Jamesjones79, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
The Salford delicacies Eccles cakes have been a staple of the Northern diet for centuries, and on this National Cake Day, they are more than deserving of the accolade of one of the most beloved sweet treats in the UK.
Consisting of spiced currants enveloped in buttery pastry, the cakes have been manufactured and eaten in the area, hot and cold, from as early as the 12th century.
For Paul Wood, managing director of Real Lancashire Eccles Cakes, there is only one way they should be eaten.
“The fact of the matter is, you can eat them cold, in fact the vast majority of people probably do. But the product definitely tastes better slightly warm,” he said.
“Heat it for about four minutes and then it gives it a completely different texture as the butter starts to seep through the pastry and into the filling. And then the filling is lovely and warm,” explained Mr Wood.
Real Lancashire Eccles Cakes is the largest manufacturer of Eccles cakes in the world. On average, it produces more than 1 million cakes a week from its factory in Ardwick.
However, this huge production had very humble beginnings.
History of Eccles Cakes:
Although no one can be certain of the date that Eccles Cakes were first manufactured, yhey are intimately connected with the Eccles Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin.
Each year, a service would be held at the church to celebrate its construction, which became known as the Eccles Wakes. Following the service was a fair featuring local food and drink, including the eminent Eccles Cake, which has even survived the iron-clad grip of Puritan rule.
In 1650 when Oliver Cromwell came to power, he banned the Eccles Wakes as he believed them to have pagan connections – and the Eccles cakes were banned along with them.
Thankfully, the love for Eccles Cakes never died, and in 1793, James Birch became the first known person to sell them commercially, from his shop at the corner of Vicarage Road and St Mary’s Road, now Church Street, in the town centre. From that day to this, Eccles cakes have been the pride and joy of Salford’s communities.
“A Global Product”:
Though Eccles cakes remain sentimentally rooted in the Salford area, Real Lancashire Eccles Cakes also export globally to what Paul dubbed ‘ex-pat’ countries, where the links to the UK remain strong. This global market includes Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada, Spain and Malta.
Owing to this global market, Mr Wood doesn’t believe that Eccles cakes should be given the kind of protected food status bestowed upon the likes of champagne and Melton Mowbray pork pies.
However, this doesn’t mean that Eccles cakes are simply thrown together from any ingredients.
As Mr Wood says: “We buy our currants from Ibiza in Greece. It’s a bit like champagne, in that it’s got to be picked from a certain grape and it’s got to pass a certain grade to be fit for purpose in our product.
“All the pastry is made from real butter, and it’s a hand-finished product, and you can see the difference when it’s made by our bakers.”
Though there are some mechanical elements to the baking process in the modern factory, this proud tradition of making Eccles cakes by hand has always prevailed over full automation.
He remembers that: “Many years ago, a big UK manufacturer actually bought Eccles Cakes and brought a load of money and mechanics in and made a complete mess of it. They brought it all in-house and decided that they could bring in big automated production methods and they just made a complete mess.
“The family ended up buying it back – or rather being literally given it back in about 1980, and from then onwards it’s been phenomenal.”
The biggest debate surrounding the Eccles cake remain to this day whether it is worthy of the title of ‘cake’. It has pastry like a mince pie, and a soft, warm filling like a pasty – so what should we really be calling it? For Paul, the answer is simple:
“The Most Romantic Shop in the World”
The great English novelist, Arnold Bennett, once called the original Eccles Cakes store ‘the most romantic shop in the world’. While the building itself may be gone, the romantic legacy of this homemade, family business lives on into the 21st century, and the ever-enduring Eccles cake remains a must-have on any table of teatime treats.
Baking is thriving in Salford, with new bakeries opening even during the coronavirus pandemic.