Princess Elizabeth of the House of Windsor and Prince Philip of the House of Mountbatten were married on November 20, 1947 at Westminster Abbey. Every last detail of the royal nuptials of the future Queen of England was a matter of tremendous interest around the world – and that included the official wedding cake, of course. Prepared by the kingdom’s finest pastry artists, the cake stood 2.7 meters high (including a Tudor rose crown) and weighed 227 kilos. Its four tiers were coated with a white sugar glaze, decorated with ornamental columns, cupids and symbols of the two noble houses. But the Palace’s official cake was not the only cake that took part in the nuptials. As was customary, additional cakes were served at official wedding meals, some of them sent to London as gifts from different countries in the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth. The Queen’s Australian subjects sent a multi-tiered cake that had been separated layer by layer and packed in several crates. But then, during a layover at Lydda Airport (now Ben-Gurion) in Palestine, an unfortunate mishap occurred.
“Royal cake in airplane accident,” blared a headline in the Davar newspaper on October 15, 1947. One of the crates that held parts of the cake had fallen, damaging the contents. The airport manager decided to send the cake to the famous Tuv Ta’am coffee shop on King George Street in Jerusalem, and the city’s top bakers were called in to repair it.
Etta (Ethel) Baltman, 85, still remembers her father, pastry chef Shaul Petrushka, who worked at Tuv Ta’am, standing proudly beside the tall cake after it was restored. Alas, no photograph remains of the incident that thrilled the country at the time. But the heroic tale of the royal cake’s salvation was told and retold in the family until it practically became a legend.
“I knew there was some strange story involving the Queen of England, but I never really knew what. And until I looked up the newspaper clippings in the archives, I thought it was some made-up family mythology,” says pastry chef Michal Bouton, 31, Etta’s granddaughter. “The family wasn’t big on historical curiosity. When I became a pastry chef, my grandmother told me that my great-grandfather – her father – had also been a pastry chef, but I never asked her much about it.”
Biscuits in Palestine
Shaul Petrushka was born in 1894 in a town near Chelm in Poland. After he was orphaned in his teens, he moved to Warsaw to learn a trade. “He started working in a bakery-coffee shop called Tekel in the Jewish quarter, and that’s where he learned the secrets of pastry-making,” says Bouton, who in recent months has been retracing her great-grandfather’s footsteps in Poland and Israel. “Basic pastry-making, in the modest spirit of the time – various kinds of strudel and sponge cake. His work was never the height of culinary art. He’s the classic antihero. His involvement with the queen’s cake was probably the high point of his professional life.”
At Tekel, Petrushka met Miriam Schweig. Born in Warsaw in 1904, she, too, was an orphan and had been taken in by her cousins, the owners of the successful bakery. “She worked at the cash register; he was a baker. She didn’t have a big dowry, and even though she was in love with a rich fellow who broke her heart, she compromised on the young baker.” The couple married in 1929, and their daughter Etta was born in 1931.
In 1935, the Schweig family asked Shaul and Miriam to come with them to Palestine to open a biscuit factory. So the couple and their young daughter arrived in Jerusalem and helped launch the factory in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood. Shaul was appointed head baker. “The equipment was imported from Warsaw; Schweig Wafers sold ‘75 kinds of biscuits and wafers’ – most of them very simple and cheap,” says Bouton. “Their products sold well. The factory kept expanding, but their hopes came to a tragic end. The factory was in operation for a year, and then in the 1936 riots, it was burned to the ground and their entire investment went down the drain. My great-grandmother was pregnant with twins, and from the shock of the disaster, she miscarried.”
Petrushka began working at Tuv Ta’am, a bakery-cafe owned by a German-Jewish family (it was in business in Jerusalem until 1980). The café was on King George Street and the bakery where Shaul worked was on Mesilat Yesharim Street. “A very modest and dimly lit space,” says his daughter Etta. “All the work was done by hand. In those days they didn’t have all the devices we have today, and he worked so hard. He was a good-hearted person. He would make cakes and challahs for cousins and neighbors and during the War of Independence, he gave out cakes to soldiers. “I remember the cookies he used to make,” Etta continues, her eyes welling with nostalgia, “and the yeast cakes. He was an expert with that. Our financial situation was very bad, and since he only earned a pittance, he would supplement his income by selling yeast cakes to kiosks and grocery stores in the city. He would send my mother and me with trays of cakes for sale, and I remember that I was embarrassed. Today I’m ashamed that I was ashamed, and I miss the taste and smell of those cakes. It’s hard to believe, because they were the simplest cakes in the world – flour, yeast, a little sugar, and dough drippings on top – but I’d give anything to be able to taste them again.”
When he left Tuv Ta’am after many years, Petrushka tried to open a bakers’ collective with two friends, but the business did not succeed. “They say the great tsaddikim leave this world on Yom Kippur, and he died on Yom Kippur 1963,” says Etta.
“My mother was always at the center of things. She was a quite an actress and overshadowed him with her presence, but as the years have passed, I’ve felt a stronger need to keep alive the memory of my father, who had the soul of an artist. Michal is the one who came up with the idea of commemorating him with an exhibition, and through the flavors and aromas he created, and I jumped at the idea.”
“The men hardly exist in this matriarchal family. They don’t talk and they don’t get their picture taken,” laughs Bouton, whose creative desserts are featured at many local restaurants. Her quest to trace her great-grandfather’s life included the re-creation of his recipes and visual images that represent slivers of information and fragments of memory from different stages of his life. The images were created with the help of friends who became partners in her quest, including photographer Dan Peretz (this column’s photographer), stylist Amit Farber and illustrator Liora Zemelman.
The exhibition, created by Guy Raz, will run for three evenings at Beit Hamidot in Tel Aviv. In one room of the historic early 20th century building, there will be video art in which the great-granddaughter demonstrates the making of bread roses; another room in the circular exhibition will be dedicated to the story of the family of bakers and the wedding meal Petrushka prepared for his daughter in 1953. “At the height of the austerity period, he somehow managed to set out an amazing table of cakes and pastries,” says Etta. Another space will be devoted to Schweig Wafers, where each night Bouton will make some of the dozens of types of cookies that used to be made there. The jewel in the crown will be an exact – though not edible – replica of Queen Elizabeth’s wedding cake.