We've all heard horror stories about rock-hard fruitcakes. They're supposedly the favored gift to "re-gift," can last for years, and are hockey-puck textured. According to the late Johnny Carson, "The worst gift is a fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other."
I thought this all more legend than reality, however, as I had never actually tasted one in person until recently. This could be because I'm Italian and my people don't make traditional fruitcakes (we instead eat the divine panetone), or maybe people just don't give each other fruitcakes anymore. Whatever the case, I was out of the loop until I purchased one in Scotland a couple of months ago.
While visiting the gift shop at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh -- I spied some traditional British fruitcakes and thought it would be fun to bring one home to share with my mom over the holidays. When I asked the cashier if it would last until December, he laughed and said "Definitely." Thinking his droll response had more to do with the reputation fruitcake has than the actual merit of the one I sat on the counter, I spent 5 pounds on it (that's $10 US bucks) and packed it up in my suitcase. When we got home, I stuck it in the fridge, all bundled up in its shrink wrap niceties, until the holiday season arrived. Then, on Christmas Eve, my mom and I made a hot pot of tea while it stormed outside, and sat down to our plate of authentic English fruitcake.
After one bite, our eyes met as we mutually realized the obvious: if this fruitcake was an authentic representation, the stories weren't rumors. With a texture both brittle and brick-like, it was difficult to chew even the smallest bite without choking. I read the list of ingredients on the wrapper and realized that this sad example of a holiday cake didn't have any alcohol in it.
Fruitcakes are traditionally aged in a cloth wrapping of alcohol for at least five weeks. The alcohol preserves the cakes, fruits, and nuts within, and keeps everything moist. I wondered what the chefs at Holyrood Palace Gift Shop were thinking when they stuck this sad use of flour, fruit and nuts in cellophane without a little brandy. Maybe it was an attempt to get more people to purchase one, although I was reminded of the old adage that when you try to please everyone, you end up making absolutely nobody happy. I began to wonder how many of these confections were made -- and aged -- without alcohol or some type of moistening agent. It seemed that in an attempt to gain a wider audience through omitting the alcohol, cooks had turned what had once been a yearly treat into an inedible burden.