Once more, a new series of The Great British Bake Off sees a group of contestants battle to master the subtleties of bread, cake and pastry-making in a marquee set in the heart of the (often rainy) English countryside. One of the great joys of watching this weekly feast of delights take shape is the constant reminder of ingredients, recipes and cooking methods from the past.

Indeed, so satisfying to audiences at the moment is the conflation of food and social history, that the two subjects are being combined by publishers, programme-makers and food manufacturers as part of a whole new industry – sometimes referred to as ‘heritage baking.’

But what can cakes, biscuits and puddings really tell us about the lives of our ancestors?

Surprisingly enough, baking within individual homes in Britain is something of a recent historical development. Coal-fired ovens (as part of kitchen ranges) were available from the early 1800s but tended to be affordable only by the upper and middle classes. Up until the mid-19th century, domestic cooking facilities for poorer people (in towns and countryside alike) consisted simply of an open grate with an iron pot suspended above it – there was simply no provision for baking.

Traditionally, in many parts of Britain, bread and cakes were often prepared at home and taken to a communal bakery to be cooked, later such fare was simply bought ready-made from commercial bakeries. It was not until the 1850s that it became common for new working-class homes to be fitted with ranges that included a small oven. At this point, our ordinary ancestors were at last able to complete the whole baking process with their own hands in their own homes.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the kinds of baking enjoyed by our recent ancestors only became possible after three other mid 19th- century developments: the replacement of grind stones in flour mills with metal or porcelain rollers (enabling white flour to be made more cheaply and quickly); the invention of baking powder; and the increasing availability of sugar. All these developments (though begun earlier) were well established and benefitting the ordinary consumer by 1870.

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Thus, as well as the heavy breads and fruit cakes of earlier centuries, the late-Victorian era was able to boast lighter cakes made with refined white flour, sugar and icing sugar – ingredients that progressively became available to more and more members of the population.

Gas ovens were patented as early as 1820, but it was not until the laying of plentiful gas lines in the 1920s that ovens with top burners, as well as interior ovens, were commonly found in ordinary homes. Similarly, electric ovens, though invented in the last two decades of the 19th century, were not common until the improvements in electricity distribution of the late 1920s and 1930s.

With these developments and the increasing affordability of ‘luxury’ ingredients, our early 20th century ancestors baked considerably more fare and did so more imaginatively than earlier generations. And, by the 1950s, with many women still confined to the domestic environment but seeking to bring a little culinary magic to it, British baking was enjoying its glorious heyday!

Festive baking

A good starting point when thinking about baking and family history, is to take a close look at those festive items traditionally baked in your family at times of celebration. On these special occasions, tried-and-tested recipes (rather than new-fangled experimental ones) were used over and over again down the generations. You can find out more about festive baking in the large number of books (many available online) and websites devoted to the origins of recipes. It is these familiar ‘old favourite’ recipes that can best tell us something about our ancestors. Surprisingly enough, tarts, pies and cakes can help us find out where they might have originated, their economic situation, their religious attitudes and even their relationship with drink!

Second World War birthday cake
Ration books had to be shared and recipes adapted to make celebratory cakes during the Second World War Getty Images

Festive cakes have always marked the most joyous moments in family history, namely christenings, birthdays, and weddings, as well as Holy Communion, Barmitzvahs and a whole host of other religious festivals. The recipes for such cakes might well have been retained in the collective family memory; the cakes themselves will perhaps appear in old photographs taken to mark these special events.

British wedding cakes from the Victorian period onwards were simple fruit-filled cakes decorated with white icing – and probably much the same up and down the country. But different regions had different traditions about when the cake should be baked (in Scotland it was done at the time of the engagement); who should cut the cake, who should share it out, and whether or not a ring should be placed inside.

Be alert also to some wedding cake recipes that may have been the legacy of immigrant forefathers. French ancestry, for instance, may have expressed itself at the wedding breakfast in the shape of heaps of chocolate cream-filled profiteroles (the traditional ‘Croquembouches’); the wedding cakes of Italian immigrants were traditionally large one-layered sponge cakes made with Chantilly cream and covered in whipped cream, and so on.

Birthday cakes from the late Victorian period were probably less region-specific, borrowing the paraphernalia of coloured icing, decorations, candles and even the idea of having names, dates and greetings written upon them from America.

Baking has always marked sad family occasions as well as happy ones. At funerals, particularly in the North of England, so called ‘arval bread’ or ‘arval cake’ was eaten (‘arval’ in Old Norse means ‘succession ale’). This was a thin, sweet cake (often more of a loaf since the tradition long pre-dates the introduction of baking powder) containing fruit (currants and raisins) and spice (nutmeg or cinnamon).

Recipes differed from region to region and might be worth tracing on the internet if still practised by your family. Often, the upper surface of the loaf would be scored or decorated with a cross, to denote its religious significance. There were also secular and legal associations with the eating of arval cake. Traditionally, ingesting a piece symbolically freed the heirs of an estate from any pending fines imposed by the Lords of the Manor and symbolised an agreement that the deceased had died fairly and without violence.

Certain times of year too were traditionally marked by special kinds of baking, from ‘Shooting Cake’ served in some rural areas on the Glorious Twelfth (12 August – the start of the grouse shooting season), to the more common array of cakes, puddings, yule logs and biscuits savoured all over the country at Christmas.

A Twelfth Night Cake made from fruit and spices was traditionally eaten on 5 January and was surrounded by ritual. Easter brought Simnel cakes – light fruit cakes, similar to Christmas cakes, covered in marzipan and decorated with marzipan balls to represent the 11 true disciples of Jesus (minus Judas Iscariot). Sometimes Christ was also represented, by a ball placed at the centre.

Your family may have made Simnel cakes to different recipes, depending on which part of the country they came from. Three particular types were from Bury, Devizes and Shrewsbury (the last being the one which became most popular throughout the country).

Family cookery books

Family historians often report finding cookery books among family papers – but dismiss them as insignificant in their quest for ‘hard’ information about their ancestors’ lives. If you come across a published cookbook owned by an ancestor, such as the famous Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (first published in 1861) you should treat it with caution as evidence of what your ancestor ate.

Published books probably tell you more about how your ancestors aspired to bake rather than what they actually baked. Handwritten recipes, however, are probably a fairly accurate record of what actually appeared on your ancestors’ plates.

Prince Charles first birthday cake
A recipe for Prince Charles' first birthday cake, 1949

The presence of a cook book of any sort among inherited records suggests that your family in the past had a certain level of literacy and income. Look out for those pages that are the most well-thumbed or that have been annotated by hand. Memoranda written down the side of recipes may tell you how different generations of mothers and daughters adapted dishes to suit their own tastes, budgets and family size. Of course many recipes were passed down solely by word of mouth.

In addition to cookery books, the language used by your family to describe baked items might provide clues to their background. Perhaps the best example of this lies with the humble bread roll. Ancestors from Lancashire and Liverpool might have used the term ‘barm’ or ‘barm cake’, those from Yorkshire will have referred to ‘breadcakes’, and those from the Midlands might have spoken of ‘cobs’.

In the northern town of Bolton, specifically a bread roll was a ‘flour cake; ’on the Wirral and in Coventry it was a ‘batch’ and in Rochdale, Bury, Oldham and Ashton-Under-Lyne it was a ‘muffin.’ To your forefathers from Waterford, Ireland, bread rolls were ‘Blaas,’ Scottish ancestors from Aberdeen would have called them ‘butteries’ and Geordies always used the term ‘stottie cakes’.

Baking recipes may also be a reminder of the economic spirit of the times in which they lived. Cakes and biscuits made during the Second World War, for example, often show evidence of rationing – lesser amounts of sugar, eggs and fat are required than in both earlier and later recipes. Many recipes from this time are also quick to execute – an indication perhaps that, with the men away, more women were going out to work and had less time to devote to the domestic tasks such as baking.

Another time-sensitive aspect of baking to look out for is the presence or absence of alcohol in a family recipe. An inherited recipe for Christmas pudding laced with rum might indicate both the prosperity of ancestors and their liberal ideas regarding alcohol consumption. If your Christmas pudding has always been made without brandy it may be a throwback to ancestors who were temperate!

Actually baking a family recipe can give you an instant connection with the daily domestic life of previous generations. Very often, the ‘best’ recipes for scones or birthday cakes in a family were attributed to one or other aunt or grandmother, maintaining a connection with them long after their deaths.

Some family recipes were even named after the person best remembered for concocting them: ‘Grandma Bentley’s buns’ or ‘Mrs Marsden’s’ Fruit Cake, for example. Indeed, one of the most appealing aspects of family recipes is that they provide a sensory link to the women of the past – family members who may have left little in the way of any written record or tangible evidence of their lives.

British regional baking

Ancestors who moved from one part of the country to another, or indeed who migrated to Britain from other countries, very often took their eating habits with them and the passing of recipes down through the family became an important method of preserving traditional heritage. Your family story might be evident not only in the foods eaten by your ancestors but in the cooking methods adopted – or even in the etiquette surrounding how particular items were eaten. In Yorkshire, for example, Christmas cake was often eaten with an accompaniment of cheese.

The different regions of Britain have historically produced baking that resounds with the character of that part of the country and the natural produce available in it. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, traditional baking from the Midlands was heavy and hearty, suitable fare for those working in the manual industries based there. These included: Melton Mowbray pork pie, gingerbread, Bramley apple pies, oatcakes, plum bread and Bakewell tarts.

Eccles cake recipe
A recipe for Eccles cakes, small baked pies from Eccles in Lancashire, found in a family cook book from the early 20th century

Scottish ancestors who moved away from their place of birth may have taken with them a passion for tablet (a concoction of sugar, condensed milk and butter, similar to fudge), or cranachan (a dessert of whipped cream, whisky, honey, oatmeal and raspberries – assembled individually by guests at the table).

Welsh migrants might have taken Anglesey cake, bara brith, Welsh cheesecake, cinnamon cake, dripping cake, Welsh pudding or crempog (a kind of pancake). The Irish who settled in other parts of Britain took with them Kerry cake (made with lemon rind and diced apples) or barmbrack (a yeasted bread with sultanas and raisins).

Outside influences

And a family history that includes ancestors from other cultures and countries might also be strongly marked by an inherited baking cuisine. Many German immigrants of the late 18th and early 19th century in fact settled in East London and worked as ‘sugar bakers’ bringing with them, among other delights, strudel – a long roll of a cake made with high-gluten flour and filled with raisins, cherries and almonds or spinach and sauerkraut.

Mediterranean migrants brought methods of making flatbreads like pitta, focaccia, and lavash, raised breads such as French bacon bread, Greek spinach bread, olive bread, Italian nut breads, and savouries, such as calzones, empanadas, pizzas, and spanakopitta.

Jewish ancestors from Eastern Europe may have passed down the secrets of mondel bread, cheese bread, apple cake, sour cream coffee (or pound) cake, hamantaschen, (a cake to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim), and honey cake.

All in all, rather than feel guilty when we consume the particularly pleasurable combination of fats, sugars and flour in a celebratory cake or homemade biscuit, we should remember that baking for others and sharing in the baking of others is part of family tradition (especially if you are lucky enough to have had a go at baking an old recipe found among some family papers).

There is nothing quite like the excitement of taking your first mouthful of cake from a recipe that was once baked by your great grandmother and imagining how those same tastes must have given pleasure to earlier generations of your family. And there is surely no more satisfying way to pass on a sense of family history to the younger generations than through the simple pleasure of cakes!