battenberg Cake

Seren Evans - Charrington, Food Historian


The Victorian’s loved colourful novelty cakes like the Neapolitan Roll, Domino Cakes and of course the Battenberg. These fanciful cakes were ideal for afternoon tea and their chequered designs were always guaranteed to delight guests.

The Battenberg Cake, with its alternating squares of Genoese sponge in pink and yellow wrapped in marzipan, is quirky and exemplarily British. It is a cake of interesting origins that is most memorable. There is something about a Battenberg Cake, with its faint aroma of almonds, that is aesthetically appealing to adults and children alike. It is a cake like no other and can inspire nostalgia in us all, although it has recently fallen from the grace of the cake stand it is a bake that remains iconic and one well worth reviving.

It’s fall in popularity is due to the fact it is often deemed to be too difficult to make at home and it is not readily available commercially; whilst other people are not keen on its deep marzipan flavour and may have been put off by cheap commercial versions. However, there is no disputing that it is a good-looking cake, steeped in history and when baked well it is delectable.

There are some wonderful food history myths and stories about this cake, one of them being that the four sections of the cake originally represented the four Battenberg princes – Louis, Alexander, Franz-Joseph and Henry, however, the early version of the cake had nine squares, not the simpler four, and so sadly this little story is without substance. The simplification of the recipe from nine sections to four was most probably to do with ease when it came to making the cake commercially.

The commonly held belief is that the first Battenberg cake was baked in 1884 to celebrate Prince Louis of Battenberg marrying Princess Victoria, Queen Victoria's granddaughter and Prince Philip's grandmother and this seems perfectly feasible, although there is very little documentary evidence to back up this claim. It is certain that cookery books during this period were full of beautifully designed chequered cakes and that indeed it may well be true; it certainly seems to be a widely held belief.

The first recipe for a Battenberg cake was published by Frederick Vine in 1898 in his book ‘Saleable Shop Goods’ and so it is possible that this cake was used for the Royal Celebration in 1884 and was popularised as a result. Whilst this is not certain, it is certain that the cake was made with 9 chequers well into the 1930’s and there are even some spectacular recipes that exist for cakes that contain chequers in excess of twenty - now that’s what you call a show stopping cake!

Whether you love Battenberg or see it as the Barbara Cartland of the cake world: overly sweet, pink and dated; it has been linked to Royal Weddings and all things great and British. The chequerboard markings on emergency vehicles are officially known as Battenberg markings and Ernest Shackleton took a supply of Battenberg for energy on his first and second Arctic expeditions. There is no getting away from the fact that the Battenberg Cake is part of our British culture.

The Battenberg is a classic bake that deserves to be revived and revisited; it is a cake that has earned its place in history, popular culture and our stomachs. In short an historical bake well worth preserving!
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