Matter of Taste: A cake about balance, people really love and hate the Battenberg

A celebration of Germany and Britain, the chequered cake's name outlives its namesake's chequered past

Matter of Taste: A cake about balance, people really love and hate the Battenberg

[Flickr/Bharat Jadav]

Battenberg divides us all, which is rather fitting for a cake all about segments. Oblong pieces of Genoese sponge slathered in apricot jam and wrapped in almond paste, its cheery nod to symmetry and pastel colours is loathed by millions. To the delight of millions of others, though, who have even more to nibble on. Intensely sweet and soft, the marzipan layer offering something sticky to work across your palette before dissolving into light and airy cake, the Battenberg’s garish colour scheme stands out on supermarket shelves and belies just how tricky the whole thing actually is to construct.

The cake’s origins – albeit with some discrepancies over exactly how many chequers should be found inside – is usually linked to the British royal family and their own Germanic past. When George I (1660 – 1727) became the first German monarch to claim the throne of England and its empire, he was so unfamiliar with his new demesne that he didn’t even speak a word of English. But by the end of the 19th century, thanks in no small part to Queen Victoria and her German husband Albert’s prolific progeny, the Royal houses of Europe and Russia were so reliant on each other to continue their bloodlines that the occasional resurgence of madness and haemophilia was just par for the course.

Battenberg Cake was a celebration cake invented to honour the 1884 union of Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Victoria, Princess of Hesse & By Rhine, to her cousin Louis, born Prince Ludwig Alexander von Battenburg, whose grandson is Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. The story goes that the two pink and two yellow squares, arranged in complimentary crumbliness when the cake gets sliced, represent each of the four Battenberg princes. Certainly, the cake does mix the particular baking styles and tastes of the two countries, with marzipan, then an expensive indulgence, also recorded by some food historians as a nod to German rococo plasterwork. There’s the slight problem, however, that some recipes published in the immediate years after call for as many as nine panels, so unless Victorian bakers were throwing shade at some illegitimate princes, the window pattern’s story might well be an apocryphal convenience.

Somewhat less convenient were Louis’ German origins when the First World War broke out. Despite having moved to England – not to mention having joined the navy when he was 14 and risen to the rank of admiral of the fleet – a strong anti-German sentiment was rising all across Britain. When things got testy even in the elite gentlemen’s clubs of London, the then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, firmly urged Battenberg to bite the bullet and resign.

Although he took some convincing, Battenberg did finally step down in October 1914, writing to Churchill to say: “I beg of you, release me. I am on the verge of breaking down and I cannot use my brain for anything,” though the prince would spend the rest of his days grumbling that the British government had failed to show the moral backbone in the situation.

With war raging on, the death toll mounting in unprecedented fashion, the royal family was dogged by rumours and whispers that the men and women the people should be looking to for moral guidance actually harboured pro-German sentiments. With public good will towards the crown steadily declining, the king made the decision on July 17th 1917 to abandon any claims to his Germanic titles and to change the family name from the undeniably German Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor, a PR-savvy nod to his favourite castle.

Battenberg, also in an attempt to bolster his own troublesome reputation, also opted to translate his name from German to English. While he first considered ‘Battenhill’, instead settling on Mountbatten. Battenbergs spread all across the dynastic lines of Europe loyal to Britain quickly followed suit, seeing the name all but entirely disappear from the aristocracy.

The cake, though, has proven somewhat more robust.

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