From Banned Treat To Beloved Brit Icon: The Eccles Cake
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NESTLED in the verdant English countryside, the quaint town of Eccles stands witness to a captivating slice of culinary history — that of its longstanding cherished confectionary, the Eccles cake. More of a filled pie or bun than a cake, this English delicacy consists of a delicate and flaky pastry shell cradling a filling of stewed currants, sugar, butter, and a blend of sweet spices. Burnished golden in colour, the cake is topped with crystallised caramelised sugar or a glossy caramel glaze. 


A cornerstone of British food traditions, Eccles cakes has a history entwined in religious festivals. As food writer CF Leyel observed in her 1936 opus, Cakes of England, spiced bread or cake encompassed the spirit of every festival and sacrament observed by the Church. As far as Eccles cakes are concerned, the genesis of this particular confectionery can be traced back to a specific occasion — the feast day of St. Mary in Eccles. This religious event, known as Eccles Wakes, epitomised a joyous amalgamation of customs, including the practice of spreading rushes over the church floor, singing harmonious melodies, and performing spirited dances. Within this festive ambiance, the Eccles cake flourished, leaving an indelible mark on the town's collective memory.

Yet, during the austere period of Puritan rule in the 1600s, the association between Eccles cakes and religious revelry became a contentious issue. A popular legend suggests that Oliver Cromwell himself issued a ban on the cakes. It is believed Puritan reformers, in their zealous pursuit of religious purity, abolished the celebration of saints' days and subsequently imposed stringent restrictions on various activities, even going so far as to prohibit dancing on Sunday.

Due to the cakes' close ties to anything festive per se, they became, in essence, banned by default. But despite the stern Puritan parson presiding over Eccles, the townsfolk continued to fire up their ovens to churn out freshly baked Eccles cakes. Joan Poulson, in her book Old Lancashire Recipes (1973) offers a glimpse into this intriguing paradox: "Eccles had a particularly stern Puritan parson but oddly enough Eccles cakes continued to be baked." To further confound matters, these delectable treats found their way into the bustling markets and vibrant wakes of Lancashire.


The late 18th century witnessed a transformative event in the history of the Eccles Cakes. Revered for her influential culinary tome The Experienced English Housekeeper (1786), writer Elizabeth Raffald bestowed upon the world a recipe for "sweet patties," which is believed to have served as the catalyst in Eccles Cakes’ creation. However, Raffald's rendition featured the intriguing addition of boiled calf's foot, apples, oranges, nutmeg, egg yolk, currants, and brandy, leaving aspiring bakers with the option to either bake or fry these delectable treats. It is worth noting that this recipe resembles another sweet pastry, called Sweet Pattees, documented in Elizabeth Moxon's English Housewifry, a Yorkshire publication that predated Raffald's work by several decades, harking back to 1741. 

As the enterprising James Birch entered the stage in 1796, he introduced a variant of the confectionery to the eager market. Birch's shop, strategically placed at the junction of Vicarage Road in Eccles, became the launching pad for the commercialisation of Eccles cakes. A tale of rivalry and ambition unfolded as Birch later relocated to more capacious quarters across the street, leaving behind the original shop for his former apprentice, the resourceful William Bradburn. In a masterstroke of advertising prowess, Bradburn proudly proclaimed his establishment as 'The Only Old Original Eccles Cake Shop — never removed’. This rivalry between Birch and Bradburn likely fuelled the growing fascination with Eccles cakes, compelling visitors to indulge in the delicacies offered by both establishments, their discerning palates seeking out any nuanced distinctions.


By the 1800s, the Eccles Wakes had taken on a raucous character. A painting from 1822 encapsulates this era, portraying a carnivalesque atmosphere brimming with lively activities. Cock fighting and bear baiting had surreptitiously crept into the festivities, provoking a sense of discontent. Fed up with the uproar, the Home Secretary dealt a decisive blow by banning the Eccles Wakes in 1877, thus bringing an end to an era that had indulged in both the pleasure and the excesses of celebration. 

But change is the only constant, as they say. In 1965, Bradburn's iconic shop yielded to progress, making way for a burgeoning shopping precinct that forever altered the town's architectural fabric. Birch's establishment, too, underwent a metamorphosis, serving briefly as a dry cleaners before finding its identity as a fast-food takeaway. Despite these changes, the enduring appeal of Eccles cakes persevered, inspiring local food suppliers to create derivative recipes that paid homage to the beloved treat, like Smith's Eccles Cake and Whittaker's deep-fried Eccles fritter. Further, with an increase in demand, these cakes began to be produced on a large scale outside the confines of Eccles, in the bustling Ardwick area of Manchester. 

However, Eccles cakes themselves are not immune to controversy. In 2013, a series of kitchen fires, sparked by ill-fated attempts to microwave these delicate pastries, led the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service to place blame upon the unsuspecting treat. Fortunately, the enduring popularity of Eccles cakes remained unscathed. 

Despite societal transformations and controversies, the allure of Eccles cakes perseveres, occupying a significant space in British heritage. With their crumbly pastry shells and delightful fillings, Eccles cake is among the few ancient English recipes that continue to be savoured and celebrated.