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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Friday, February 16, 2007
    Snowdonia: an Eccles cake epiphany
     
    I left this in the visitors book in the Snowdona cottage where I've been staying all week:

    We each have our favourite confectionery. Mine is the Eccles Cake. Don't ask why. As a child I resisted currants when they were presented to me in school puddings (Spotted Dick, yeuch) or dotted around modestly in Mum's sponges. But lash them together uncompromisingly inside Mince Pies or Eccles, I'd be there for seconds, thirds. Sticky pastries I would also spurn, and to this day I feel that the discomfort of messing about with fickle Danish Pastries far outweighs any pleasure. But place before me a solid stodgy sticky-topped Eccles and I will not resist.

    Eccles Cakes fill, sweeten, and energise the eater in a fuss-free Lancastrian way. I guess I really began appreciating them as a football fan, for Eccles Cakes were on the canteen menu at Goodison Park for many many years and they made a tasty half-time treat, warmed-up on request by the girl working the oven, accompanied by a hot cup of tea. Compared to the more popular 'meat' pies and Bovril, mine was the sweet option, but to my mind a little sweetness was welcome on bitter winters days when the fare served up to us on the pitch had been unremittingly chilling.

    In my youth I also discovered that Eccles Cakes are good for hill-walking too, providing they are packed in such a way as to remain uncrushed, for a broken Eccles in the hand is worth only leaving in the bush for the birds to peck. As energising as Kendal Mint Cake but tastier and far more filling too.

    But that was in my youth. In adulthood the crisis of my life has been epitomised in The Search for the Perfect Eccles Cake. For something went wrong with Eccles, somewhere along the line. One day travelling through Salford I was shaken to discover a factory unit bearing the unmistakable signage of the classic Eccles Cake company. Something shocking to realise that Eccles Cakes were not, after all (or any longer), made in Eccles. And since that time I've become convinced that these displaced manufacturers are making their product smaller, or increasing the amount of stodgy pastry in them so as to cut back on currants.

    Worse, one symptom of Everton (like every other Premiership club) taking the corporate dollar (or in our case, Yen) was the displacement of Eccles on the half-time menu by tasteless and massively expensive hot dogs. And they're not always there when you need them, so at times, stocking up for hill walks in Snowdonian Spar shops or Lakeland Lidls, I've been reduced to purchasing Chorley Cakes instead, which are like Eccles, but flattened, with all the goodness squeezed out. My adult life has been a Search for the Perfect Eccles Cake and so far it has failed.

    But this week, to my great and joyous surprise, the search was suddenly fulfilled. Llanberis is of course a famed site for hearty indulgence, Pete's Eats having for decades refuelled thousands of us with pint mugs of tea (refilled) and massive plates of steaming hot meals, having stepped down off the Mountain (or driven over from Caernarfon). So it seems appropriate that if my Eccles Cake Epiphany should come anywhere it should come in Llanberis. Which it did, on Wednesday, when in the Llanberis Spar shop I happened on a package named Siwgir a Sbeis (you don't need Welsh lessons to work out what that means) and inside it, four of the largest Eccles Cakes I've ever seen. When I picked up the package the sheer weight surprised me too - either these cakes are densely packed with stodgy pastry or, as I suspected and was later delighted to find, they contained massively generous amounts of currants: beautiful, sweet, perfect - and very, very big. A meal in one.

    I have, in intervening years, come to terms with the original Eccles Cake company having moved across Greater Manchester to continue their trade; so I was well-prepared to celebrate the welcome presence on the market of Siwgir a Sbeis, who are a Llanwrst company run by two 'food loving, Welsh speaking mums (both called Rhian!)' whose staff (working family friendly hours and close to home) use their own and everybody else's grandmothers' recipes, and the best ingredients, to produce the treats which I guess are selling very well in the towns around here. Thank you, Rhians, and thank your grans. For my crisis is over, I know that the perfect Eccles Cakes can be found, and that, like so much else of rare wonder and grace, they are to be found in these high hills. I shall be returning for many more.