Antarctic fruitcake 'almost edible' after 106 years

A photo of the fruitcake from the Antarctic Heritage Trust. The dessert, found wrapped in paper and in its original "tin-plated iron alloy tin" container, was made by the British biscuit company Huntley & Palmers.
A photo of the fruitcake from the Antarctic Heritage Trust. The dessert, found wrapped in paper and in its original "tin-plated iron alloy tin" container, was made by the British biscuit company Huntley & Palmers.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Cake among artefacts found in South Pole's oldest building

Consider the fruitcake.

Long maligned for its questionable taste, its ubiquity (stubbornly appearing at any or every celebratory event) and its toughness (the fridge gives it life), the dessert may have further cemented itself in food lore after a discovery in Antarctica.

In one of the most hostile regions known to humankind, conservationists unearthed an ice-covered fruitcake they believe once belonged to British explorer Robert Falcon Scott, the New Zealand-based Antarctic Heritage Trust said .

The age of the fruitcake: 106 years old. A conservation manager said it was in "excellent condition". And the trust said it smelled "almost" edible.

The cake, dating to the Cape Adare-based Northern Party of Scott's Terra Nova expedition (1910 to 1913), was found in Antarctica's oldest building, which was constructed by a Norwegian explorer's team in 1899 and used by Scott's team in 1911, the trust said.

The dessert, found wrapped in paper and in its original "tin-plated iron alloy tin" container, was made by the British biscuit company Huntley & Palmers. It boasts that its "biscuits were exported all over the world and their tins have turned up in the most unexpected places". There is documentation showing that Scott took this brand of cake with him on his explorations, said the trust, a non-profit organisation that is in the business of "inspiring explorers".

Ms Lizzie Meek, programme manager for artefacts at the trust, said in a statement that the cake was surprisingly well preserved.

"There was a very, very slight rancid butter smell to it, but other than that, the cake looked and smelled edible," she said. "There is no doubt the extreme cold in Antarctica has assisted its preservation."

The cake was among about 1,500 artefacts collected from two huts by a team of conservationists that had been working at the site since May last year. "Finding such a perfectly preserved fruitcake among them was quite a surprise," Ms Meek said.

But why did the explorers haul a fruitcake to the South Pole?

"It's an ideal high-energy food for Antarctic conditions," she said, "and is still a favourite item on modern-day trips to the ice".

PRESERVED BY THE COLD

There was a very, very slight rancid butter smell to it, but other than that, the cake looked and smelled edible.

MS LIZZIE MEEK, programme manager for artefacts at the Antarctic Heritage Trust, on the cake dating back to a 1910-1913 trip.

She explained to National Geographic: "Fruitcake was a popular item in English society at the time, and it remains popular today. Living and working in Antarctica tends to lead to a craving for high-fat, high-sugar food, and fruitcake fits the bill nicely, not to mention going very well with a cup of tea."

The team finished part of the conservation project in July, the trust said. Some of the other artefacts found: tools, clothing and what Ms Meek described as "badly deteriorated" meat and fish and "rather nice-looking" jams.

All the artefacts were flown to Christchurch, New Zealand, where they were conserved at a lab at the Canterbury Museum.

The next phase will be conservation work on the buildings at Cape Adare, the first in Antarctica and the only examples left of humanity's first building on any continent, the trust says.

Everything found will be returned to its original resting place, in accordance with the site's status as an Antarctic Specially Protected Area.

An e-mailed statement from the trust said: "Because the cake was one of nearly 1,500 artefacts removed from Antarctica's first building, there are very strict rules around its handling, and it is now being stored carefully before it is returned to the hut (once the building is restored)." The recipe for preserving the fruitcake's container, according to the trust, involves rust removal, chemical stabilisation, coating of the tin remnants, deacidification of the tin label and repairing of the paper wrapper and tin label.

The cake itself? Untouched.

While some believe that fruitcake is forever, Scott's second trip to the South Pole was ill-fated. He and his companions made the arduous trek to the bottom, only to find that a Norwegian team had beaten them to it by 33 days. On their way back to base in 1912, trekking through severe weather and struck by frostbite, starvation and exposure, the British explorers perished.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2017, with the headline 'Antarctic fruitcake 'almost edible' after 106 years'. Print Edition | Subscribe