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Italian wedding cakes : a vital ingredient of ancient Roman weddings

Italian wedding cake

Wedding cake traditions have always been an important part of Italian food culture.

We look at Italian wedding cakes in ancient culture and how they influence weddings today.

Wedding cake traditions in Italy today puts the cake in pride of place at any wedding. It's referred to as "la regina della festa" - "Queen of the celebrations". 

Statistically it's said to be the most photographed thing at any wedding - after the happy couple, naturally.

And that position in pride of place at the ceremony began in ancient Rome.

Ancient Italian food culture  : where the wedding cake started.

We know from the writings of ancient poets like Lucretius that the cake linked the two parts of ancient Roman weddings : the marriage ceremony itself and the feast which followed.

But the original Italian wedding cakes couldn't have been more different to the designs we see today.

Ancient Roman wedding cake making
Woman kneads bread : Pompeii, 1C A.D.

The Roman words for 'cake' and 'bread' were the same, and the earliest 'cakes' eaten at ancient Roman weddings were more like what we would think of as bread.

And because ancient Roman culture was hot on symbolism, the cake was made of wheat - the food of fertility.

Originally, loaves would be brought by the guests and given to the bride and groom as a gift, wishing them life and many children.

One loaf was used at the ancient Roman marriage ceremony itself, when the bride and groom 'broke bread' as a couple for the first time, offering some to the gods and feeding each other the rest.

The crumbs from their loaf represented good luck to anyone who ate them, and so were always fought over by the guests. 

And that's the origin of the modern day Italian tradition which has couples cutting the cake together ('breaking the bread'), feeding a forkful to each other, and giving the remainder to their guests - who no longer have to fight to get the remains!

Ancient Italian wedding cakes  :  how they developed.

As time went on, people got a bit tired of plain bread and began to sweeten it with raisins and sweet red wine, and added pine nuts and pomegranate seeds which symbolised fertility.

So the texture was now much closer to the fruit cake we know today.

Ancient Roman weddings  : the icing on the cake.

Italian wedding cake

Although wedding cakes were introduced to Britain and the rest of Roman Empire by Julius Caesar, it wasn't until the 18th Century that icing was added to that basic fruit mixture, by a Frenchman visiting England.

And that gave us the iced wedding cake traditions which are now the classic finish of the standard wedding cake especially common in America and the UK - although still not as common in Italian food culture.

Wedding cake tradition in modern Italy.

Wedding cakes are now a major industry throughout the developed world.  But even now, there is a big difference between Italian wedding cake and cakes in other countries.

Whereas the latter have grown ever more elaborate and showy, Italian food culture has meant that the wedding cakes of Italy remain true to their ancient Roman origins : simple, unfussy and keeping the original loaf-like shape - round, almost flat and of one tier only.

Its one adaptation has been the addition of the finest sweet ingredients, 'millefoglie' (puff pastry) topped with 'crème pâtissière' and fruit being an ever popular option.

Italian wedding cake Chocolate wedding cake
Our Italian wedding cake : a delicious 'millefoglie' Our UK cake : a fantasy in chocolate designed and made by Jane Edward at
'Cakes by Jane'.

How to make ancient wedding cake culture fit with your own wedding cake.

Keep your cake simple and unfussy. Many Italian wedding cakes are still a single tier of 'millefoglie' (puff pastry) filled with cream and topped with fresh fruit - delicious.

Serve wedding cake as a sweet at your reception. Although other cultures generally serve a sweet as well, Italian wedding cake is the star attraction and almost always used as a course on its own.

Make sure the bride and groom share the first slice, and feed it to each other. This creates a great photo opportunity as well.

If you want to go with the symbolism of ancient Rome, have nuts included in your wedding cake recipe to symbolise health and fertility.

Ancient Roman weddings : the rest of the traditions

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