Honey-Cakes: 2nd century AD

Sounds like a disgusting cutesy nickname to me. Luckily, it’s not (at least not in my household where our nicknames tend to fit more comfortably within a broad ‘ballbag’ theme.)

Loathe as I am to go from ballbags to my mother in law without a sentence in between, I have to admit that as it’s her birthday this weekend, I’ve been thinking a lot about birthday celebrations and the various traditions that surround them. When did we first begin marking the anniversary of the moment a family said goodbye to sleep forever? Why do we look back on a person’s life instead of looking forward at what’s to come (I mean, ultimately death, right? Think I answered my own question…) and why, oh God why, do we give gifts to the little buggers who don’t even remember the bloody day instead of to the woman who can remember every slow and agonising minute in glorious never-ending technicolour?

Obviously what I’m most interested in is the history of the birthday cake. I remember the cakes my mum made for me when I was little were always the second best part of the day (after the presents, obviously). She worked so hard to get them perfect: a 3D witch hat cake for a spooky themed birthday party and a hot dog shaped cake for a BBQ party stand out most. The BBQ one was made out of ginger cake with marzipan buns which not only tasted delicious but also hid the questionable sausage shape from a congregation of 9 year olds.

It was when I got older that my mum hit the cake jackpot, though. Gone were the novelty shapes and questionable amounts of food dyes – now it was all about pure sophistication; if you haven’t made Nigella Lawson’s chocolate sour cream cake, do. It’s in her book How To Be A Domestic Goddess, which was my bible as I got older but isn’t available online. I found this instead, which is an approximation and also by the goddess herself so go and make it!

Despite my love of birthday cake, I was guessing the cakes of bygone ages probably contained ever so slightly fewer E numbers and jelly diamonds than the ones I grew up with. Still, I remained hopeful for my mother in law’s sake and began to search for the first ever birthday cake.

I thought the parameters of my research topic (“history of birthday cake”) were clear, but the internet thought otherwise: ‘Do you mean the first time someone put candles on a cake?’ Google asked me mockingly as it flung several thousand results my way. ‘Or do you mean the first recorded use of the words ‘birthday’ and ‘cake’ together in a recipe? What about the development of the idea of birthday cake as part of a celebrated cultural tradition, is that what you meant? Here, have some pictures of cats.’

£1000 if you can catch all these in your mouth
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

After I’d watched 8 or 9 cat videos I narrowed my research down a little bit and found that there were two predominantly accepted ‘first’ birthday cakes. The first involved giving cake to a child on their birthday with candles on it to mark their age with an additional candle to “symbolize the light of life” and dates back to an 18th century German celebration called Kinderfeste.

As part of Kinderfeste, parents would tenderly bake their precious child a fruit or simple sponge cake and might decorate it with nuts and dried fruit; you know, the sort of wholesome but boring treats favoured by people who don’t know what hundreds and thousands are. Then they would lovingly present the cake to the delighted birthday girl or boy whose eyes would shine in the flames of the candles that illuminated it. They might wait for their special poppet to take a deep excited breath with the growing anticipation of whether they’d get their wish in one blow or not, and then suddenly they would very tenderly and lovingly snatch the cake from the little sucker and make them wait all day, unrelentingly replacing each suffering candle as it flickered and died until evening came and finally, finally, the child would be permitted to eat the (presumably) wax covered stale treat. Happy birthday! Obviously the kids knew that tradition stated they weren’t supposed to eat the cake until the day was done, but I like to imagine that every year they got their hopes up that maybe this would be the year mum and dad relented early and that every year their hopes were dashed.

I couldn’t see my mother in law being overly delighted if I pulled that stunt, so I turned to the other ‘first’ birthday cake: the Ancient Greek honey-cake.

Ancient Greek stories, be they epic, play or poem, are littered with references to honey-cakes. In the Odyssey the father of the teenage princess Nausicaa serves them to Odysseus after he returns her to him as a thank you (unlike modern day parents, who probably wouldn’t welcome a naked older man in for lunch if he turned up on the doorstep with their underage child, the Greeks had a very specific brand of hospitality called xenia which forced them to put all reasonable parental responsibility aside in the name of being good hosts. Naturally.)

Honey-cakes were also made for the gods, and one of the earliest uses of them acting as a celebration of an anniversary involved them being offered to the Greek goddess Artemis. Followers of Artemis, goddess of hunting, the wilderness, chastity and the moon, would bake ‘moon shaped’ honey-cakes at various points in the year to celebrate different aspects of her divinity. In an amazing display of irony, every 9th month followers of Artemis also celebrated her status as a champion deer hunter by offering her simple honey-cakes shaped like stags. Next month, however, when she was meant to be honoured as a gentle mother nature figure, they hunted and sacrificed a full on goat.

Like Anglo-Saxon bread, the Ancient Greeks don’t seem to have considered the average honey-cake worthy of recording a recipe for. Maybe, given their prevalence throughout Greek writing, they were so culturally ingrained that people just knew how to make them without needing to learn. So I’ve had to do some proper research for this; the kind of internet searches that sound so academic Google would now think twice about flinging cat pictures my way in the results pages. One of the things I’ve found is that if you’re specifically interested in the cultural use of cake as an offering to gods in ancient civilisations, you should definitely check out this blog.

Apicius, the 1st century Roman cookery text, has an entry on Greek honey-cakes which is helpfully just one sentence long: “To make honey cakes that will keep take what the Greeks call yeast and mix it with the flour and honey at the time when making the dough.” There are no instructions on cooking times or on the function of the cake, which I’ve just come to expect by now, to be honest.

Digging deeper still, the Greek rhetorician Athenaeus, who was writing during the end of the 2nd/beginning of the 3rd century records in his Deipnosophistae numerous references to honey-cakes, even providing some sparse ingredients and an idea of how they should look: “a little loaf…made of oil and honey.”

I felt I was getting closer to what would surely be the most underwhelming birthday cake ever made. My final burst of research took bloody ages because I spent half a day trying to find an English translation of the 2nd century Greek grammarian Julius Pollux’s Onomasticon; one of the earliest dictionaries of ancient Greek phrases and words which sounds just about as exciting as a wet Monday afternoon. In Onomasticon there’s a chapter entitled ‘On meals [and] the names of crimes’, because those two topics are so obviously linked, which mentions honey-cakes. I was therefore hopeful that Julius Pollux could provide the final piece of information I was looking for (or at the very least the dictionary definition of ‘honey-cake’) but it turns out no one’s bothered to translate Onomasticon into anything other than Greek or Latin. I can’t think why. I did spend a woeful hour hopefully searching for the Latin word ‘mel’ (honey) and ‘libum’ (cake) in a pdf of a Latin translation, but it was utterly pointless and nearly cost me my laptop when in a fit of frustration I tried to throw it across the room after a passage I had been really hopeful about was Google translated as “the pig the cake does dancing outside”.

The most exciting thing about this book is that there’s a winged horse jumping over a carrot with a moustache on the front cover

Yet again I was saved by someone doing history far, far better than me who had provided a version of a recipe from Onomasticon which confirmed that oil, water, honey and flour were the only ingredients I’d need. To make it as authentic as possible, I decided to use spelt flour, which had been cultivated in the ancient Middle East and, along with wheat and barley, was an important crop to the Greeks. Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World also says the ancient Greeks believed the goddess Demeter gifted them spelt and so it was often associated with religion and ritual, making it perfect to use for these birthday cakes. (I’ll be honest – at this point I was so deep into a black hole of websites and tabs and books that I’d forgotten that my mother in law’s birthday was meant to be the priority.)

Anyway, enough history; more cooking. Making the honey-cakes was easy peasy. I mixed oil, water, honey and water in a bowl until it formed a dough and then rolled it out. Like an idiot, though, I hadn’t realised that the honey would make the dough as damn sticky as it was and I spent ages scraping it off the rolling pin and re-flouring the surface while my toddler impatiently shouted ‘cake! cake!’ in what felt like the most stressful and judgmental way possible.

Once the dough was finally rolled out, I tried to cut it into stags in honour of Artemis. Now, the ancient Greeks may have had a booming market for stag-shaped cookie cutters, or they may have just been very handy with freehand shaping, but I couldn’t get the antlers right and my stags looked less like the magnificent beasts they were supposed to and more like unidentifiable roadkill. I didn’t think my mother in law would appreciate some bulldozed animal biscuits, so I improvised and used a dinosaur shaped cookie cutter instead after the ancient Greek deity T-Rexima, goddess of tiny arms and shouting loudly, who incidentally is also my daughter’s god of choice.

I also made some ‘moon shaped’ biscuits (plain old round to non Greeks) and because it was my mother in law and not Artemis I was honouring, I stamped them with a ‘J’ instead of the symbol for Artemis (a bow and arrow) and baked them in the oven, crossing all my fingers and toes that these would work.

Yes, dinosaur nerds, I know that’s not a T-Rex and I don’t care

First things first: these are not cakes. What we have here is a biscuit, which is Definitely Not A Cake. It’s obvious now why there aren’t any English translations of Julius Pollux’s dictionary and that’s because it’s obviously a steaming pile of trash. Maybe he realised he’d accidentally left the word ‘biscuit’ out of the ‘B’ words and couldn’t face melting his wax tablet down to make space to correct it so just lumped these in with ‘C’ for cake, knowing full well that no one would ever read that far? Well I’m on to you, Pollux. Maybe you could add another rhyming ‘B’ word to the Onomasticon too for a description for your dictionary?

Imaginary arguments aside, these were very pleasant. Because of the spelt flour the texture was grainy and fairly rough – I’m glad I didn’t try with plain white because it would have changed the feel of these totally and I think they would have been further away from the originals. They were also very hard initially, but once you chewed them a bit reminded me of an oatcake. The honey obviously ensured they were sweet, but it was a very subtle sweetness. My husband (who took one bite and apparently turned into some sort of gourmand) said they’d make perfect cheese biscuits, particularly as a complement to goats’ cheese.

Everyone was quietly surprised by how good these were – my daughter ate most of the dinosaur ones by herself (which to be honest isn’t really a useful indication of whether they tasted nice or not as she’ll eat anything). My mother in law, who isn’t one for very sweet and sickly things, also seemed to enjoy them and even said she could see these being sold successfully if they were marketed as sort of semi-sweet biscuits. The fact she enjoyed them was a huge relief because I hadn’t made any sort of back up cake if they had been disgusting. Fortunately my father in law had thought ahead so we ended up having honey-cakes and proper birthday cake too.

Overall the link between ancient Greek honey-cakes and modern day birthday cakes might be a tenuous one, but this afternoon it was one we were all glad to pretend was much stronger.

E x

Honey-cakes

150g spelt flour
75g honey
1 tablespoon olive oil
Water

  1. Mix flour, honey and oil together. Add water to form a stiff dough.
  2. Roll out to about 1cm thickness and cut into shapes or circles.
  3. Bake for 12 minutes at 160 degrees.

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