Tunis Cake pt II
A Christmas isn’t really Christmas without a Tunis Cake.
Despite the classic red box from McVities no longer illuminating the festive shelves, major supermarkets have assumed the mantle and taken to producing Tunis Cakes.
Which is good news for everyone.
This year Tesco, Sainsburys, Morrisons, M&S and Waitrose are all doing their own version.
The prices for the supermarkets’ cakes are:
Given that the shelf life for supermarket cakes is about three weeks, which always makes for a dry sponge, I have decided this year to make my own ultimate Tunis Cake.
There was an enormous amount of feedback from my previous post on this beloved seasonal fare, with people very kindly recounting their own memories and special bond with this most unassuming of baked goods.
Following such a great response, it seemed fitting that I continued on my journey of discovery as to the origins and story behind the Tunis Cake.
I started with McVitie’s – given that it was to me the most iconic of brands that produced Tunis Cake, and clearly the one that resonated with most people. Sadly my journey was nothing if not short, with McVitie’s claiming they had no records of the production of their cake and no plans to revive it, due to no longer making round cakes.
No really, they don’t. It’s all loaf shaped and mini ones these days.
Since McVitie’s doesn’t have the will or the ability to share the cake’s history, I’ve made it my mission to share it instead.
There is proof that Scottish bakery Macfarlane Langs produced Tunis Cakes in the 1930s, and given that they merged with McVitie & Price in 1948 to form a company called United Biscuits (which still owns the McVitie’s brand) it would make sense that this is why the cake became a staple of their stable.
Sadly though, United Biscuits have no records of the cake because it ‘was a generic item’ and not one they invented – unlike, for example, the very well recorded Hob Nob.
Given that McVitie’s themselves regarded the product as a generic one suggests that the cake and the name were around before they started making it.
I’m not convinced that the name Tunis has any significance to the origins of the cake or even the ingredients – given that the Madeira cake base was named after a wine, which it was meant to be drunk with.
It is much more likely that it was born out of post-WW1 austerity.
Jo, one of Sainsbury’s food development team, worked on the latest addition to their range. ‘It was more about the significance of actually getting butter to use in the sponge. Dried fruits were in short supply so this was devised as an alternative to the traditional Christmas cake,’ she tells me.
‘The chocolate topping was all about the quality of the chocolate flavour – it was all about finding the balance between taste and tradition.’
It is hard to believe that chocolate could be an austerity measure but the topping of compound chocolate uses much cheaper and readily available fats than exotic dried fruits. The addition of marzipan made for an impressive festive flourish to Christmas.
Despite no definitive proof as to its origins and McVitie’s being no closer to cracking open the yellow and pink icing again, I feel like I understand why this cake – so humble – is so well loved.
It is from a time when Christmas was about making the best of what you had. About celebrating, sharing and creating memories which we hold dear to our hearts, even on a budget. In these trying economic times, there’s surely no greater argument for a Tunis revival.
There can’t be many cakes that do that, with merely a basic sponge base and a slab of fake chocolate.