Eating Robert Falcon Scott’s 107-year-old fruitcake probably won’t kill you
The question of how long you need to give someone before you take their leftover food is a controversial one. Leave it too long and the waiter will get there first. Take it too quickly and you’re not a benign helper but a common or garden thief. Still, I think we can agree that fruitcake left untouched for 107 years is pretty much fair game, should you feel so inclined.
Surprisingly, it likely wouldn’t do you much damage to eat it either. The sweet treat was discovered wrapped in paper and enclosed in the remainder of a tin box by the Antarctic Heritage Trust in the region’s oldest building: a hut on Cape Adare. It is described as in “excellent condition”, and it apparently looks and smells “almost edible”. That “almost” is too much of a qualifier for me, but you go right ahead if you’re feeling peckish.
But how did a cake from the Huntley & Palmers biscuit company in Reading take a 10,000-mile-plus trip to a small hut in Antarctica anyway? The group reckons it most likely came along in the supplies of Robert Falcon Scott’s crew during the 1910-1913 Terra Nova expedition. While Scott didn’t personally stop at Cape Adare, some of his crew did, leading researchers to make the link.
“With just two weeks to go on the conservation of the Cape Adare artefacts, finding such a perfectly preserved fruitcake in amongst the last handful of unidentified and severely corroded tins was quite a surprise,” said the Antarctic Heritage Trust’s programme manager of artefacts, Lizzie Meek. “It’s an ideal high-energy food for Antarctic conditions, and is still a favourite item on modern trips to the Ice.”
To ensure the cake was ready to join the Trust’s collection of almost 1,500 artefacts collected from Cape Adare, some restorations were made to the packaging. The tin underwent a process of rust removal, chemical stabilisation and coating, while the paper was fixed up where it was torn, too. The cake, however, needed no alterations at all.
Or so they say. I remember the episode of Seinfeld where Elaine eats a 61-year-old slice of wedding cake from Edward VIII’s marriage to Wallis Simpson by mistake, and replaces it with a fake.
But while Scott’s cake is considerably older, it doesn’t look like it would be half as damaging to eat were someone to make a similar sitcom-style mistake (“I have a feeling what you are about to go through is punishment enough,” Elaine’s boss says at the end of the episode). That’s the advantages of the hostile temperatures of the Antarctic. Not so great for British explorers – Scott’s team all perished shortly after missing out on being the first to reach the South Pole by Roald Amundsen – but great for keeping delicious fruitcake (almost) edible for over a century.
Images: Arctic Heritage Trust