It’s my birthday this Sunday so, unsurprisingly, my thoughts are turning to the rather pleasing matter of…birthday cake! As such, I figured a good topic for my first blog of July would be to look at the custom of having birthday cakes and ask: where, when and why did that tradition begin? Time being of the essence, most of my research has necessarily been conducted via wikipedia(!)…but I think I’ve dug up enough facts to briefly tell the story.
The idea of connecting a birthday celebration to the baking of a particular type of cake (or cakes) originated in Ancient Rome. Roman birthday cakes were flat and round and made from flour, nuts, yeast and honey. However, it was in medieval Germany that the concept of ‘the birthday cake’ (as we would recognise it today) was born when, in the 15th century, German bakers hit upon the idea of marketing one-layer cakes specifically for their well-heeled customers’ birthdays. Back then, however, the ‘birthday cake’ was really only a luxury item for a privileged elite. It was a further few centuries before the practice was sufficiently democratised to spread throughout all of Western society as a commonplace.
The precise origin of the custom of putting candles on birthday cakes is still the subject of debate. Some say the Ancient Greeks were the first to do it – as a means of communicating with the gods. Others suggest that, once again, the Germans started it. Either way, I don’t think I’ll bother with candles this year – after all, I don’t want the cake to melt!! Still, whatever you might think of our tradition of having birthday cake, it has to be preferable (to your average Brit) than its equivalent in Korea. Apparently in Korea your traditional ‘birthday treat’ is a bowl of seaweed soup! Much as I admire healthy eating practices, I think I’ll stick with the gateau on Sunday!