About US The Incredible Fruitcake Co.
I have always enjoyed fruitcake and until I got involved with making fruitcakes I never really thought about much of its history or how other people set store by them. As many of you will know that whenever there is a celebration or an occasion to mark, it is usually accompanied by a fruitcake. This is true all over the world and within the UK the variety of fruitcakes reflect the diversity of cakes that have been developed over the centuries. From the Welsh Bara Briths to Scottish black buns and Yorkshire Parkin to Cornish saffron cake, they all have their place.
As far back as the Romans who had their cakes rich with fruit were only enjoyed by the wealthy. Our traditional fruitcake of today started life more in the middle ages when dried fruit became available from overseas. Cakes were covered in a flour and water crust pastry and baked over open fires. The clome ovens meant that the pastry was not longer needed to protect the fruit mix from the open fires. Although the Scottish black bun still retains the pastry.
Our present day cakes are made from a variety of dried fruit and good quality strong flour. The recipes come from the multitude of books available and, I feel, more importantly family recipes that have been handed down over the generations. There is always sadness when I find out that a recipe has been lost as there is so much family history and associations with favourite recipes, especially fruitcakes.
Whenever I do a food fair I give out samples and occasionally someone will taste one of my cakes and say that it reminds them of a cake that they had in the past that a relative made…usually the Grandmother. I always ask if they still have the recipe and it is a great shame when that recipe has been lost and not be able to be passed on to future generations. It usually falls to one person in the family to make the Christmas cake and pudding and in our case it was me.
I enjoy the whole process of making a good fruitcake. I like sourcing the ingredients, setting aside a day to make the cake and then the actual process of mixing the cake and baking it. A blustery Autumnal day with the wind blowing and the leaves falling from the tree in a warm kitchen with the smells of a good cake baking can’t be beaten for me!
Soaking the fruit beforehand in brandy or rum or sherry for that extra special flavour or even using tea to enhance the taste is always worth trying. Cider or mead and the various liqueurs, beers, fruit juice or Guinness are all popular. I make a nice coffee fruitcake where I make a pot of freshly ground coffee and soak everything in that. It makes the fruit really moist too. You can soak overnight or longer if you want to.
Even after you have baked the cake you can add more alcohol to it and often Christmas cakes made in October are full of spirits by the time Christmas arrives. What other food can you do that with! Leaving the cake well wrapped to mature makes the flavours all meld together to get a fantastic result. I always try to mature our cakes for at least a month before selling them so we have a good store to do this. Once home then they need to be turned every month or so to keep this process going.
When it is time to unwrap from the greaseproof paper it is time to make the marzipan and royal icing for the great decoration where everybody gets involved adding Christmas trees, robins and skating Santas!
I often make several cakes over a few days for each member of the family who now have their own families and then sometimes I used to make more for friends and then friends of friends. So I had been used to making many cakes around September/October time.
We can source our ingredients easily from supermarkets and local shops. Even at Christmas time when we want to make something extra special we can easily find our ingredients. Then we can really go to town and get brandy or rum or sherry to enhance the flavours of our cakes.
Adding cranberries or whole glace cherries or other glaceed fruit such as mango or pineapple can add a modern day twist to the cake. Some people add whole Brazils or walnuts and almonds too. We have access to macadamia nuts and unsalted cashews which many people enjoy. The ingredients reflect the locality of the cake and in Australia they add mango and papaya and even coconut! Apple is really popular in Europe. I always add whole cherries so that when cut it looks great.
Turning making cakes from a hobby to a business started when I visited a local food fair at Cotehele house in the Tamar Valley.
Back in 2005, I went to the fair with a friend and we enjoyed the experience so much that we started talking about how good it was to find quality food sourced locally. We thought we would like to be a part of this groundswell of interest in local produce and quality food. I said that I could make a good fruitcake and perhaps this would be of interest as nobody else was offering good quality fruitcakes and perhaps we should try that.
So, I dug out my favourite secret recipe handed down through my family and went out and bought good plain flour, lovely dark brown sugar, some good Cornish butter and free range eggs and made a lovely fruitcake. Everybody was impressed! We really enjoyed the tasting process and decided that we should try our cake out to see if anybody would pay and buy it from us.
It is quite a different matter making cakes for friends and family to making cakes that customers will pay you for. When I make my cakes I plan ahead and get good quality ingredients and then plan the day to make the cakes. It was much the same process to planning how to set up a business making and selling cakes.
The first stage we had to complete was finding out if people other than those who knew us liked the cake that we wanted to sell. So to do this market research we booked a stand at the Royal Cornwall Show in Wadebridge. As we were late in requesting a stand we couldn’t get into the food tent so ended up out the back somewhere by the fairground in a craft tent opposite a man who made bottle stoppers!
Order our leaflet for fruitcake recipes.
We dressed the stand very opulently and had a friend take photos of cherries and eggs and fruit. We added bottles of brandy and trays of spices to our table and cut up cake for samples. Our idea was to sell our cakes for Christmas. However, being the Royal Cornwall show, it was June and a very hot June at that. We started wishing everybody that walked by the stand “Happy Christmas” It went down a storm and we soon had the TV cameras and the radio recording us and most importantly everybody who tried our cakes loved the flavour and we sold loads of cakes and took orders from people who actually paid money for them to be ready for Christmas!
We had a business. We had to hone our baking skills. Don’t over mix the cake, just gently stir; Keep the ingredients at room temperature; check it doesn’t burn on top; listen to see if it’s still sizzling to see if its cooked through; don’t drink all the brandy!
We soon got the hang of it and we were busy building up for Christmas and planning other food fairs. Our first cake that we made was a large round cake that weighed over 4 lbs or about 2.2kg.
We made our cakes traditionally by mixing flour and butter and then adding sugar and fruit etc. I like the boiled fruitcake method where you just mix everything together and heat up in a pan, cool and add the eggs and flour. It’s a great cake.
Whatever you use a good fruitcake will keep well as it has a high fat and sugar content and the added spirits will preserve it forever.
A good Christmas cake needs three months, and a good Scottish black bun about the same. I think the cakes have a mellower flavour after this too.
Following on from our success at the Royal Cornwall Show we booked more food fairs and Christmas fairs to promote our cakes.
We have attend fairs all over the county from Godolphin near Penzance to Boscastle and from Fowey to Stithians and Truro. We have been to Windsor and London. The fairs have been large and small and everywhere we go we learn from meeting people.
I have received many recipes and tips from our customers. We have people who visit us whenever we do a show and look for us every year at various places.
We have met Prince Edward and we have met many celebrities.
When we were at the Windsor horse show we saw the Queen and met Marco Pierre White who tried our cake and said it was “delicious” and gave us a prize to eat in his flagship restaurant in Mayfair, London!
We have met a few other celebrities with our fruitcake. I can name drop now and say that Hugh Fernly Whittingall filmed us, Michael Cains (the chef not the actor!) gave us another award, Prince Edward came to our stand and talked to us about it all, and we are even in the latest book by Clarissa Dickson Wright. We have sold cakes to well know people too.
Once we had started selling our cakes locally we found there was a demand both nationally and internationally so had to set up a mail order business and have a website built.
We then started to send them by courier all over the UK. We also had orders from all over the world. They have been sent to New Zealand, Australia, America, Canada, all over Europe and even to Uzbeckistan. The Lord Mayor of London took one back to Switzerland for Christmas .
We have had good media coverage and have been on tv and on the radio. The Observer Food monthly included us in the top ten cakes for Christmas and also the top ten products of the year. We have been featured in Country living, Country Kitchen, Cornwall today and most regional magazines and newspaper. We are getting quite good posing for photographs.
We were featured in the Guardian when Tesco ordered 500 cakes from us. We have also had them in other supermarkets and that was an experience too. We met the directors from Tesco who flew down from London and our picture was in their annual report for shareholders.
Our business has gone from strength to strange but we were finding that something was not quite right. All the time we had been making our cakes we were highlighting the fact that they were locally made from the finest ingredients that were locally sourced in the traditional way. However, when we started to package them for mail order to be handled by couriers and the royal mail we had to pack them very carefully.
First the cake is wrapped in greaseproof and then encased in a plastic container and then that is put in a cardboard box and then that is wrapped in a plastic envelope.
Not only did it take a long time to pack, but it was not environmentally friendly and all our cake is made with the best ingredients sourced locally so this went against the grain.
We had to find an alternative. We had to protect the cakes from being thrown around by the post office and couriers, but we had to find a way to reduce the amount of time and products used to pack them. We started researching various ways of protecting them.
We thought it would be a good idea to put them in a wooden box that had been made from wood from a sustainable wood source as that fitted with the ideas that we were looking for. I had some made and started trying to make cakes that would fit into square boxes…not easy! However, I did come across something very interesting that in the end solved the problem.
Before baking tins were invented, cakes were baked in wooden boxes! So, I lined the boxes we had with greaseproof and put the cake mixture in them and put them in the oven.
They baked perfectly well , better than perfectly as the wood protected the cake from the heat and the outside of the cake didn’t bake quicker than the inside as wood is a good protector and absorbs the heat so the cake is baked more evenly. And when you bake a cake evenly all the mixture cooks at the same time as the fruit and everything rises at the same rate so the fruit doesn’t get left behind on the bottom.
So baking in a box was better than baking in a tin and it solved our packaging problem and the wood was made from a natural source and ….the box could be re-used to bake more cakes in.
So, we had someone make the boxes and we baked our cakes in them, but whoever bought the cake had a box left over so I thought it would be a good idea to encourage people to re-use the box to make more cakes in. I selected some more recipes and then had a recipe leaflet made to be included with each cake in a box.
Each box had to have a label and so these had to be produced too. There is quite a lot involved with producing the labels and leaflets. We had to have professionally taken photographs and the labels had to be checked to comply with food labelling standards.
Then they have to be printed.
I decided that I would make up two recipe leaflets to encourage people to reuse their cake baking boxes and produced two sets of recipes; one for the large box and one for the small. One for 6 inch and one for 7 to 8 inch cakes.
Each leaflet includes three recipes.
I make one fruitcake called Debbie’s nutty as a fruitcake (if you met her you’d understand why!) with hardly any cake in it at all. I use whole nuts and great big chunks of dried or glaced fruit too. This can be cut thinly with a sharp knife and has a lovely flavour. The range of ingredients is as wide and varied as the cakes themselves and so too is the method of eating them.
There is also a coffee fruitcake, a boiled fruitcake, a Scottish black bun, a really good fruitcake and several others.
So,now we have two sizes of cakes and they come with their own baking boxes and they arrive in good condition and you can try out our recipes or re-use the box and bake your own favourite recipes. We revived an old baking tradition to solve a modern problem.
We also had a lot of press publicity too as they thought it was a good idea as well. We now also sell the baking boxes on their own for people who only want to buy the box without the cake. Sophie Conran (who is the daughter of Sir Terence) called the other day to buy a box on its own to make her own recipes in.
I often get people giving me recipes of cakes that they have made in their own boxes. I have had bakers tell me that in their younger days they also baked in wooden boxes especially when they had to make large fruitcakes as you don’t have to wrap the tins in cardboard or layers of newspaper to prevent the edges baking quicker than the inside of the cake.
Baking with wood is very sustainable and recycling the boxes is also good for the environment as there is no waste and the boxes can be used over and over again.
I have enjoyed baking the cakes and now have a baker bake for me. The cakes are still being sent all over the world and people are buying them year after year and enjoying eating them and now baking in their own boxes.
Who would have thought that we would have created a business like this out of the humble fruitcake!