Category Archives: Cakes

Whatever happened to afternoon tea?

I’ve been fiddling about in the basement office – well, I say office, but at this time of year it’s a store for garden furniture, kindling and unwashed fleeces – and I came across a book from the 1980s, Jane Pettigrew’s Tea Time.

afternoon tea...A little idle flicking through brought instant nostalgia – for the habit of afternoon tea, not for the scary big hair in the author photograph: 1986 may have been a good year for teashops, but it was evidently a fantastic year for anyone selling hairspray.

A brief read of the intro was enough to make me realise that a great gulf of time had suddenly opened up, however. And some of the recipes – Downton, pure fantasy Downton. Admittedly they were self-consciously nostalgic even in the 1980s, but kidney paté on toast? Did anyone really make that? Devilled sardines?

All of this made me think seriously about the role afternoon tea has played in my life. It’s barely conscious, but it is a constant. And it’s quintessentially British, too – not English, oh no, it’s got a fine place in Scotland and Wales, and in Ireland. Especially at funerals, but that’s a specialist sub-set of the afternoon tea. And of course it’s present in literature – the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, for instance.


It’s been a constant for me for as long as I can remember (though dormice in teapots have been remarkable by their absence).

Constant right from being a child, when we regularly had afternoon tea at my grandparents, all fine china and salmon and something slithery my step-grandma called ‘shape’, or when we went on celebratory trips, all dressed up, to Betty’s of York. Then it persisted, in a bastard but equally enjoyable form, though college – Fitzbillies cakes and crumpets cooked by being slapped onto the bars of a gas fire – and my first years down in London, where I indulged at Fortnum and Mason; I know, I know, but I worked almost next door. It was a marked feature of holidays in Ireland and of holidays in Yorkshire.

(An Irish friend developed a Yorkshire–English phrase dictionary. This included such phrases as ‘let’s just stop for a cup of tea’, which was translated as ‘let’s just stop for a few buckets of tea, a sandwich, an unfeasibly large scone and a ginormous piece of chocolate cake’. I can’t think what she was going on about, really… it’s not unique to North Yorkshire. And nor were the arguments about who was paying, either. Think about Mrs Doyle and Mrs Dineen slugging it out over afternoon tea payment in Father Ted. and you’ve got about the right image – er, apart from our appearance, that is. We were both goddesses and neither of us wore a hat.)

But it’s not a constant now – or not in the classic sense. We seem to have lost the habit of afternoon tea. Or perhaps it’s just changed (and got infintely, unbelievably expensive if you will have it at the Ritz). No more devilled kidneys, no more sitting down over cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, no more smoked salmon pinwheels. When did you last see a three-tier stand with sandwiches on one layer, little scones in the middle and elegant small cakes on the final one? Rather than one filled with lurid cupcakes or, more latterly, equally lurid macarons?

But there’s a lot more ‘meeting up for a coffee and a cake’ going on (and notice the pattern on the oilcloth – referencing afternoon tea):

coffee and cake

Perhaps we’ve turned Viennese, with our kaffee und kuchen instead. I’m not decrying that; I love it, it’s really enjoyable and damn near perfect when you’ve got good places to go like the Llew Glas Deli In Harlech and T H Cafe in Dolgellau (though there can be a downside, which I’ve moaned about elsewhere).

There’s no doubt that there’s a baking revival underway, with the Great British Bake Off, things like the Clandestine Cake Club and the popularity of cupcakes (they’re not popular with me, though: I detest the oversweet, sticky, tasting-of-damn-all-except-sugar, squishy little sugar transporters – and no apologies for repeating ‘sugar’, either). And there’s been an increased interest in good tea, too. But it seems to me that the interest in afternoon tea as such is more style than substance. So far.

Maybe it is time for a 1980s-style revival of the 1930s interpretation of the nineteenth-century tradition of afternoon tea. Maybe we need to be hunting out those china three-tier cake stands in junk shops and using them as they were intended to be used, and laundering damask tablecloths. Maybe we need to revisit parts of the 1980s – not the hair or the politics, please – and go full throttle for reinventing the British tradition of afternoon tea. It’s ideal, sometimes. If you’re going out in the evening, why rush over eating a meal which then leaves you doubled-up with indigestion in the theatre? Why not have a good afternoon tea instead? Oh, I know, work. It gets in the way of so much. But perhaps we could introduce proper afternoon tea breaks? Just a thought. No more polystyrene, get out the bone china. Yo!

well, quite

(I’m sorry about this. I found it on Pinterest, sans credit, and couldn’t resist…
Those animals are stuffed, and possibly the child too.)


Dealing with The Great Apple Glut, II…

Last year was wonderful. We didn’t have a summer as such, except in March, and that was just at the wrong time. My apple trees flowered early in a bit of a panic, there were only a few bees about and, as a consequence, I had very few apples. This gave me a breathing space which I appreciated. But this year I’m back to normal. I’m not complaining; I’m just running out of ideas.

There were three old apple trees in this garden and, when I moved in, I thought they’d be too elderly to present much of a problem. Wrong.

One doesn’t do much. Another is a Cox, and the apples it produces are prolific but beloved of the birds. The third is un-be-lievable. We’re talking carrier bags. So far this year I’ve given away nine, and I’m not talking half-full bags either. I’m talking bags so full the handles give way. And we’re picky when we’re picking – anything chewed, nibbled or pecked gets thrown over the wall into the wildy bit next door. Then I’m faced with the problem of what to do with what remains. A lot get given away, though my picking companion has his own problem and I can’t offload give him any. Chutney gets made, of course, and crumbles. And I’m also very fond of an apple cake which always goes down well – even though it only uses about three…

The original recipe has been much adapted. It came from a Good Housekeeping book on wholefood cookery that was published in 1980, on appropriately brown and gritty paper. Mind you, the attitudes in the text are rather 1950s – readers are warned, for instance, not to have too many spicy foods like curries because they ‘may overload the system’, and are told that business lunches can be a problem ‘for the husband who eats so much at lunchtime that he cannot face the large meal his wife has cooked in the evening’.  Grr. Sisters may be doing it for themselves, but not men – or not in the 1980 world of Good Housekeeping, evidently. Also some of the recipes are, quite frankly, disgusting. What on earth would possess anyone to make ‘breakfast in a glass’ with coffee substitute (?) boiled up with milk, strained through a sieve, then blended with – wait for it – an egg and a teaspoon of honey. NOOO.

apple cakeHowever it is worth persisting, if only for the baking section. Perhaps not surprisingly, given that it’s a Good Housekeeping book, this is rather better and I have used a lot of the recipes in it. They are fine once I’ve worked on them a bit to make them less heavily penitential; there seems to have been some feeling that the proverbial reputation of wholefoods had to be maintained by producing worthy, weighty slabs of brownness. I find this odd, as by the 1980s even Cranks had begun to lighten up a little, both literally and metaphorically. So here is my heavily adapted, very heavily adapted – perhaps I should say ‘inspired by’ instead – contribution to coping with the apple glut, part two.

Apple and walnut cake

175g butter, soft
175g unrefined sugar
3 medium eggs
175g self-raising wholemeal flour (or 100g wholemeal and 75g white)
100g chopped walnuts
75g sultanas
half a tsp ground cinnamon
350g cooking apples (about three medium ones)
25g Demerara sugar

Preheat the oven to gas 4 / 180 degrees C (conventional; 160 fan). Grease and line a round 18 cm loose-bottomed cake tin.

Cream together the butter and sugar in a medium bowl. Then beat in the eggs, one at a time, and add a little flour with each one to help prevent curdling. Gently fold in the rest of the flour, half (50g) the chopped walnuts, all the sultanas and the cinnamon. Peel the apples and grate them straight into the bowl, folding them into the mixture one by one. It is easier to grate them if you leave the core intact for holding, then discard it afterwards. Spoon the mixture into the tin and level it out.

Put the rest of the walnuts on a chopping board and chop them even more finely using a large knife. Mix them with the Demerara sugar and sprinkle this crunchy topping evenly over the surface of the cake. Bake it in the oven for 90 minutes, then test to see whether it is cooked – a skewer or, if you’re me, a fine knitting needle, should come out clean – and you may find you need to leave it in the oven for another 10 minutes or so. When it’s done, take it out of the oven, put it on a wire rack and allow it to cool in the tin for at least 15 minutes before very carefully removing the tin – don’t turn the cake upside down to do this as some of the topping will fall off. Allow it to cool completely before serving.

A few tips to avoid unfortunate consequences (don’t ask me how I know):

1. This cake will not rise overmuch because of the topping, so do not be alarmed if the tin appears rather fuller than you might expect. Do not be tempted to transfer it to a larger tin. One word. Biscuit.

2. Even if you have another 67,945 carrier bags full of apples, do not be tempted to add more to the mix to see if it works. Err on the side of caution. Unless you like a sort of apply, slimy, slithery bread pudding, that is. I hate bread pudding. Any kind.

3. The cake mixture can seem a little heavier than you might expect. Do not be tempted to add liquid. See reason 2 above. The apples provide enough juice. Really.

4. Using dessert apples makes a sweeter cake, but it’s not supposed to be intensely sweet; it should have a slight tartness to it which is refreshing (according to some of the village garden club who have just tested one I made for an open garden event). Also eating apples can be too juicy. See reason 2 yet again.

5. I use the coarse half of a flat grater and rest it over the bowl; it works fine. The apples shouldn’t be too finely grated and if you do them in a food processor they can either go to mush or go brown, or both. Using the old-fashioned method doesn’t take long, works much better and doesn’t involve so much swearing (or washing up, come to that, for those of us who can’t have dishwashers because we rely on 200-year-old soakaways).

6. Depending on your oven, you might need to cover the cake with foil towards the end of cooking to prevent the top from catching. Only open the door to do this in the last 20 mins or so. Alternatively, cook the cake towards the bottom of the oven rather than in the middle. Especially if the unfamiliar oven you are using has an overhead element that cannot be turned off, unless you want a cold oven. Not a good experience.

All right, that used three apples. Hmm:

strewthRemember tip 2. Remember tip 2. Remember tip 2…