Fruitcake: The breakfast (lunch ... snack) of champions

Dense, indestrctible treat powers triathletes, hikers and skiiers
Cinda Chavich
Powered by fruitcake
Photo illustration by Taylor Shute

The Canadian triathlete Gillian Clayton is an ambassador for B.C.’s Powered by Chocolate Milk campaign, but she may soon be packing something else on her winter workouts: fruitcake. Clayton, winner of the 2012 Ironman Canada pro women’s title, says the best winter-training regimen for the gruelling 225-km running, biking and swimming event is cross-country skiing. And “cross-country skiing is about as hunger-inducing/calorie-burning as any sport can get,” writes Clayton in her blog. “It flattens you, in a good way.” The power bars that many skiiers and winter hikers take along in warmer weather freeze solid. Hearty fruitcake, though, is the perfect antidote, and she’s not the first to discover it.

Fruitcake is routinely maligned for its heavy character and mythical shelf life, but that’s what makes it the perfect food to stuff into your pack on a long expedition. It may be rooted in the British and German heritage of our early climbers, but hauling along heavy cakes and breads studded with dried fruits and nuts is a backcountry tradition. Long before Clif bars and Larabars, it was old-fashioned fruitcake—or a dense derivative known as Logan or expedition bread—that routinely went to Canada’s highest peaks.

B.C. mountain climber and filmmaker Pat Morrow, the first person to summit the highest peaks on the world’s seven continents, calls it “the worthy predecessor of power bars” and says he ate it on all three of his expeditions to Mount Logan in Yukon. Mountain guide Sue Gould recalls the 40-day trek with Morrow and 11 others to Logan’s summit in 1992, to officially measure the height of Canada’s highest mountain. “We took 221 portions of fruitcake, or 22,100 grams,” she says. The bread they packed came from Suat Tuzlak’s Alpine Bakery in Whitehorse. It’s legendary stuff, once named one of the best fruitcakes in North America in a Wall Street Journal taste-off, and still carried into the wilderness by weekend hikers and epic adventurers alike.

That’s because Tuzlak’s loaves are loaded with healthy ingredients, from organic raisins and figs to homemade quince marmalade, nary an artificially dyed cherry in sight. The Turkish-born engineer traces his expedition-ready baking to his years in the Foothills Nordic Ski Club in Calgary, where members gathered to bake communally for their adventures. When he moved to Whitehorse and opened the bakery, fruitcake became his specialty. “I’ve always been passionate about cooking and baking for friends,” he says, baking his light and dark fruitcakes on a typical -28° C morning.

People have been baking heavy, nourishing bread for hundreds of years, says Banff historian Chic Scott, but it was the famed mountaineer Hans Gmoser who coined the name Logan bread for the dense trail bread. Gmoser’s friend, Laura Gardner, baked the bread for many of his climbs, says Scott, who collected her recipe: a simple mix of wholewheat flour, honey, molasses, vegetable oil and powdered milk. Gardner’s son Don, now a ski-trail designer and boat builder in Canmore, Alta., also relied on his mother’s bread on treks, including an epic five-week expedition “hauling sledges across Ellesmere Island.” “Mom baked 90 lb. of this stuff,” he says.

Even today, climbers, hikers and skiers favour these heavy, homemade fruit breads and cakes. “Dried fruit is a nutritional powerhouse. The sugars in it are easier for the body to use, and there are vitamins, minerals and fibre in these cakes,” says Sue Gould. Banff businessman Peter Poole likes to take along wild-seed and protein bars from the Wild Flour Bakery in Banff. But it’s fruitcake he often still pulls from his pack on the trail. “It fits into a backpack so easily,” Poole says. “Unlike energy bars that freeze so hard they’ll break your teeth, fruitcake just melts in your mouth.”

Clayton agrees that frozen power bars just don’t cut it on her long ski training runs on Mount Washington. And while she’s partial to homemade fruitcake, the big nutty wholewheat fruitcakes from Vancouver’s Uprising Breads are “very good,” too. Like skiing, she says, it’s something that just makes sense to embrace in the middle of a harsh Canadian winter.