The 5th March is St Piran’s Day and in Cornwall people tend to take their patron saint seriously. The flags will be fluttering, people will be parading and, come lunch time, pasty sales will go through the roof.
This is a day to think of traditional recipes and this year my thoughts turned to hevva cake (also known as heavy cake). I have never seen hevva cake outside of Cornwall and to be honest calling something “heavy cake” doesn’t exactly help its image. I can just imagine the marketing meeting! It’s something of a misnomer though; whilst hevva is heavy when compared to say a Victoria sponge it is the perfect density for what it is.
If pasties are to be forever associated with miners then hevva cake is the food of fishermen. The story goes like this:
The pilchard fishermen would head out to sea in their small boats and luggers, hearts full of hope in search of the silver sardine. One or two of the fishermen’s wives would volunteer as “huers” or lookouts and head up to the cliffs. Once there they might even reach a better vantage point by climbing up a pilchard pole. From their lofty heights the huers would gaze out to sea until they spotted a shoal, then they would shout “hevva, hevva” to the fishermen below, guiding them to the rich seam of fish. The fishermen would shout “hevva” in return as they hauled in the nets.
Whilst the men brought in their catch the wives would all rush home to bake hevva cake. Fish landed, the men would drink tea and eat the filling cake before mending their nets. The women would set off to start the real work of their day; cleaning and preparing the fish for sale locally or salting it and packing it into casks for export.
So this cake is proper with a long history in Cornwall and I was determined to do it justice. Just one problem with that – every family has an authentic recipe, handed down through the generations and every one of them is slightly different.
Hevva cake is essentially made with flour, fat, sugar, milk and dried fruit. No eggs. On that note everyone seems agreed. But is that plain flour or self-raising? Is it lard or butter? Is it currants or raisins? Should I add lemon or not?
Traditional recipes are always passed on by word of mouth and they all change slightly over time. This is such a simple recipe that I suspect it changed a little depending on what was in the larder on any given day. Self raising flour wasn’t patented until 1845 so it is likely that the original cake used plain flour – but that would still be very different to the flour we use today. Sometimes authenticity is not the best thing to aim for. I decided to experiment.
I made four different batches of cake trying out variations of fats and flour and, to be honest, found very little difference. Lard made for a slightly more flaky finish but butter tasted better – I would probably recommend going half and half (talk about sitting on the fence). Self raising flour made the cake rise very slightly but it wasn’t lighter (would you even want to make a lighter heavy cake?), in fact it was slightly more dense. Plain flour gave a more even bake. I would opt for plain flour in future but, if you only have self-raising flour don’t let that stop you. I used currants in the first batch and raisins in the second but, by time I got to the batch in the photo I only had mixed fruit left – so I used that. They were all good but I find that currants which end up on the surface tend to dry out like little bullets so I prefer something with more moisture. The mixed fruit also has dried peel in it which settles the lemon question too!
The finished cake has a texture somewhere between cake, shortbread and pastry. It is a kind of eggless, tray bake scone if you can imagine such a thing. It is delicious though, especially with a cup of tea.
Out of interest I asked my husband which one he preferred. He dutifully tried them all and finally declared that they were all really good but the best one was the one which he had topped with a generous spoonful of clotted cream. I think we have been in Cornwall too long…
Makes around 8 slices
250g Plain Flour (or self raising if its all you have)
125g Fat (half butter / half lard)
180g Dried Fruit (currants / raisins or mixed fruit)
90g Caster Sugar
50 – 60 ml Milk
1 tbsp Granulated Sugar (to top)
Pre-heat oven to 180°C / 350°F / Gas Mark 4
Grease a flat baking sheet.
Cut the fat into small cubes and place in a large bowl with the flour. Rub the fat in with your fingertips until the mix resembles coarse breadcrumbs.
Stir in the sugar and the dried fruit. Add 50ml of the milk and combine until the mixture comes together into a soft dough – you may need a little more milk but you don’t want it to be too wet or sticky. Bring the dough together into a ball.
Roll the dough out (or flatten with your hands) on a floured surface. You are aiming for a rectangle which is about 1″ (2.5 cm) thick. Transfer the dough to the baking sheet and score the surface with a criss-cross design to resemble a fishing net.
Bake for approximately 30 minutes until golden brown and cooked through. Sprinkle the top with the granulated sugar. Cut into squares and eat. It tastes good warm or cold and yes, it tastes really good with a little bit of clotted cream.