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In praise of cake

Trevor Ward
4 Oct 2019

The perfect blend of sugar, fat and sprinkles, cake is an integral part of the whole cycling experience. From issue 92 of Cyclist

Cycling is wonderful for introducing you to new places, people and experiences, although often not in quite the way you imagined.

During a cycling tour of France in the 1980s, my girlfriend and I followed signs for a campsite down a twisting cart track to the forested banks of a crystal-clear river, only realising too late that Camping Naturisme had a significantly different meaning – and scenery – to what we’d expected.

More recently, after watching the Tour de France pass over the summit of the Tourmalet, my wife and I started the long trudge back down to our hotel when we were offered a lift by the glamorous occupants of a luxury motorhome. We gratefully accepted, only to find ourselves stuck in a traffic jam all the way to St Marie de Campan with a pair of middle-aged swingers.

And earlier this year I found myself in a posh Italian restaurant having an intense discussion with a Michelin-starred chef about Pinarellos, power meters and 14th century recipes for cooking swan.

I had just polished off the final dish of a seven-course meal that had been a joint project between the resident chef at the La Perla Hotel in Corvara and guest gourmet Ashley Palmer-Watts, executive head chef at Heston Blumenthal’s London and Melbourne restaurants and an avid cyclist who was due to take part in that weekend’s Maratona del Dolomites.

Palmer-Watts’s contribution to the menu had been three dishes from the British gastronomic archives, including Earl Grey Tea Cured Salmon from 1730 and Meat Fruit, a mandarin and chicken liver concoction served on chargrilled bread that dated back to the 1500s.

But the highlight for me was his medieval dessert – a goat’s milk cheesecake with apple, elderflower, pickled blackberries and smoked candied walnuts, called a Sambocade (from the Latin word for elderflower). One of Richard II’s favourite dishes, the original 1390 recipe concludes with the instruction: ‘Messe it forth’.

‘We got the recipe from a food historian,’ said Palmer-Watts. ‘Heston met him at a symposium on children’s eating habits during the Ming Dynasty, so it was pretty niche.

‘He had a book of gory recipes, including stuff like chaining a cockerel to a pole so that it would walk around it and choke itself to death, or plucking birds and lulling them to sleep by basting them in molasses. By the way, have you done the Maratona before? How hard is the Giau?’

Pedalling wares

Cycling and cake were made for each other. Cake is not only a quick and enjoyable way of addressing a calorie deficit and providing an instant hit of energy, its many and varied shapes and sizes can have a major psychological boost to a flagging body and mind.

A piece of chocolate fudge cake or Black Forest gateau is real, solid food. Just the sight of it sitting on a plate in a chilled cabinet as you queue up for your mug of tea (other, less manly, hot beverages are available) is enough to warm even the coldest heart and unlock previously untapped reserves of stamina.

Once purchased, it is something to be savoured and cherished more than the data on your Garmin, each explosion of flavour on your tongue the sensory equivalent of a Strava KoM.

A sachet of gel just doesn’t have the same effect.

Yes, a slice of cake is just a lump of sugar and fat with no nutritional value at all, and even its energy value will be worthless if you don’t get back on your bike before your body starts storing the sugar as fat (about 15 minutes). But cakes aren’t all bad.

The classic cake stop is a major incentive to getting out and riding your bike if the weather or your mood are not conducive to relishing the challenge of the ride itself. And some cakes are better than others. Anything containing dates, nuts and oats can almost qualify as ‘nutritional’.

For chef Palmer-Watts, who used to work with physicists and psychologists when developing dishes including bacon and egg-flavoured ice cream at Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant, his cake of choice depends on the season.

Once I’d convinced him the Giau would be manageable if he paced himself over the five mountain passes that preceded it, he waxed lyrical about the sweet stuff.

‘In the winter months while out on the bike, my cake of choice would be a rich fruitcake, or a really good carrot cake as long as it comes with a good dose of butter cream on the top,’ he says.

Tellingly for a chef who once worked in a kitchen where menu development was taken so seriously that 32 different methods of cooking chips were experimented with, Palmer-Watts has embraced cycling as an escape mechanism.

‘Cycling gives you the perfect opportunity to get some headspace and really concentrate on one thing at a time. It also makes you feel great after putting some effort in,’ he says. ‘I think that when you have been working hard on a ride, cake is the ultimate reward.

‘As a cyclist you try not to eat cakes and sugary biscuits if you’re not riding, as you know it’s not going to help in the long run. But during or after your ride, you’ve earned it. Working for food really amplifies the enjoyment of it.’

There is no redemptive punchline to this story. From Richard II’s Sambocade to Marie Antoinette’s admonition to her starving subjects, cake has been part of history, yet offers little in the way of health benefits.

But as a reward for hard efforts or an incentive on a rainy day, there are few things more welcoming for a cyclist than a large, moist slice of calorie-laden confectionery.

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