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Is the Jaffa – cake or a biscuit?

There's plenty of debate around this topic but what's the big obsession all about? Jaffa – cake or biscuit, David Edmonds finds out.

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22nd Feb 2017

There's plenty of debate around this topic but what's the big obsession all about?


This is a truly a delicious little treat made up of a small sponge with a chocolate topping covering a layer of orange jelly. It is arguably Britain's greatest invention after the steam engine and the light bulb. But is a Jaffa Cake actually a biscuit, asks David Edmonds. This question reheats a confectionery conundrum first raised in 1991. A tax is charged on chocolate-covered biscuits, but not on cakes. The manufacturer, McVities, had always categorised them as cakes and to boost their revenue the tax authorities wanted them recategorised as biscuits. A legal case was fought in front of a brilliant adjudicator, Mr D C Potter. For McVities, this produced a sweet result. The Jaffa Cake has qualities that can be attributed to both cakes and biscuits, but Mr Potter's verdict was that, on balance, a Jaffa Cake is a cake. He examined many possible criteria. One of the obvious ones was the name – they are, in fact, called Jaffa Cakes, not Jaffa Biscuits. He decided this was trivial, though he noted that Jaffa Cakes are more biscuit than cake in several ways. They are packaged like biscuits, and they are marketed like biscuits: they are mostly found in the biscuit aisle in shops. However, they have fundamental cake-like elements. For example, they have ingredients of a traditional sponge cake: eggs, flour and sugar. And when Jaffa Cakes go stale they become hard, unlike biscuits, which become soft. Is size an important issue to consider? Jaffa Cakes are more biscuit like in their shape than cake-sized. In addition, cakes are often eaten with a fork, while biscuits tend to picked up and eaten by hand. To test the significance of size, Edmonds asked the winner of The Great British Bake Off 2013, Frances Quinn, to bake the biggest Jaffa Cake the world has ever set eyes on - the size of a flying saucer, at 124cm in diameter, weighing in at 50kg, and containing 120 eggs and 30 litres of jelly. Tim Crane, Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University, does not believe that this super sized Jaffa Cake is any more cake-like than its normal-sized Jaffa Cake sibling. "These days you see all sorts of tiny cakes for sale, some of them much smaller than Jaffa Cakes," he says. "And there's nothing incoherent about a giant biscuit." 20th Century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, is never recorded eating  a Jaffa Cake, though there is proof that he enjoyed a sweet bun. But here his ideas are relevant to the Jaffa Cake conundrum. Often we can be drawn into thinking that every concept must have a strict definition to be useable. But Wittgenstein identified that there are many "family-resemblance" concepts, as he called them. Family members can look alike without sharing a single characteristic. Some might have distinctive cheek bones, others a prominent nose, etc. In a similar way, some concepts can work with overlapping similarities. For example, take the word "game". Some games involve the use of a ball, others don't. Some involve teams, some don't. Some are competitive, some are not. There is no characteristic that all games have in common. And there is no strict definition of "cake" or "biscuit" that means that we have to place the Jaffa Cake under either category. "Definitely cake," says Tim Crane, echoing the judgement of Mr Potter.  A Jaffa Cake, in its essence, is more cake-like than biscuit like. Its cake features are initally more obvious and recognisable than its biscuit features. And with that sorted, the Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy shrinks the world's largest Jaffa Cake by taking a giant bite. This story first appeared on BBC    

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