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 supermarkets 2011 Tunis Cakes, from left: Tesco £7, M&S £6.99 and Morrisons £7


The prices for the supermarkets’ cakes are:

Tesco £7

Sainsburys £6.25

M&S £6.99

Morrisons £7

Waitrose £8.99

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.

See here for the recipe.

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.

Click for all the fun of making one yourself

11 comments on “Tunis Cake pt II”

  1. Thomas's comment - added on 6th of December, 2011 at 11:55 pm

    Am I wrong in thinking you almost single-handedly brought the Tunis cake back from the dead, and on to the shelves of not one BUT THREE supermarkets, Ben? If so, please could you now try the same thing with Russian Cake? One retail outlet will suffice. Thanks.

  2. Jane Hanbidge's comment - added on 12th of December, 2011 at 4:10 am

    Help! No Tunis cake that I can find at our giant Tesco in Bournemouth and none at Marks either – their website doesn’t offer Tunis either. Where have you seen them, because it isn’t in my area…desperate!

  3. Maya Willis-Fry's comment - added on 17th of December, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    I’ved asked in tesco, morrisons, sainsburys THEIR DISCONTINUED :'( which is such a shame, my christmas this year will not be the same!!!

  4. Steve's comment - added on 18th of December, 2011 at 12:11 am

    Sainsburys in Aylesbury, Bucks has loads (well about 8 anyway).
    Bought one yesterday for Christmas yesterday. £7. Suggest asking at your local Sainsburys again. No decoration on the cake apart from marzipan fruits.
    Umm .. the barcode has 6639818 on the top and 0152 6264 on the bottom.
    Good luck!

  5. clare allchorn's comment - added on 19th of December, 2011 at 10:08 am

    As a child we always had a McVities Tunis cake,and then it became hard to come by until the supermarkets started doing them,although I have always managed to find one somewhere.But for the last 3 or 4 years I have made my own,as the others lacked flavour and were on the dry side.But this is a very easy cake to make,and well worth the effort.Try using ready made marzipan fruits from Lake land,they are very attractive and tasty!

  6. Steve b's comment - added on 21st of December, 2011 at 12:02 am

    Tunis availability update Durham
    Tescos “not available”
    M&s. Food no sign

    Sainsburys Sucsess Now two less in stock!

  7. Marion's comment - added on 22nd of December, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    Despite phoning some Waitrose and M&S branches I have just managed to buy one in Sainsburys in Whitechapel, London. There were around 6 there. My mum also managed to get one last night in M&S Lakeside so no need for me to rush to make one on Saturday now. I know they wont taste as good as the McVities one but there you go

  8. Heather S.'s comment - added on 28th of December, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    There were dozens of these at the Tesco in Poole (Fleetsbridge?) after Christmas. I wondered what they were and the history of them and google led me here. Thanks for the history lesson 🙂

  9. Julie's comment - added on 28th of December, 2011 at 7:43 pm

    One of our local Tescos didn’t get Tunis cake in until the 23rd December. Picked one up today at another local Tesco for £3.50 and it was the last one. Tasted lovely but might try making one next year.

  10. Tea Lover Denise's comment - added on 1st of January, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    My husband (British) nor I (American) had ever heard of a Tunis cake – until we saw one on the bargain Christmas shelf today at Sainsbury’s in Staines. It was £3.99, so we bought it.

    We’ve just finished a slice with a cup of tea.

    We found the chocolate topping to be too thick, and the cake very dry. To be fair, the sell-by date is 3 days away which may account for its dryness.

    Really enjoyed reading the history of this cake, and also everyone’s comments. Perhaps I’ll try making my own next year.

  11. Pam Mason's comment - added on 13th of January, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Note to Thomas – one local branch of Rowe’s bakery in Truro, Cornwall, sells Russian cake, or certainly did for a few months before Christmas. Assuming they’ll resell it now the Christmas stock’s gone, I can always send you some? It’s as tasty as I remember from childhood.

  12. Derek Brewer's comment - added on 23rd of December, 2013 at 9:51 pm

    Well it is absolutely not true that McVities invented the cake in 1973 because I well remember my mum ordering one each Christmas for us at least back to 1959 but I can’t remember which company made it

  13. Barbara Perry's comment - added on 10th of February, 2014 at 10:31 pm

    I remember my Auntie always having a Tunis cake at Xmas. It was made by Mc vities. every year we would all agree that the chocolate was getting thinner, and then it completely vanished from the shelves. It was a nice change from fruit cake, remember we did not have the varieties of deserts in the 1960’s that we have today. I was thinking about this cake and thought I would google it to see if I could find a recipe for it. Reading the comments on this sight has certainly bought back some happy childhood memories for me, and inspired me to have a go and make one myself. It was also interesting to find out that it is possible to buy one in some leading supermarkets.

  14. Lisa Tizzmas's comment - added on 26th of September, 2014 at 10:28 pm

    I remember the McVities tunis from 1970s and rejoice in all modern manifestations of this epicurean delicacy. M&S produce a slightly more buttery version than the likes of us are entitled to, but it’s still a treat if you can find one dated late enough to enjoy at the Yuletide tea. I look forward to seeking it in Sainsburys et al, for it is as much the anticipation as the purchase that brings deep pleasure. Roll on December!

  15. Neil's comment - added on 26th of November, 2014 at 12:53 am

    A Tunis cake is a Madeira cake topped with a thick layer of chocolate and decorated with marzipan fruits. It is traditionally eaten at Christmas.
    The origins of the cake are Edwardian. Scottish bakery Macfarlane Langs produced commercial Tunis Cakes in the 1930s, and when they merged with McVitie & Price in 1948 to form a company called United Biscuits (which still owns the McVitie’s brand) the recipe passed to the new company. McVitie’s produced a Tunis cake until the mid 1980s

  16. Kathy Thornett's comment - added on 2nd of December, 2014 at 8:05 pm

    Thanks for all this information – this cake is a family tradition going back to when it was first made and immortalised by my late father in law who used to seek them out at the various stores and then wait until reduced after Xmas and buy about six to share amongst all the family. We have a Christmas Day “teatime debate/evaluation on the Tunis Cake” each year and it is now a ritual. We have bought and done this to all the various supermarket versions (none as good as the original McVities) and also I have made my own for two years – last year the chocolate needed a pneumatic drill to break it!! This year I shall try your recipe and see how that comes out on the ratings evaluation – Thanks for keeping the memories alive.

  17. Dave Seymour's comment - added on 13th of December, 2015 at 4:36 pm

    Tried all three, but I found the one closest to McVities is Tesco, albeit without the coloured icing. But still moist and tasty. Make sure you order one or two with the in store bakery in advance as they go quickly.