My go-to cake, for any occasion occasioning cake, is a Victoria sandwich. It was so named for being a favourite of Queen Victoria’s (she would have a slice with her afternoon tea) and it is, in my opinion, the monarch of cakes. I love food you can sense the past in, and with this cake you can. It has only five main ingredients (eggs, flour, butter, jam and sugar), it looks charming and delicious, and it’s probably always tasted the same.
I had my first Victoria sandwich in a tiny, nondescript café on a trip through Glastonbury. Time stopped. The combination of jam-stained cake and rich buttercream was like a delicious- strawberry-scented, bosomy maternal hug. Like any perfect epicurean pairing (steak and frites, corn and butter), it was almost unreasonable. Transporting. I went back for another slice and snapped a picture of it before I ate it, wanting to mark the occasion. I see my culinary timeline as B(efore)VS and P(ost)VS. Apart from the sensory assault, the madeleine qualities of the cake made me tumble down a nostalgia hole of children’s literature by C. S. Lewis, J. M. Barrie, Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll. The English have a term for comfort food that I find much more evocative: nursery food. Shepherd’s pie, casseroles and any number of mashes. The sweets in the genre are simple and soft—buns, steamed pud- dings and custards, along with sandwich cakes— but the idea of a nursery alone is soothing.
At Christmas, the image we have of Victorian childhood usually defaults to either The Nutcracker (wealthy children with nurseries, nannies and dolls) or A Christmas Carol (poor children—think the Little Matchstick Girl and Tiny Tim, who was lame perhaps because his leg got caught in a fac- tory loom due to hideous child labour conditions). Thankfully, Queen Victoria herself, uncharacteristically for her time, liked plainer, simpler food, as well as hands-on child care, details that emerged recently when Queen Elizabeth II made Victoria’s journals available online as part of her Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
So, along with that era’s complicated legacy of sexual mores, absurd cutlery and preoccupations with death, we are left with its sweet sandwich.