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Jamaica ginger cake and Cumbrian rum butter

14 March 2014 ( 10 November 2020 )

In her book A Slice of Britain: Around the Country by Cake, author Caroline Taggart unearths the story behind Cumbrian rum butter, and its ideal accompaniment, the golden syrup and ginger sponge Jamaica cake.

Rum butter smeared on ginger loaf
Rum butter can be used as an icing or smeared onto slices of Jamaica ginger loaf

Cooking time

1 hour


For the loaf

  • 115g self-raising flour
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 30g cocoa powder
  • 115g semolina
  • 150ml milk
  • 150g margarine
  • 115g dark Muscovado sugar
  • 1 good tbsp golden syrup
  • 2 tsp coffee essence
  • 1 tsp vanilla essence
  • 1 medium egg, beaten

For the rum butter

  • 85g soft brown sugar
  • 40g unsalted butter
  • 2 tsp rum


Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4. Grease and line a 900g loaf tin.

Sift the flour, ginger and cocoa together into a large bowl, then stir in the semolina.

Warm the milk until it is just tepid (don’t let it boil), then add the margarine, sugar, syrup and coffee and vanilla essences. Continue to heat very gently, stirring, until everything has melted and is well combined. Pour on to the flour mixture, along with the beaten egg. Mix well and turn into the prepared loaf tin.

Bake in the preheated oven for 1 hour. Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin overnight.

The next day, make the filling by beating all the ingredients together.

Split the cake into three horizontally and sandwich together with the filling. Alternatively, keep the rum butter on the side and slather on slices as you cut the cake.

The cake will keep an an airtight container for a few days, but do not refrigerate the rum butter as it needs to be soft to spread.

The story of Jamaica cake and Cumbrian rum butter

Despite the emphasis on Grasmere Gingerbread, Joanne and Andrew [of the Grasmere Gingerbread Company] are far from being one-trick ponies.

I’d spotted Rum Butter on the shop’s shelves and expressed surprise at seeing it in the spring. Lots of people had apparently said the same thing, but Joanne was adamant it wasn’t just for Christmas.

There’s a strong rum tradition in Cumbria, dating back to the days when Whitehaven was second only to London as the largest port in England.

In the 17th and 18th centuries rum, sugar and spices from the West Indies poured in, crossing the fells on pack horses and, for those who could afford it or had the wit to avoid the customs duties, literally spicing up what was otherwise a bland diet. So engrained in local culture did rum become that a Lakeland Cookery Book published in the 1970s could contain this recipe with no explanation of why it included something called Jamaica Cake.

One legend has it that Rum Butter was invented after a merchant ship was wrecked off the Cumbrian coast. Members of the crew were salvaging the cargo when they caught sight of a party of customs officers, so they secreted themselves in a cave until the officers had disappeared.

That bit seems quite plausible – there is a history of smuggling in this part of the country, as in most others that have a sea coast. It happened that the men had a barrel of sugar, a barrel of rum and a barrel of butter with them, but these had been damaged in the wreck and the rum seeped out into the butter and the sugar. The tide came in (which, given that the men were seamen, you might think they would have predicted), cutting off their exit from the cave, so while they were waiting for it to recede they sustained themselves with the newly created Rum Butter.

A lot of stories claim that products were invented by accident; not many of them suggest that they came about through the intervention of Mother Nature or perhaps the god Neptune.

Back in those days, Rum Butter had nothing to do with Christmas pudding; in fact, Christmas pudding as we know it didn’t exist until Victorian times. Instead, the butter was served at christenings in a special bowl, which would pass down through the generations of a family as an heirloom. Any rum left over was used to ‘wet the baby’s head’; Cumbrians claim that this is where the custom and the expression came from. According to tradition, the first woman to put her knife into the Rum Butter would be the next to conceive. (A bit less easy to engineer than choosing which friend is going to catch your bridal bouquet, surely?) Once the butter was all eaten, the bowl would obviously be sticky; coins would be thrown into it, and the more that stuck to the bowl the richer the baby would be.

Joanne maintained that the important thing about Cumbrian Rum Butter – as opposed to some pale imitations found in supermarkets at Christmas – was that it contained rum, rather than rum essence. Plus cinnamon and nutmeg if you like. Slop a decent-sized glass of rum into 250g butter and 450g caster sugar. After all, it’s a christening – you aren’t (I hope) planning to drive home. As for the Rum Butter bowls, if you don’t happen to have an heirloom in your family, spread the butter on crackers. It does away with some of the ritual, but will still fur up your arteries and get you mildly sloshed.

Cumbrian Rum Butter is a truly local thing: Joanne called it the West Coast marmalade. When they go to shows in Whitehaven, she told us, they sell masses of it, whereas in other parts of the county, never mind other parts of the country, people haven’t heard of it. Joanne remembered her grandmother making it when she was a child and being allowed to scrape out the bowl and spread it on gingerbread – really sickly and fattening, she admitted, but a fond childhood memory. Her grandmother came from Workington, on the coast, and Rum Butter was something she made as a matter of course. Joanne’s team still make it in her grandmother’s big enamel bowl, using Lamb’s Navy Rum, ‘a good, strong, dark Demerara rum’. They’ve tried local rum, but they prefer to stick to the tradition. ‘It’s good, so why change it?’

Joanne was also adamant – and the label on the jar reinforced this – that Rum Butter shouldn’t be kept in the fridge. ‘Sugar crystallises in the fridge. The alcohol and the sugar act as natural preservatives for the butter, and that’s how the product evolved, long before we had fridges.’

About A Slice of Britain: Around the Country by Cake

A Slice of Britain: Around the Country by Cake by Caroline Taggart, unearths the stories behind over sixty of our favourite cakes (and the producers who make them), from Manchester Tart and Selkirk Bannock, to Bath Buns and Grantham Gingerbread.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.