The mighty Jaffa Cake

First introduced by McVitie and Price in 1927, the Jaffa cake is nominally 54 mm in diameter and consists of a layer of sponge, then orange jelly, topped with plain chocolate. A beautiful marriage of three components into the very apotheosis of snack confectionery.

I don’t plan to become embroiled in the ‘is-it-a-biscuit-or-a-cake’ debate so let’s put that one to bed immediately. It’s simple really. Ask yourself this question: what happens to a biscuit when left out for a few days? Now what happens to a cake under the same unfortunate circumstances? And the final part of this baking invigilation – what happens to the Jaffa cake?

If you have answered those questions honestly you are led to a single inescapable conclusion. Biscuits become soggy, cakes dry out. And what does the Jaffa cake do? That’s right, it dries out. It is therefore a cake not a biscuit. Point proven. We’ll hear no more.

In any case there is a clue in the name.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the Jaffa cake is legally a cake not a biscuit. In 1991 a VAT tribunal ruled that it was a cake, vindicating McVities’s submission. Lest you think this to be frivolous legislation, be aware that biscuits and cakes are taxed differently in the UK. It was a matter of some financial import that the Jaffa cake be assigned correctly and could finally come out of the closet as a cake after years of living a lie.

Experts were called and duly gave evidence. McVities submitted that the product’s texture was that of a cake. The Crown countered that the Jaffa cake was the size of a biscuit and therefore conceptually one. McVities drew attention to the name of the product. Unbowed, the Crown contended that Jaffa cakes were typically sold alongside biscuits not among the cakes. McVities fought back, arguing that the product’s major constituent was sponge not biscuit. The Crown responded that they were eaten with fingers like a biscuit. A long and bloody legal tussle, taking the machinations of a fine legal mind in Mr Donald Potter QC to finally adjudicate in favour of McVities and their cake case and make his ruling accordingly.

The biscuit movement was trounced, sent packing to lick their wounds. Don’t get me wrong – biscuits are part of the cultural heritage of the UK. Who would wish to be without such delights as the jammy dodger, the chocolate hobnob, the ginger nut, even – dare I say it – the mighty custard cream. Fine products all, proud flagbearers of the biscuit tradition. One might even, to placate our colonial cousins, grudgingly concede a place to the Oreo cookie in the biscuit pantheon. All of which cookie controversy, bakery ballyhoo and general stuff and nonsense is irrelevant here. Because the Jaffa cake is a cake.

And a prize-winning cake at that. In 2012 the Jaffa cake was top of the pile, winner of that most coveted of crowns the “bestselling cake or biscuit in the UK”. As a long-term advocate of the little orangey blighters, it was like watching your own child’s graduation and acknowledging, with expanding midriff, one’s own role in that retail triumph.

The nation loves Jaffa cakes. In fact the scale of manufacture is breathtaking. A production line 1.6 km in length (that’s a mile to us old traditionalists) winds its way through a factory covering an acre round-the-clock to satisfy the country’s sweet tooth.

For such a magnificent exemplar of the baker’s art, it is astonishing that McVities never registered “Jaffa cakes” as a trademark. Leaving aside what must have been a serious financial miscalculation, one cannot ignore the extent to which cheaper supermarket imitations have besmirched this noble brand. Waitrose Jaffa cakes are one thing but can you imagine the Jaffa cake in the hands of Aldi? It’s like passing the port to the right at a regimental dinner. You just don’t do it.

I am ambivalent about Jaffa cake variants. On the one hand I’m a traditionalist but at the same time I like to reward endeavour. We should probably gloss over whether something flavoured with a fruit other than orange can truly bring honour to a product with the word Jaffa in its name. Nonetheless, the above nominal infelicities notwithstanding, McVities make limited editions from time to time with pineapple, lemon and lime, strawberry and blackcurrant flavours. I have seen generic Jaffa cakes with raspberry filling and even black cherry versions finished with white chocolate. This year McVities have even released passionfruit Jaffa cakes! The company seems determined to span the globe of flavours. Let’s hope they stop short of durian.

But of course it all bears witness to the enduring love affair between the British public and this ‘grand dame’ of teatime. To paraphrase Harold Macmillan, we’ve never had it so good. We live in a Jaffa cake golden age.