Conversing with one who has recently returned to the UK from many years en France, our discourse turned to the state of British television and its reliance on soaps, reality shows, American comedy, and the food programme. To a fresh pair of eyes we appear obsessed with food, and I can see why; a trip through the weekly schedule of just one channel reveals The Great British Bake Off, James Martin’s Food Map of Britain,The Incredible Spice Men, Great British Menu, Floyd on Food, The Hairy Bikers‘ Bakeation and Tom Kerridge‘s Proper Pub Food. What’s more those came from just two days.
For a nation once embarrassed by the standard of its cuisine, we have certainly turned a corner, and whether your preference is for Jamie Oliver’s no-nonsense style or Heston Blumenthal‘s molecular gastronomy there is a chef out there for everyone, and not just on TV, because for every successful TV show, there’s a book out there for Christmas. We are so gripped that I recently discovered that a team working in a heavy engineering plant nearby were competing in making custard tarts a la Bake Off.
That someone who has lived in France for so long should notice the obsession is very telling. Traditionally the French have been seen as the greatest cooks; names like Pierre Koffman, Auguste Escoffier, Alain Ducasse and Marie-Antoine Carême have inspired awe across the culinary world, and the French have played their part in our development too. The contributions of Raymond Blanc and the Roux dynasty should not be overlooked.
But against this background there was one thing that seemed to be a distillation of all that was English. The afternoon tea. Supposedly conceived in the 1840’s by a friend of Queen Victoria, as a late afternoon meal to stave off hunger between lunch and dinner; it includes both our national drink (though there are half a dozen nations who consume even more than we do) and another English invention; the sandwich.
But then there are the cakes. Scones with jam and cream (Devon or Cornwall method ma’am?) undoubtedly have an Englishness, but everything else is patisserie. Choux pastries, Paris-Brest, mille-feuille? The influence is obvious, but what I didn’t realise until recently is that the French have a similar approach to an afternoon cake break! Listening to From Our Own Correspondent, I heard Joanna Robertson’s report on the love of Gouter (I’m sure there must be an accent missing in there somewhere!) the consumption of sweet treats by children on their way home from school, and its more sophisticated equivalent for adults.
Inevitably her report on the significance of this culinary fine art made reference to Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, a seven volume novel containing the famous madeleine episode, where this simple cake triggers a powerful flashback. Inspired by this I decided to make my own, though I lack the appropriate shell mould tray. With no exotic ingredients I had everything I required to hand. No great technical skills were required and they don’t take long to make.
A shame then that when making a cake that will forever be associated with memory, I should forget to include the baking powder! Ah well, at least I have the memories of afternoon teas.