The Journey of Honey Cake
From Medovnik to Gingerbread
“You know I know these things,” my babička began when I called her at her home in Prague last Thursday. “For politics you call Westminster; for marital advice, maybe your Vicar. You probably call your Solicitor when you make one of your big deals. But, maličká, for baking, you call babička.”
As you probably already know from my Christmas blog, when it comes to baking, my babička can be quite expansive. She got right down to business.
“Honey cakes, you say? Why would anyone want to know the history of honey cakes? There is no history of honey cakes, maličká. There is only the long journey of the humble honey cake from Egypt to Russia to our people here in Prague and Slovakia and the rest of Eastern Europe and, finally, to you there in London.”
“The Egyptians baked honey cake?” I asked, surprised.
“They did not bake honey cake. You might say they stumbled onto it when some long forgotten baker tried mixing honey with flour. Long before sugar, honey was the first and only sweetener available to the ancient Egyptians. They had just started pounding and grinding their wheat and rye into flour, so this baker thought he might mix the honey with his new flour. He apparently got busy with other things and the honey and flour sat for a month while natural yeasts formed and caused the combination to rise. When he found the forgotten mixture and took a taste, he was amazed to discover delicious honey cake. Honey cake quickly became the most popular sweet in all of Egypt, Greek, and Rome.”
“It sat for a month and it was still edible?” I asked.
“Oh, yes, maličká. Honey is a natural preservative. It absorbs moisture and prevents spoilage. By the 14th century, Slovakia became the greatest honey making nation in Europe. In one year, at the end of the century, Slovakia exported 953 euro tons of honey to Vienna. In that era, our people combined rye flour and cooked honey to make a dough that just got better the longer it sat there. Daughters of the honey makers were given big barrels of this dough as their wedding gift. They were able to keep the dough for as long as 30 years. The recipes were secrets that were passed on only to their children.”
“Really, thirty years! Just honey and flour makes this super food?”
“Only in the beginning...now here in Prague this humble honey cake is the wonderful Medovnik made with three pastry layers and glued together with custard. The remaining honey cake pastry is then powdered and used to coat the outside of the cake. A sprinkle of nuts and the delicacy is complete. My neighbours, the Chibovskijs, sell 20,000 honey cakes a month. The humble honey cake is the most popular sweet in the Czech Republic and has made them quite wealthy.”
“Why, babička? How did honey cake become so popular?”
“It’s about honey, maličká. Sugar became popular in the fifteen hundreds because it was less expensive than honey. Everyone started to bake with sugar and taste buds were conditioned over time to crave sugary sweetness. People forgot the delicate and soothing suggestion of sweet that honey produces. Only the humble honey cake continued to use honey. After the fall of Communism here in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, we started making honey cakes again. In 1989, bakers like me, who held the tradition and the recipes in their families, opened up businesses making honey cake. Now there is not a town square without a number of stands selling beautifully shaped and decorated honey cakes. Humble honey cakes have become works of art.”
“I had no idea. What about here in the UK? There’s hardly a honey cake to be found.”
“No, maličká, the British carried on a wonderful honey cake tradition...gingerbread.
Gingerbread is honey cake made with ginger. Isn’t gingerbread wonderful? Just think maličká, the longer you let honey cake stand, the crunchier it gets. Eventually you can use it to build a gingerbread house, decorate your parlor with it during the holidays, and then eat it like cookies when the holidays are over. Then, you can serve it with tea in the early spring and, finally, finish it off in early summer...best served with a shot of Becherovka. Honey cake is truly a super food.”