‘A little beer would suit me better, if it is all the same to you, my good sir,” said Balin with the white beard. “But I don’t mind some cake – seed-cake, if you have any.”-An Unexpected Party, The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
“Lots!” Bilbo found himself answering, to his surprise; and he found himself scuttling off, too, to the cellar to fill a pint beer-mug, and then to a pantry to fetch two beautiful round seed-cakes which he had baked that afternoon for his after-supper morsel.
In the modern age, as we immerse ourselves in the pages of J.R.R. Tolkien’s timeless masterpiece, “The Hobbit,” we unearth a treasure trove of bygone traditions and recipes that harken back to British teatimes and the heartwarming allure of beautifully round seed cakes. These culinary delights, steeped in nostalgia and comfort, offer us a taste of the simple yet enchanting world of Hobbits. One such gem is the Seed Cake, a treat that can transport us to an Unexpected Party or beckon us to embrace the leisurely and distinctly Hobbity way of life.
A Slice of History: The Significance of Seed Cake
Seed cake, often infused with the delicate essence of caraway seeds, was a quintessential feature of British teatime gatherings during the Victorian era. Born at the tail end of this era in 1892, J.R.R. Tolkien would have been intimately familiar with these traditional British flavors. The circular, sweet confection has graced the tables of countless generations, becoming a symbol of time-honored traditions and customs that have woven through the tapestry of British culture.
From Harvest Fields to Tea Tables: Caraway’s Varied Legacy
Historical records indicate that caraway seed cake originally emerged as a sustenance for those toiling in the fields during harvest and seeding seasons. This delectable creation also took on a different role – that of a shortbread-like offering presented at funerals. Moreover, the seed cake found its place of honor on countryside tea tables, where friends and family would gather around crackling fires, sharing tales and relishing the day’s news.
The Enduring Charm of Caraway Seeds
Central to all these cherished recipes and customs is the unassuming caraway seed. Possessing notes of anise akin to light-flavored licorice or fennel, this tiny seed delights the palate with its nutty, citrusy, and peppery undertones. Interestingly, some Victorian tea recipes called for caraway comfits, offering a clue as to why caraway held its prominence in teatime treats. These comfits, sugar-coated caraway seeds, were a staple in British households for centuries, often consumed at the conclusion of meals to aid digestion. Their presence in many homes undoubtedly made caraway an accessible and preferred ingredient.
A Taste of Simplicity: Balin’s Preferred Seed Cake
Favored by Balin himself, the seed cake embodies the essence of simpler times, evoking a sense of comfort and nostalgia. The uncomplicated steps of creaming, sifting, pouring, and baking make this recipe a breeze, especially fitting for crafting ahead of a Hobbit-themed gathering. While recipes for seed cake may vary, the denser variants are renowned for their longevity, allowing hosts to prepare this treat well in advance of their Hobbit festivities.
- *Good Things in England, Florence White, 1932
- English Housewifery Exemplified; In above Four Hundred and Fifty Receipts Giving Directions for most Parts of Cookery’, Elizabeth Moxon, 1764
- Food and Cooking in Victorian England, Andrea Broomfield, 2007