Little-known fact: the editor of this magazine once posted an Eccles cake from St John restaurant, in London, to the Gourmet Traveller offices in Sydney. It arrived, some eight days later, in extremely good nick, even though it had been put in the post with the slice of Lancashire cheese it had been served with at the restaurant. Its condition was testament not only to the efficacy of the Royal Mail, but also to the keeping power of this northern English classic. (We still prefer to eat them warm from the oven or within a few hours of baking, it must be said.)
The first person credited with selling Eccles cakes was one James Birch, a shopkeeper. According to the Eccles and District History Society, Birch sold them in his premises opposite the parish church in Eccles. (Since then, the building has been demolished and the town of Eccles more or less subsumed by the suburbs of Manchester.) Small and round, Eccles cakes are one of the pastries traditionally referred to as tea cakes - a term far more appetising than their other nickname, squashed fly cakes.
Made from rich, flaky pastry filled with dried currants and hints of spice, they're quite similar to Banbury cakes, though that's a point best not raised in the north.
The key to a really good Eccles cake is the pastry, which is all about technique: rolling, folding and resting. And what to serve with Eccles cakes? A cup of England's finest is a must, so put the kettle on - it's tea-time.