The Victoria sponge cake is about as classic as they come.
In fact, sponge cakes in general have a very long and varied history.
So how did the Victoria sponge become so synonymous with sponge cakes in general?
We have briefly visited the history of the Victoria sponge cake in our previous blog post on the history of some of your favourite cakes and desserts.
This week, we’re taking a deep dive into the history of the Victoria sponge cake.
You may recall from our earlier blog post on the best places for afternoon tea in the North East that the tradition originated with one lady. Specifically, Anne Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford.
At that time, in the 19th Century, the evening meal (often referred to as High Tea) was taken between 8:00 and 9:00 PM.
Today, High Tea and Afternoon Tea are phrases that are often used interchangeably. However, high tea - very likely referring to the fact that it was eaten at a dining table or high bench, was made up of hot, more substantial fare, such as meats and strong tea.
Understandably, waiting so long to eat didn’t sit well with Anne, who complained of a “sinking feeling” around mid-afternoon. So she requested that some tea and light food was brought to her drawing-room to stave off her afternoon hunger pains.
Later, she began inviting friends to partake of this new afternoon tea with her. One of these friends was none other than Queen Victoria herself. Having gained the Queen’s approval, the practice soon became a trend amongst the upper class.
This is where the sponge cake’s evolution into today’s Victoria sponge cake begins…
The Victoria sponge is so well known these days that it would be easy to assume that it is the original sponge cake.
In actuality, the sponge cake can be traced back to roughly the 15th Century. The term ‘sponge cake’ comes from the sponge-like openness of the crumb. The sponge cake was also one of the first types of cake to be made without yeast.
These original confections, while no doubt being the forerunners to the modern sponge cake, were closer to a type of biscuit.
The first mention of what we would recognise as a type of sponge cake comes from a 1615 recipe book by English author Gervase Markham, calledThe English Huswife. These were closer to a type of sponge biscuit, called Ladyfingers or ‘boudoir biscuits’.
In Italy, at the court of Catherine De Medici, a similar confection was presented, these being called Savioardi. These may actually be the origins of the ladyfinger recipe.
There are a wide variety of different types of sponge cake around the world. Similar to their fluffy, jiggly cheesecakes that gained viral popularity a few years back, the Japanese cotton sponge cake has a similar light, jiggly texture.
South-East Asia has several unique sponge cake recipes that are so different from the English Victoria sponge. Many of them tend to be closer to a chiffon cake, which is a type of sponge cake made using vegetable oil instead of a solid fat source such as butter. This makes it easier to beat more air into the cake batter, thus creating a lighter textured sponge.
In China, they have the Malay cake, which is popular in Guangdong and Hong Kong. These cakes are made up of butter or lard, flour and eggs, then cooked in a bamboo steamer to give them their distinctive puffiness.
In the Philippines, they have mamon cakes, which are baked in distinctive cupcake-like moulds. They also have the ube cake, which is instantly recognisable from its vivid purple colouring. The name and colour come from the addition of the ube halaya (mashed purple yams) in the recipe.
While we’re on the subject of brightly coloured cakes, there is also the Pandan cake (or Pandan chiffon), which gets its name from the Pandanus amaryllifolius plant with which it is flavoured. These juices are also what gives this cake its distinctive green hue.
Then there is the plava sponge cake, a traditional Jewish Passover cake made with Passover kosher ingredients such as matza meal or potato flour.
In Latin America, you will find the deliciously sweet and rich Tres Leches cake, which is made by soaking the sponge cake in evaporated milk, condensed milk and whole milk.
Moving back into Europe, in Spain you will find the Bizcocho sponge cake. Also, while technically Italian, the Pan Di Spagna evolved on the island of Sicily. This is an old cake recipe that possibly originated during the Renaissance. This cake is typically flavoured with orange or lemon peel. The Portuguese have a version called Pão de Castila. They also have the Pão de Ló, which is an unsweetened bread sponge cake.
The port city of Genoa in Italy also gave the world the Genoise sponge cake, which is similar in texture to ladyfingers and is the basis for many French layer cakes, and the Genoa cake, which is similar to the Victoria sponge cake.
Speaking of which, let’s get back to this cake’s history.
As we mentioned earlier, Queen Victoria quickly became an ardent fan of afternoon tea.
Food historian Alysa Levene reported in her 2016 bookCake: A Slice of Historythat the Queen was in fact particularly fond of this simple yet delicious sponge cake and enjoyed having a slice with her afternoon tea.
In a second historical source, a tell-all biography of Queen Victoria by “a member of the royal house” went further to claim that she enjoyed“chocolate sponges, plain sponges, wafers of two or three different shapes, langues de chat, biscuits and drop cakes of all kinds, tablets, petit fours, princess and rice cakes, pralines, almond sweets, and a large variety of mixed sweets”.
One truly had a sweet tooth, indeed!
However, it was the sweet and simple sponge cake that reigned supreme on her table above all others. As the recipe evolved with the invention of baking powder, it’s no surprise that the sponge cake was renamed in honour of its royal patron.
The way Queen Victoria would have enjoyed her cake was what we have come to recognise as the definitive Victoria sponge cake today. That is, two sponge cakes which are filled with cream and jam then dusted on top with sugar. This explains how the cake is also often referred to as a Victoria sandwich cake.
Of course, today there are innumerable debates over the best cooking method, what flavour of jam to use or whether fresh cream or buttercream works best as the filling.
For the record, we prefer to use vanilla buttercream in our Victoria sponge cake.
Queen Victoria’s love of cakes certainly wasn’t something that she only developed in her later years.
The Victoria sponge cake wouldn’t be the first confection that would be renamed after she popularised it. Or, at least that’s what legend would tell us.
As well as being the originator of the white bridal gown, Queen Victoria also helped popularise the use of white royal icing to decorate wedding cakes when she married Prince Albert.
However, it was the wedding of her daughter, Princess Royal Victoria to the German Emperor Frederick III in 1858 that truly popularised elaborate wedding cakes decorated with royal icing.
While it is a common story that this hard white icing gained its royal moniker from its association with the royal wedding cakes, it would appear that the name actually predates Queen Victoria and her royal brood by nearly 100 years. The name apparently first appeared in 1770 in Borella’s bookThe Court and Country Confectioner.
Overall, the Victorian era was very much a golden age in all matters.
While most people are aware of the great industrial revolution that was happening, there were also great strides and significant changes happening in the culinary field as well.
We have already covered Anne Russell’s invention of afternoon tea and how Queen Victoria not only popularised the social event that would become an English tradition, but also the namesake for what has become one of the most popular cakes in the world.
However, if we’re talking about afternoon tea and the history of the Victoria sponge, we simply can’t leave out Mrs Beeton and Alfred Bird.
Alfred Bird was a chemist and a food manufacturer who invented quite a few food products. His two most well-known inventions were custard powder and baking powder.
The reason Alfred Bird invented his custard powder is quite a sweet story.His wife suffered from both egg and yeast allergies so he used cornflour to create a yeast and egg-free imitation of egg custard.
It proved to be such a hit when it was accidentally served to their dinner guests instead of real egg custard that we would go on to patent and sell his invention to the wider public.
Similarly, he invented baking powder so he could bake yeast-free bread for his wife. This invention would go on to completely revolutionise bread and cake making as we know it.
Isabella Beeton, or as she is known today, Mrs Beeton was an English author who rose to fame with the publication of her bookMrs Beeton's Book of Household Management.
Featuring approximately 2000 recipes and roughly 1000 pages of advice on a range of matters, from animal husbandry to what to say during a social call, her book became synonymous with the Victorian middle class and her name is one we still instantly recognise today.
The Victorian era also saw the birth of one of the most quintessential English tea blends in the world. We are, of course, talking about Earl Grey tea.
Long before Jean-Luc Picard popularised it on Star Trek: The Next Generation, this oil of bergamot-flavoured tea was a popular tea blend amongst the upper and middle classes.
Invented by then British Prime Minister and second Earl Grey, Charles Grey, the beverage is often seen as being about English as they come, as well as being a bit...well, posh. Which, technically we guess it was.
What you might find interesting, however, is that Earl Charles Grey was actually a member of a prominent Northumbrian family and was also the Viscount of Howick, a village in Northumberland. Pretty neat to think that such a pedigreed tea was invented by a local man!
It’s no surprise really that the Victoria sponge cake has enjoyed the longevity it has.
It is such a simple cake that you can enjoy at any time - and naturally pairs well with a cup of tea!
Mary Berry and the Great British Bake-Off really helped remind people how perfect this sweet and humble cake can be.
Of course, The Great British Bake-Off also reminded us how fiddly creating the perfect Victoria sponge can be.
Fortunately, these days you can find any number of Victoria sponge cake recipes online. There is even one from the queen of The Great British Bake-Off herself, Mary Berry.
During the Covid lockdowns, many people seeking a hobby to help keep them occupied turned to baking, further solidifying the popularity of this delicious and timeless cake.
Banana bread might have ruled social media during the lockdown of 2020, but the Victoria sponge cake pipped it to land at the 4th spot for the most searched for cake recipes during lockdown.
So there you have it: the history of how the Victoria sponge cake earned its name.
We hope you also found interesting our journey through the different sponge cakes of the world.
You can also take a look at our products page to find out what other goodies we can offer.
Ah, the great British tradition of afternoon tea! So popular, it even took off up here, in the generally regarded "salt of the Earth" North East.