Century-old fruitcake found in Antarctica

Fruit cakes are famous for their longevity, mainly because they start off close to inedible so it takes years for them to cross the line into fully inedible. Conservators with the Antarctic Heritage Trust (AHT) have found a 106-year-old fruit cake in a 19th century hut on Cape Adare. It looks remarkably well-preserved, although none of the conservators have sampled the confection.

The hut is the oldest structure in Antarctica. The Borchgrevink huts are the only surviving first constructions by humans on a continent. It is one of two structures built by the Norwegian pioneer of polar exploration Carsten Borchgrevink in 1899 and used by later explorers. AHT experts believe the cake dates to the Terra Nova expedition (1910-1913), explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s calamitous final expedition to the South Pole. He and four others reached the South Pole on January 17th, 1912 only to find to their dismay that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team had gotten there a month earlier on December 14th, 1911. Scott and his men died on the return voyage when their dog teams failed to meet them at the pre-determined rendezvous spot.

The fruitcake was made by the Huntley & Palmers company, purveyors of sweet treats since 1822, and Huntley & Palmers cakes are known to have been among the supplies for the Terra Nova expedition. Scott himself didn’t go to Cape Adare. It was First Officer Victor Campbell’s Northern Party who sheltered in Borchgrevink’s hut and used it to hold their stores in the summer and winter of 1911. When the party was picked up in January of 1912, they left tinned supplies behind.

The New Zealand-based Antarctic Heritage Trust began a project in May 2016 to recover and conserve all the artifacts in the Cape Adare huts before the huts themselves are conserved. Because the site is an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA), the objects will all be returned to their original locations after the conservation of the buildings is complete.

The complexity of the project and the short seasons of the polar environment required stringent deadlines for everything to get done on time. The team has conserved close to 1,500 artifacts between May of last year and July of this year. The fruit cake was one of the last ones and conservators had no idea what it was because the tin was so corroded the label and brand could not be identified. It was only when they opened the tin that they saw it was a Huntley & Palmers fruit cake still in its original paper wrapper.

Conservation treatment involved rust removal, chemical stabilisation and coating of the tin remnants. Deacidification of the tin label and some physical repair to the torn paper wrapper and tin label was also carried out. The cake itself was in excellent condition.

Programme Manager-Artefacts Lizzie Meek said “With just two weeks to go on the conservation of the Cape Adare artefacts, finding such a perfectly preserved fruitcake in amongst the last handful of unidentified and severely corroded tins was quite a surprise. It’s an ideal high-energy food for Antarctic conditions, and is still a favourite item on modern trips to the Ice.”

17 thoughts on “Century-old fruitcake found in Antarctica

  1. So much “hate” for the humble fruit cake, though it seems to be mainly American’s I see complaining about it. A well made fruit cake is the most delicious thing in the world, though you do want it in small slices as it is very rich.

    I have to say that I’d be tempted to try a bit of that cake, just to see if it’s improved with age 🙂

  2. A…a ..Americans “hate” F…f..fruitcake ? :ohnoes:

    But why ? The Saxon Beerawecka or Berewecke (cf. morus) is -more or less- fruit cake in form of a wedge (‘wecke’), and it is in fact hundreds of years old.

    The ‘Ovelgönne Bread Roll’ (‘Spitzwecke von Ovelgönne’) is the remaining part of a bread roll originating from the Pre-Roman Iron Age (800–500 BC) of Northern Europe, found in 1952 in Lower Saxony, Germany.

    Personally, I can report that Spanish fruitcakes are perfect for the use in not only cold, but also warm environments, in my case while climbing up the Pyrenees on a bike.

  3. “mainly because they start off close to inedible”: oi, matey, that’s my cultural heritage you’re insulting.

  4. This brings back memories of Catholic high-school fundraisers, involving the tiresome peddling of made-in-Georgia (the USA one, that is) Claxton Fruitcakes. It seemed these were purchased mostly as a gesture and not for consumption. Hardy stuff, this Claxton, having survived even Sherman’s March To The Sea.

  5. The inedibility of fruitcake is a common cultural meme (in the original sense of the word) in the US. One old joke goes that there’s actually only one fruitcake that we all just keep passing around.

    This article (and the pro-fruitcake comments) makes me want to try making it, though!

  6. Of importance is that you take the right “fruits” and of course the right “cake”, i.e. there are virtually dozens of different approaches.

    The one that the British Army or some Puritanists were taking, I reckon, is not necessarily the ‘best’ one, 😉 …

    …and it certainly helps, not to let it lay around (or to hand it over as “present”) for 106 years. It does not get better with age.

  7. Fruitcake of the mass-produced variety is pretty terrible. However, the monks at Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky produce a fruit cake that is very good – rich and dense soaked in wine; a little slice will do ya at one go.I buy one or part of one every year at Christmas. Great with coffee, tea or port. Most others make good doorstops or boat anchors.

  8. Correction concerning Gethsemani fruitcake mentioned in my comment above. It is prepared with Kentucky bourbon, not soaked in wine. However, I do believe that the cherries they use are marinated in burgundy wine. Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with the monks and I have no financial interest in their enterprise. They use the profits from their sale of various foodstuffs only to support themselves and keep the roof up over their heads.

  9. When I was a kid I would make fruitcake every year with my mother. My job was to oil two layers of brown paper bag for each fruitcake and to cut them so they would fit the pan exactly. And a layer of of waxed paper. After they were cooked they were soaked in rum. So maybe that 106 year old fruitcake is still good if it had rum (or Kentucky Bourbon like Stephen said). Like Karen, I’m thinking I want to make it again. Bourbon or small barrel rye sounds particularly yummy. I might try one of each and have a Christmas taste test with my friends.

  10. I cannot tell about the Anglo-Saxon approach, but the Saxon one would be that you need to drink the spirits separately (i.e. often, there are none in the cake directly, and, as mentioned, the right fruits is essential).

    It is more connected to the Medieval fruit cakes (‘Beerawecka’, Anglo-Saxon: wecg=wedge, or Wecke=bread roll) and to the Roman ones (honey bread with fruits, ‘pan melito’), and there is pictures galore. Basically, you can’t go totally wrong with anything they bake in the Mediterranean (The ‘Arabs’ have a strange tendency to drown everything in fatty sugars, though)

    … or maybe with some Alpine recipes (click on translate), for example:

    Recipe 1: Kletzen

    Recipe 2: ‘Vienna’

  11. The only people I ever knew who actually sought out fruitcake were guys in jail. They used it to make Raisin Jack, the Merlot of the tied off trash bag in the toilet concoctions they produced.

    I think the Gesethmani Fruitcake is produced with Maker’s Mark Bourbon produced and distilled in the old fashioned way in the nearby wide spot in the road known as Loretto, Stephen.

    As a novice brewer I once made off with a sample of the barm on top of the mash in the Makers Mark cypress fermentation tanks to use in producing Lambic style ales. It worked very well until the local flora began to give it a run for it’s money in that outbuilding after a few months.

  12. Here in the US, few of us have had any fruitcake other than Claxton’s.
    Claxton fruitcake special little horror of its own which consists of candied and artificaly dyed fruit, loads of chemicals and artificial rum flavoring.
    I think most of us have been so savaged by this unfortunate mass produced block that we assume that is what fruitcake is supposed o be,

    Hopefully, true for myself, this article will push us to try the real cake. The one made by monks in Kentucky mentioned earlier by another poster looks promising.

    I would absolutely try a bit of that hundred year old cake! :yes:

  13. My aunt used to make these at Christmas time and everybody got one. Nobody much cared for them but for me. I was in fruitcake heaven for months. :boogie:

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