A traditional English fruitcake is not what researchers in the Antarctic expected to find inside an explorer’s camp. Having survived over a century of
A traditional English fruitcake is not what researchers in the Antarctic expected to find inside an explorer’s camp. Having survived over a century of snow, ice and wind on what is regarded as one of the driest places on Earth, a team of modern explorers from New Zealand-based Antarctic Heritage Trust recently unearthed the fruitcake in a hut on Cape Adare that National Geographic describe as “Antarctica’s oldest building.”
This 100-year-old traditional English treat was protected from the harsh environment because its original packaging remained intact. Conservators at the Antarctic Heritage Trust said the Antarctic fruitcake was found in “excellent condition,” wrapped in paper inside a corroded tin. Made by the British Biscuit Company , this favorite Victorian desert looks and smells “almost edible” and it is thought that was left by British explorer Robert Falcon Scott during his 1910 to 1913 Terra Nova expedition.
Borchgrevink’s Hut at Cape Adare is located in an area that is home to over 400,000 Adeline Penguins. The hut is being conserved by the Antarctic Heritage Trust. The Antarctic fruitcake was just one of almost 1,500 artifacts collected at Cape Adare. ( Antarctic Heritage Trust )
Ancient Origins of the Fruitcake
It is known that the fateful Terra Nova expedition’s Northern Party had sheltered in the Cape Adare hut and a team of Antarctic conservators has been excavating artifacts there since 2016. Trust conservator Lizzie Meek told Smithsonian Magazine that the fruitcake was “a popular item in English society at the time.” However, what none of the articles covering this story have so far discussed are the deeply-ancient origins of the fruitcake itself.
In Robert Sietsema’s book 2002 book, A Short History of Fruitcake, an early recipe from ancient Rome lists “pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins that were mixed into barley mash.” It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that cooks added honey, spices, and preserved fruits to the mix. However, the history of this popular European desert is marred with religious struggle and strife. Mass production of the fruitcake was attacked by the Church of Rome when Pope Innocent VIII (1432–1492) forbade the use of butter during observance of fast. The pope eventually granted the use of butter in a historic document called the “Butter Letter” or Butterbrief written in 1490 AD. In this missive the most powerful man in the Western world permitted Saxony to use milk and butter in “the Stollen fruitcakes.”
The fruitcake has an interesting history. High in calories and carbs, it is now seen as a lifesaver for Type 1 diabetics. ( cdkproductions / Adobe Stock)
New World Fruitcake Developments
It wasn’t until the 16th century that English colonists in the Americas discovered that high concentrations of sugar acted as a preserve for fruits and enormous amounts of candied fruits were added to the traditional fruitcake mix. During the mid-19th century that the fruitcake we know and love today became the traditional wedding cake in middle and lower class England.
The fruitcake is so exceptionally high in quick release carbohydrates that as a Type 1 diabetic I never go hiking without a few squares in my pocket. If a diabetic´s blood-sugar level drops through excessive exercise, there is perhaps no quicker way to get sugar into the blood than sucking on fruitcake. The sugars enter the blood rapidly though the thin skin in the mouth, and this is precisely why the fruitcake was found in the Antarctic.
Discovered amongst a wide selection of artifacts at Cape Adare, the Arctic fruitcake was made by the British company Huntley & Palmers, whose tinned cakes were shipped around the world in the 1900s. They were considered “hardy” and were even shipped to soldiers during the war. (Antarctic Heritage Trust )
The Fruitcake That Never Was
In many ways high-level sportsmen and athletes suffer the same relentless need for sugar as Type-1 diabetics. Exploring Antarctica requires not only a high-fat, but also a high-sugar diet, and fruitcake is the king of cals and carbs. However, considering this fact, the discovery of the fruitcake inside the 50-foot-long Terra Nova hut begs the question of why it was found in the hut, uneaten.
Explorer Scott and his four-person team had reached the South Pole in 1912 but all five died on the return journey to the Terra Nova hut on Cape Evans. And they perished for the want of calories and carbs. Even a tiny bit of fruitcake might have saved them, if only it had been in Scotts pocket and not stashed in the hut. Chilling thought, isn’t it?
Clemson University historian Stephanie Barczewski spoke with National Geographic and explained that the Heritage Trust conservators have now restored what was “the largest Antarctic building of its time.” And after the hut and surrounding outbuildings were all restored, each of the artifacts, including the fruitcake, were returned to their original positions.
Image showing the members of the fated Terra Nova expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott. ( Public domain )
The Antarctic Headline That Stopped Time
“Antarctic Fruitcake” is a long way from what was perhaps the biggest south pole archaeology headline of all time. In 1998 Science Magazine published the sensational story, “4000-Year-Old Ancient Ruins Found in Antarctica.” The story reported on scientists in Argentina who “uncovered the remains of a massive stone structure and other artifacts, estimated to be 4000 years old, in a remote corner of Antarctica.” Hailed as the “first evidence of ancient civilization on the icy continent,” a chief scientific writer concluded that this was “the most important archaeological dig of the century.”
A professor from Wyoming State University first discovered remains of an ancient stone building that he described as measuring “roughly the size of Rome’s ancient amphitheater.” This story spun out of control and all over the world history folk chattered about the implications of this history changing discovery. Now, before you all race of and tweet out the link to this story, you should first know the name of the scientist who made this ground-breaking discovery.
The daring Professor Scott Amundsen not only discovered the “ancient Antarctic hunter-gatherers dwelling,” but he was at the center of a coincidence of immense improbability. Would you believe that the professors name was the same as the surnames of the two explorers who between December 1911 and January 1912 both ventured across the Antarctic? Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen.
At a cursory glance, this story today has a serious “wow-factor,” and from it we can learn the importance of reading all the way to the end of an article. When this story broke in 1997, it successfully raised as many smiles as eyebrows. The article was published in ScienceNOW on April 1 st as their annual April Fools’ Day science story.
Top image: Found amongst almost 1,500 artifacts conserved from a group of buildings at Cape Adare, this Antarctic fruitcake made by Huntley & Palmers was discovered wrapped in paper within the rusted remains of its original tin. It was probably left behind by Scott’s Terra Nova expedition. Source: Antarctic Heritage Trust
By Ashley Cowie