At Devizes we had comfortable rooms, & a good dinner to which we sat down about 5; amongst other things we had Asparagus & a Lobster which made me wish for you, & some cheesecakes on which the children made so delightful a supper as to endear the Town of Devizes to them for a long time.
So wrote Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra from Bath on Friday, May 17th, 1799.
I grew up near Devizes, albeit entirely oblivious to the literary connection. My family there have made attempts to locate the famous cheesecakes but to no avail. The town’s bakers, it seems, no longer produce them.
And so another piece of history finds itself consigned to the compost heap.
Some writers and scholars hope to discover lost manuscripts or letters.
Others seek to express the sum total of human existence in a few hallowed lines of prose.
And others make, um, cheesecakes.
The task involved considerable travel (to the bookcase) and hardship (that puff pastry won’t roll itself).
My Flavours of Wiltshire book actually had two recipes for traditional Devizes cheesecakes of the sort Austen’s family might have enjoyed (incidentally, they have nothing to do with the cheesecake popular today).
One recipe seemed eminently doable, despite including leftover cake as an ingredient. We understand the concept of cake in these parts (the home of Sachertorte), but the concept of leftover cake simply does not exist in Vienna.
So the first task was to bake a sponge cake. (It had to be sponge cake of course, given Ms Austen also wrote in another letter to her sister: You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me.)
That small hindrance eliminated, a few turns of the rolling pin later produced these innocent little tart-like goodies. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you possibly the first Devizes cheesecakes ever made in Vienna: