The fruitcake; it sits right alongside the gaudy Christmas sweater as the butt of our holiday jokes. Johnny Carson once said, “The worst gift is a fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.” The Huffington Post has called it “easily the most hated cake in the existence of baking.” If I were to base my opinion of fruitcakes from some of the images I have perused online, I would likely agree.
Fortunately, I have been lucky enough to try fruitcake in its authentic form — a dense, dark, moist cake filled with dried fruits and candied peels, rich with the flavors of aged port and brandy. While the one I sampled comes with a $60 price tag, it also comes from the hardworking hands of a woman who spends the year bringing all the components together in what is the true definition of an artisanal product.
June Taylor is an Englishwoman and dedicated food artisan in Berkeley. Every year, she makes and sells a “Christmas cake,” a traditional British holiday loaf made with dried fruit. Historically, the Brits bake this fruit-laden cake at the end of the year to celebrate what had been preserved from the year’s harvest; a treat in the darkest days of winter. Taylor has made it her mission to honor the heritage of these little loaves. Her Christmas cake is a year-long culmination of seasonal preservation.
Ironically, Taylor is the product of a mother who did not like to cook, and a father who happily ate bland meat and potatoes at most meals. Taylor discovered her love of cooking during her teen years. Seven years of intensive home economic studies fostered an appreciation of food and its various preparations. Her first mentor was a beloved cooking teacher, with whom she shared her first experience dining out in a restaurant. The ration years of post World War II Europe meant most households had kitchen gardens; families learned to grow their own food and left nothing to waste. This love of cooking and her early appreciation of gardening and food preservation were two things that Taylor brought with her when she came to the United States in 1981.
What was originally a vacation became a permanent move when Taylor met her husband Perry on her stateside trip. While settling into Bay Area life, she worked odd jobs from selling T-shirts to a stint as a medic. Taylor eventually found her way back into the kitchen as a chef under famed Jeremiah Tower at the now shuttered Santa Fe Bar & Grill in Berkeley. She went on to work in the kitchens of Oliveto and Bette’s Oceanview Diner. The arrival of her son Kyle in 1988 led to a desire to not only stay home but to find ways to ensure the food he was eating was pure and whole. Her interest in foraging and rare fruit and citrus varieties, combined with her upbringing that instilled a value of preservation, led to a line of jams and syrups. In the early 1990s, The June Taylor Company was born.
Recently, I was lucky enough to spend a few hours with Taylor in her commercial and retail location in Berkeley as she prepared this year’s Christmas cakes.
Her bright and open space is as lovely and quirky as Taylor is. When I entered, it was filled with light and the delicious smell of pear butter simmering on the stove. Her love of foraging and nature are evident in the found objects scattered throughout, from crates of feathers to stacks of stones.
As we sipped tea, Taylor shared with me why she has been on a “28-year-long soapbox” about these cakes. We laughed light heartedly about their reputation as a brick or doorstop, but Taylor’s tone turned serious as she spoke of what they represent: a connection to the land, the rhythm of the seasons and local community. The Christmas cake is her way of honoring these associations.
The flavor profiles in Taylor’s Christmas cake are created by the addition of close to 10 different fruit varieties. Four types of grapes are combined with cherries, plums, apricots and the candied peels from last year’s harvest of Seville oranges, ruby red grapefruits and blood oranges.
While she dries as much of her own fruit as possible, when inclement seasons have affected local harvests, she turns to suppliers to fill the void. The grapes I saw drying in the oven would be combined with raisins and currants purchased from Tory Farms. Blossom Bluff Orchards supplied the dried Mariposa plums and golden sweet apricots for this year’s cake.
The fruits come together in a dark and sticky maceration, soaked for at least a week with aged port from Prager Winery & Port Works in St. Helena. Taylor can tell with a pinch of her fingers when the fruit is plumped to perfection. They are then mixed into a batter of traditional cake staples: butter, flour, dark brown sugar and eggs. Roasted almonds, spices, a mixture of molasses and brandy from Alameda distillery St. George Spirits, and a slurry of the maceration liquid and orange juice round out the richness and holiday-infused flavor.
The batter is measured out to yield that perfect pound once done. The cakes are baked and then soaked with aged brandy, also from St. George Spirits.
First wrapped in cheesecloth, the finished cake is then enveloped in paper that Taylor watercolors on site; the final touch to the packaging is a classic gold letterpress in the style of the Book of Kells. The completed cakes are a perfect holiday package.
And you know what, that package sure does mirror a perfect little brick. Compact and dense, its size does make some question the $60 price tag. Taylor told me she is quite tired of having to defend it. I can understand why. Let me put it in context as she did for me. Do I question the price of a nice bottle of wine? Do I hesitate to spend $60 on a few small plates and a cocktail at my local eatery? No. So why should I question the cost of this cake? Is it because it is small? As her petite mother once told her, good things DO come in small packages.
In the three hours I spent in Taylor’s kitchen I witnessed all the work that goes into them. I saw the cup of fresh lemon and orange peel that she hand cut into tiny little pieces instead of using a zester; she wants them to have a bit of a bite in the cake. I saw her assistant Magali Hernandez squeeze handful after handful of the macerated fruit to ensure it was not too wet when mixed into the dough. I saw bowls of the various citrus peels that Taylor had candied last winter. I saw the table where each piece of paper is painted. So I no longer question the price. In our national culture of quick, easy, and cheap food, the artisanal steps being taken over months to yield a product that I can splurge on at the holidays and share with my family is well worth it.
When asked how to best serve the Christmas cake, Taylor told me that prior to serving it should be refrigerated; it slices best when cold. Once cut, allow it to come to room temperature and then consider serving alongside some cheese or charcuterie. Tea, or perhaps a glass of port or sherry, is a nice accompaniment. Parents, keep in mind that since the loaves are soaked with brandy after it is baked, there is alcohol present in the cake.
So as you consider where to splurge this holiday season, I welcome you to set your stereotypical vision of the holiday fruitcake aside. I did, and I will never make fun of it again.
The June Taylor Company and The Still-Room are located at 2207 Fourth St. (at Allston Way), BerkeleyNosh Weekly is a free weekly email that will keep you bang up-to-date on all the delicious food, drink and restaurant news in the East Bay. Sign up here.