Passion for spice cake since more than 150 years
Where and when spice cake really originated remains a bit of a mystery, but we do know for sure that the Egyptians, the Ancient Greeks and the Romans ate their version of it. So spice cake has been a regular part of our diet for thousands of years.
Egypt – Greece – the Romans
The first known sources about spice cake can be found in Ancient Egypt where a cake was made from cereals, spices and honey.
For the Greeks, honey cake was so important that they sacrificed it every year to please the gods.
The Romans gladly took over that traditional sweet cake and refined the recipe with some pepper and dried fruits. Afterwards the cake disappeared from European cuisine for a while and then came back to the table in medieval monasteries.
After the cake disappeared from the menu during the early Middle Ages, the European crusaders came in contact with the delicious honey cake on their expeditions to Jerusalem. Once back in Europe, it was the monasteries that started making the cake. Monasteries kept bees and cultivated grain. Thanks to new spices from the East, they had all the ingredients to bake the honey cake themselves.
One of those new – and most valuable – ingredients was pepper. Thanks to the addition of these specific spices, the cake was given the name ‘peperkoek’, as we know it in Belgium today.
The pepper made the cake into an exclusive and coveted product, making it very popular as a gift among dignitaries.
In the mighty Mongolian empire of Genghis Khan that stretched from the Danube to China in the early 13th century, a nutritious cake with honey and herbs was a regular part of the soldier’s ration. In ancient China, it was called Mi-kong. The honey cake provided the necessary energy for the warriors who often traveled for a very long time.
Return to Europe
From the 13th century on the spice cake had become a very popular delicacy in Flanders. Baking this special cake then becomes a craft in various Flemish cities. Especially Ghent was known for its spice cake that was topped with candied orange zest and almonds. From Ghent, the belgian spice cake trade flourished with England, where only regular gingerbread with candy syrup existed.
Guilds arose that were recognized as being allowed to bake spice cake according to predetermined recipes and shapes. The occupation of spice cake baker was officially established in Antwerp. Traditions spread throughout the country to give spice cake as a gift, with drinks or to believers after Easter. Since then, our spice cake has been ever-present in Flanders.
Through Flanders, the spice cake also became popular in other European countries. Filips III, for example, brought his own spice cake baker to France after his stay in Flanders. The delicacy became so popular that in the 16th century a very unique Foire du pains d’épices arized in Paris. Reims and Dijon (where the cake was discovered by accident by adding honey instead of butter to a recipe) also became important centers for the production of the spice cake.
In the Netherlands we see the cake appearing in Utrecht in early 16th century. From then on mainly cities in the north of the Netherlands started producing spice cake. Even today, the cake is still very popular as ‘ontbijtkoek‘. This spice cake was originally sold to people when they left church on Sundays, but then traditions arose whereby young men chopped tough spice cake in in half over the length of the cake in 3 strikes or less with an axe . This was fittingly called cake chopping (koekhakken), a tradition that came to Flanders afterwards.
Spice cake today
Until the Second World War, Flanders had around 140 traditional spice cake bakeries. However, the production process is so labor-intensive that small producers disappeared and production became more concentrated in cities such as Ghent, Sint-Niklaas and Mechelen in Flanders and Verviers and Dinant in Wallonia.
Due to centralized distribution, upscaling purchase and the demand for a larger production capacity, only a few producers were able to survive. Today there are only two producers in Flanders who process our traditional Belgian spice cake. Vondelmolen is by far the largest of the two and the only one recognized as a Belgian regional product.
Our mission is to continue to develop the age-old tradition of spice cake bakeries to the most modern standards. Thanks to Vondelmolen, we can continue to enjoy our delicious and nutritious belgian spice cake.