Artefacts from golden era of British baking

The glass rolling pin and cake stand in the Scarborough Collections.
The glass rolling pin and cake stand in the Scarborough Collections.

By the time you read this, the nation will know – was it Tamal, Nadiya or Ian?

We’re talking, of course, about The Great British Bake Off, the gentle, double-entendre-stuffed show that has unaccountably gripped a large proportion of the British public for the past six years.

Actually, maybe it’s not so startling that the Bake Off attracts such huge viewing figures – baking is, after all, deeply embedded in our psyche. Perhaps our unpredictable climate inclines us towards comfort food…

Our exhibits today date from one of the golden ages of British baking – the Victorian era. Keen Bake Off fans will recall the episode a few weeks ago in which the contestants were challenged to create elaborate Victorian confections: a lavishly decorated raised game pie, a ‘tennis cake’ (complete with royal icing net and racquets!) and – a test of engineering skills that would have taxed the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself – a charlotte russe.

If you want to see some decadent Victorian bakes, take a look at the famed Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management – some of the cakes and pies in there are positively gravity-defying.

Interestingly, the cake we perhaps associate most with the Victorian period is an extremely simple one, in both preparation and appearance. It is, of course, the Victoria sandwich, or sponge, cake – two layers of light, plain sponge sandwiched together with jam (and sometimes – a 20th century addition – whipped cream).

It’s said that the young Victoria wasn’t allowed sweet things very often. When she became queen, no one could deny her, and she could indulge her sweet tooth as often as she pleased.

Each week, the kitchens at Buckingham Palace produced identical packages of pastries and cakes for delivery to the royal residences at Balmoral, Windsor Castle and Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. These included ‘one box of biscuits, one box of drop tablets, one box of pralines, 16 chocolate sponges, 12 plain sponges, 16 fondant biscuits, one box of wafers containing two or three dozen fancy shapes, one and a half dozen flat finger biscuits, one sponge cake, one princess cake and one rice cake’.

While they weren’t exclusively for the Queen’s consumption, of course, they may go some way to explaining the dumpy later-life figure we’re so familiar with these days.

Our cake stand from the Scarborough Collections, pretty though it is, is a fairly common-or-garden piece of equipment – essentially a raised plate, to give a cake prominence on a busy tea table.

The glass rolling pin, though, is a rather more complex piece of social history. Originally made from turned wood, the rolling pin is perhaps the earliest known baking utensil, known to date back to at least the 1600s, and probably much earlier.

For reasons unknown, but possibly because of their similarity to belaying pins – wooden pins used on board ships to secure ropes – rolling pins became associated with mariners. Sailors would pass the hours at sea carving decorative wooden pins, sometimes with whalebone handles, as love tokens or wedding gifts.

In the 18th century, various glassworks in ports such as Sunderland, Newcastle, Bristol and London began producing hollow glass rolling pins for sailors to give as love tokens. Open-ended, with cork or metal stoppers, they would be filled with dry goods such as cocoa or baking powder and, once emptied, filled with crushed ice or cold water to keep the pastry cold when in use.

They were sometimes painted or gilded, too – probably not the most practical tools, then, so these versions were presumably purely decorative.

Glass rolling pins filled with salt were a particularly popular gift because the high salt tax made it expensive and covetable until the mid-1800s. Such rolling pins were often hung by the fire to keep the precious contents dry.

The rolling pin and cake stand are both part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on or 01723 384510.