‘Anything further I can get you, my lady? Cake of any kind?’
‘Cake?’ Lady Selina thought about it, was doubtful.
‘We are serving very good seed cake, my lady. I can recommend it.’
‘Seed cake? I haven’t eaten seed cake for years. It is real seed cake?’
‘Oh, yes, my lady. The cook has had the recipe for years. You’ll enjoy it, I’m sure.’
Henry gave a glance at one of his retinue, and the lad departed in search of seed cake.
That exchange is from Agatha Christie’s At Bertram’s Hotel. Although seed cake was a teatime staple in Victorian literature—it’s mentioned in Jane Eyre and in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, to give but two examples—it had fallen off the menu by 1965 when At Bertram’s Hotel was published.
Caraway isn’t a romantic spice like vanilla. Nor an exotic one like nutmeg or cardamom. It’s a workaday flavour, a home-grown plant found in gardens, fields, and wild across Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia. One of the world’s oldest seasonings, it was described by Dioscorides in the third volume of his pharmacopoeia; the roots were eaten in Roman times; it is named in the writings of Arabic scholars al-Idrisi and Ibn al-Baitar in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and its use as a culinary spice probably dates from around that time.
Tunisian harissa recipes often list caraway, and I’ve heard of its occasional use in Indian dishes, but for me it’s the quintessential taste of central and northern Europe. Infused in vodka. Adding depth to classic stews like goulash and bigos. Paired with rye bread, farmer’s cheese, root vegetables, pork, potatoes, cauliflower, apples and cabbage. Especially cabbage. Red, white, curly and flat.
The Polish word for caraway, kminek, also translates as cumin, and these two spices are often mixed up—linguistically. (I disagree with the authors of Polish Heritage Cookery who claim the two are ‘almost identical in taste and may be used interchangeably’.) In French caraway is called carvi as well as meadow cumin (cumin de prés) and sometimes mountain cumin. Online I’ve seen it referred to as Persian cumin. In point of fact, caraway doesn’t play nicely with a number of ingredients, and it really dislikes fennel. Both plants may be members of the same botanic family, but in the kitchen garden their mutual antipathy means they each hinder the growth of the other.
In Latin, caraway is Carum carvi. It belongs to the Umbelliferae or Apiaceae family—a.k.a. the parsley or carrot family in common parlance. A large entity of some 3,000 species found mostly in northern hemisphere temperate regions. Their defining characteristic—to the layperson—is the inflorescence, which is typically a number of short flower stalks which splay out from a common point like the ribs of an umbrella. Hence Umbelliferae.
Some species are toxic, the most famous example being the hemlock that killed Socrates, but others are popular vegetables (carrot, celery, parsnip, fennel) and herbs (parsley, chervil, dill, coriander). And a few have been valued as folk remedies and ornamentals.
Carum carvi likes sun but is otherwise an easy-going plant and will thrive in most soils. Unlike some of its relatives, it isn’t a declared weed in Australia.
We call them seeds, but technically they are the dried fruit of the plant. Beautiful to look at: striped, crescent-shaped, in subtle shades of dun and brown. But caraway is a polarising spice, disagreeable to some, delectable to others. Me, I like its complexity, its aniseedy, vaguely citrusy aroma.
Caraway may be a key flavour of Mitteleuropa, but it’s also the signature ingredient in that old-fashioned English staple, the seed cake. According to Andrea Broomfield’s Food and Cooking In Victorian England, seed cakes originated in East Anglia during the sixteenth century. They were traditionally served by farmers’ wives to the labourers at harvest and seeding times. And not only cake. Shakespeare refers to caraway in the final act of Henry IV Part 2 when small-time landowner Shallow offers Falstaff
‘ … a last year’s pippin [a variety of apple] of my own graffing,
with a dish of caraways, and so forth … ’
My parents and other grown-ups liked seed cake. Children didn’t. I remember them—the cakes not our parents—hanging around in the cupboard for weeks, dry as dust and just about as exciting. English respectability in a cake tin.
Why were they always so dry?
Call it nostalgia, but seed cake has hit the comeback trail. Last month I decided to give it another try; as an adult I’ve come to like those plainer cakes that go so well with cups of tea. I researched a few recipes in older cookbooks and in newspaper archives—looking in particular at publications from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—and picked up a few tips along the way. A West Australian newspaper from 1924 suggests that before you introduce caraway seeds into your cake mixture, you bruise them to release their flavour. My own tip is to remember that when it comes caraway seeds, less is definitely more.
The recipe I like most is Nigel Slater’s ‘delightfully understated cake’. His addition of ground almonds keeps it moist without overwhelming the caraway which is after all seed cake’s main game. And although he advises readers not to fiddle with the basics, I favour the addition of half a glass of Madeira or other fortified wine.
Meanwhile back At Bertram’s Hotel:
‘Another day,’ said Miss Marple to herself, greeting the fact with her usual gentle pleasure. Another day—and who knew what it might bring forth?
She relaxed, and abandoning her knitting, let thoughts pass in an idle stream through her head … fancy serving old-fashioned seed cake! She had never expected, not for a moment, that things would be as much like they used to be … because, after all, Time didn’t stand still …