Elizabeth Bird’s poor digestive system also reacted adversely to yeast. Her indefatigable husband, Alfred Bird, he of egg-free custard fame, looked for a solution that would put bread and pastries back on the menu. He found that a mixture of a mild alkali in the form of bicarbonate of soda, and a mild acid, cream of tartar, combined with a filler to absorb moisture, such as cornflour, would, when moistened, produce carbon dioxide. The bubbles from the gas would cause the dough or cake mixture to expand and rise. Alfred had invented what we know as baking powder, an effective substitute for yeast.
His timing could not have been better. In upper class circles luncheon had been introduced in the 18th century to fill the lengthening gap between breakfast and dinner, which was usually served anywhere between seven o’clock and eight-thirty in the evening. Luncheon, though, was normally a light affair, leaving many to endure a long afternoon without any form of refreshment. Anna Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford and Queen Victoria’s Lady of the Bedchamber between 1837 and 1841, hit upon an innovation that revolutionised the social world from the 1840s, the taking of afternoon tea.
By four o’clock each afternoon, the Duchess started to feel peckish and would ask her servants to bring a pot of tea and some cakes to her chamber. Finding that this combination filled the gap admirably, she extended invitations to some of her social circle to her rooms at Belvoir Castle at five o’clock to take afternoon tea. On her return to London Anna continued the practice, sending printed cards to her friends inviting them to take tea and a walk with her.
So popular did this novel form of breaking the fast between luncheon and dinner become that other society hostesses soon followed suit. One of whom was Queen Victoria, who, notorious for her very sweet tooth, had, by 1855, made it into a formal occasion by insisting that her ladies wore formal attire. Her table groaned with delicacies, but pride of place was reserved for a light and airy, perfectly risen sponge that was only possible thanks to Alfred Bird’s baking powder. So enamoured was she with the cake that following Albert’s death in 1861 it was named the Victoria sponge in her honour.
Its adoption by the middle classes was assured by its inclusion in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), although to the consternation of many an aspiring hostess Isabella’s recipe in her first edition omitted any reference to eggs.
Alfred’s ingenuity knew no bounds. He developed a formula for jelly powder and an egg-substitute and in 1859 built a water barometer. He also produced a set of harmonised glass bowls boasting a range of over five octaves which, his funeral notice observed, “he played with much skill”. Although he did not patent his baking powder, allowing rivals to take a slice of the market and Henry Jones, a Bristol baker, to incorporate it in his self-raising flour, Alfred’s estate was worth around £9,000 when he died on December 15, 1878.
Next time you take a slice of Victoria sponge, spare a thought for Elizabeth Bird’s delicate digestive system and her husband’s ingenuity.
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