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A history of the Kendal Mint Cake, the original energy bar

BY Ian Packham

12th Mar 2024 Food Heroes

3 min read

A history of the Kendal Mint Cake, the original energy bar
Since a happy accident in a Lake District kitchen, the bizarre Kendal Mint Cake has travelled to the far reaches of Antarctica and the very tops of mountains
For possibly the strangest cake recipe around, one which continues to befuddle those across the pond in the US, you need go no further than the beautiful but energy-sapping landscapes of Britain’s Lake District.
Amid its rocky fells, multitudinous steep crags, famed waters of lakes like Windermere and stunning valleys, a small family firm called Romney’s have been producing the confection known as Kendal Mint Cake for more than a century.
The exact method of production Romney’s uses may remain tantalisingly out of reach for anyone outside the immediate family, but it’s certain you won’t need any eggs, margarine or flour.
So far, so un-cake-like. In fact, the only similarities with a standard cake mix is the need for sugar.
The confusion probably arises from the alternative definition of cake as "a thick or sticky substance which sets hard." It’s one usually reserved today for phrases such as "caked in mud."
However, various recipes for such cakes appear in cookbooks from the north of England right through the 1800s.
These recipes were largely meant for medicinal purposes as the peppermint oil flavouring was thought to relieve stomach complaints and was most easily consumed dissolved in sugar.

Feeding Antarctica explorers

ernest shackleton at camp in antarctica
The texture of Kendal Mint Cake is much closer in likeness to a boiled sweet or hard candy than any kind of sponge for one very simple reason. When Joseph Wiper created his first batch in 1869, he had been intending to mix up a batch of clear glacier mints.
Exactly what went wrong will never be known. However the world’s climbers and adventurers, myself included, are undoubtedly pleased by the invention of what’s sometimes called "the original energy bar."
It's doubtful any other confection can be said to have played such an important role in world history, creating a thread which links the First World War, expeditions to the Antarctic and Everest, and twenty-first century celebrity culture.
"It made it onto the kit list of Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctica Expedition"
Even before Wiper’s recipe was bought up by the founder of Romney’s, Samuel Clark, Kendal Mint Cake was an expedition staple. It made it onto the kit list of Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctica Expedition of 1914-17 thanks to its stability at extremes—it neither melts at high temperatures nor freezes at low ones.
Already a celebrated name in exploration by this date, and a knight of the realm to boot, Sir Ernest’s final Antarctic expedition intended to cross the continent from north to south.
Instead, it would become an epic boys’ own adventure of survival featuring six months trapped in the ice, abandoning ship, and a 346-mile sea voyage in open lifeboats.

Fuel for Mount Everest

Shortly after, and just as the First World War was coming to an end, Clark was medically discharged from the army and set up Romney’s. He named it after the street he lived on in the Lakeland market town of Kendal.
Jump forward a generation to 1953, and Kendal Mint Cake sat at the height of exploration—literally—for a second time. More than 17kg were donated to the high-altitude rations of Edmund Hillary’s successful first summiting of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak.
"It was easily the most popular item in our high altitude ration packs"
Producing such an amount required the company to obtain special permission from the then Ministry of Food, since sugar remained a rationed foodstuff until that year.
Hillary’s only complaint was that he couldn’t take as much as he desired to nibble on the highest point on the Earth’s surface, a common refrain within the expedition team.
"It was easily the most popular item in our high altitude ration packs—our only criticism is that we did not have enough of it" wrote one.

A modern classic

Many Keeping Up with the Kardashians fans would say the same about Kendall Jenner. Once again Romney’s came to the rescue, changing their wrapper images for the first time in 98 years in a tie-up packet of "Kendall Mint Cake" celebrating the model and reality TV star’s twenty-first birthday in 2016.
Featuring Jenner, alongside Cara Delevingne, Gigi Hadid, Hailey Baldwin, and sister Kylie, the redesign was limited to just 200 85 g packets—a small proportion of the 100 tonnes produced every year.
If the packaging hasn’t changed in close to 100 years, neither have the ingredients nor the methods of production.
Batches of brown or white sugar, peppermint oil, water and glucose (which aids crystallisation) continue to be heated and stirred by hand in the sort of copper pots you’d expect from the kitchens of Downton Abbey. They’re then ladled into moulds.
It’s here, during cooling, that the magical "graining" process takes place, resulting in the hard opaque slabs which make Kendal Mint Cake a trustworthy addition to any expedition kit bag even today.
Banner credit: , CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr
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