I remember a cookbook borrowed long ago from the library, titled Great English Cooking: A Well-Kept Secret. Until fairly recently, the English were not exactly known for their haute cuisine, although even critics would admit that they sure knew how to make cheese.
The abysmal reputation of British cooking may be due in part to the chronic food shortages that spanned half the Twentieth Century, from the beginning of the First World War until well into the fifties, long after rationing had stopped in the United States. Two generations of cooks had to make do, and making do does not encourage much in the way of experiment and daring. On the other hand, no less a mind than George Orwell turned his thoughts to the problem.
The cliché of bad British cooking is not entirely justified, particularly if one embraces the simple. A tasty beef roast accompanied by a gloriously eggy Yorkshire Pudding, a simple Cos lettuce salad, and the inimitable English strawberry to follow—paradise.
Mary Russell is, unfortunately, not much of a cook. She doesn’t even seem to be much of an eater, only occasionally praising a cook’s efforts—and often those words of praise are during a time of hardship, when food offers her the only comfort. When she wanders the desert, for example, cold, sore-footed, and unbathed, the half-burnt bread and rich, sweet coffee are her only comfort. And in fact, my long-suffering editor complained that when she was reading the first draft she gained two pounds and drank so much coffee she couldn’t sleep for days.
The rest of us, however, need not suffer from Russell’s lack of interest. Particularly when it comes to that great English invention, Afternoon Tea.
Afternoon Tea is not to be confused with High Tea, although the two terms are often used interchangeably, especially by Americans. High Tea (or simply, Tea) is a working class meal taken after work in the evening, and traditionally involves such substantial culinary delights as baked beans on toast. The “tea” side of the meal comes with the beverage taken with some equally hearty cake at the end, after which the diners slump into a stupor in front of the telly.
Afternoon Tea stems from the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, invented by (rumor has it) the seventh Duchess of Bedford, who found the span between luncheon and dinner rather too long, and combined an mid-afternoon snack with socializing. Afternoon Tea generally involves small crustless sandwiches, scones with jam, and small cakes. And of course, tea. A variation is the Cream Tea, much beloved by day-trippers and Womens Institute members alike, and signs appear in unlikely places across the English countryside on sunny weekends from June to September. The best Cream Tea I ever found, far better than the ornate service at Harrods and the like, was at the folk life museum in Okington, just off Dartmoor in Devon. Devon clotted cream and strawberry jam slathered on still-warm scones…
But if you can’t get to Dartmoor, or evenFortnum and mason’s, make your own. For the full deal, start with an assortment of sandwiches, which in the English manner are always thin, not these great American monsters that require stretched jaws. Try watercress or cucumber on buttered white bread, curried chicken or ham on wholemeal bread, or the iconoclastic sun-dried tomatoes mixed with cream cheese. Or if you want to be a Devonshire purist, ignore anything but the scones and their toppings. Take a look at the Devonshire Cream Tea site, if you like, for some recipes or use the following Officially Approved Laurie King Scone Recipe:
2 cups flour
2 1/2 t. baking powder
2 T. white sugar
1 t. salt
1/4 cup butter or margerine
1/2 cup milk
(optional additions include 1/2 cup currents or other dried or candied fruit, or substituting whole wheat flour for 1/2 to 1 cup of the white flour.)
Heat oven to 450º. Mix first four ingredients in a bowl, then cut in the butter or shortening, with a pastry blender, two knives, your fingers, or a food processor—not too fine, just until the mixture resembles fresh bread crumbs.
Stir together the milk and egg, then stir into the flour mixture with a fork, stopping as soon as the dry ingredients are moistened and the dough can be pressed together into a ball.
Turn onto a lightly floured surface, kneading lightly eight or ten times. Pat or roll the dough into a circle 3/4 inch thick, and either cut the circle into ten or twelve pie-shaped wedges, or use a two or three inch circular cutter to make round scones. Place onto ungreased baking sheet, bake 10 or 12 minutes depending on the size, or until the tops are golden.
Serve warm with sweet butter and jam, either strawberry or raspberry. Or if you want to splurge, use clotted cream instead of the butter. Some markets and delis carry jars of it, nowhere near as good as the fresh yellow-white mounds of the stuff you get at the traditional Cream Tea purveyors in the UK (although even there, alas, small plastic tubs are replacing the spooned mounds.) Or you can try making your own.
For one reader’s version of the recipes Russell and Holmes enjoy, click here.
For the sorts of food Russell would have eaten in the desert (O Jerusalem) see this Middle Eastern site.
And for a sample of what they would have eaten in India in The Game, try this site.