Holiday Food Words: Dundee Cake, Not Just Any Fruitcake


Yesterday we kicked off a mini-series on some of our favorite holiday food words. While we started with the well-known clementine, today we’re examining a lesser known edible tradition, at least to those of us on this side of the Atlantic: the Scottish Dundee cake.

The Dundee cake, a rich cake made with raisins, currants, sultanas, and sliced almonds, is named for Dundee, Scotland, its place of origin. The earliest citation the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has for Dundee cake is 1892 although the BBC says an early version of the recipe can be traced back “a kitchen in Dundee in the 1700s.” It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the cake began to be mass produced, namely by the company, James Keiller & Son.

Prior to the Dundee cake, James Keiller & Son was famous for its Keiller’s marmalade, named for its supposed creator, Janet Keiller, James’s wife. Legend says that James bought a large shipment of oranges, which after being held up became “less fresh.” Rather than let the oranges go to waste, enterprising Janet turned them into marmalade. (The word marmalade, by the way, is French in origin and ultimately comes from the Greek melimēlon, “honey apple.”)

But the real story, as real stories often are, is less interesting: the Keillers simply “adapted an existing recipe [for marmalade] for manufacture, by adding the characteristic rind suspended in the preserve.”


Keiller’s marmalade is also known as Dundee marmalade, which the company trademarked in 1880, according to the OED.

As for the Dundee cake, Scotland recently launched an official bid to obtain European protected status for the hearty sweet. Food and drink under such a status are protected from “the unfair competition and misleading of consumers by non-genuine products, which may be of inferior quality or of different flavour.” In other words, products that have originated from a particular region — such as Gorgonzola cheese or Champagne  — “can only be labelled as such” if they actually come from that region.

A Scottish baker said that Dundee cake “has become so far removed from its roots that it has almost become a catch all term for any fruit cake with peel and almonds in it.”

Other Scottish foods that already have protected status are the Scotch Beef brand and Stornoway black pudding, which has been called “the best sausage made in the UK.”

[Photo via Flickr, “Dundee cake (icing),” CC BY 2.0 by Lucy Downey]
[Photo via Flickr, “Marmalade Jar,” CC BY 2.0 by Smabs Sputzer]