I’m still thinking about cakes and national characteristics over here. I’m a Brit, so the most obvious traits that spring to mind for me, are the gentility of afternoon teas, and the trappings of the refreshment tent at cricket matches and village fairs. As a nation, we seem to relish the little rites and the quiet dependability that go with these occasions. In Britain now, as everywhere, cakes are truly international, but I think that cakes like the Victoria Sandwich do still hold a special place in all of these events, alongside scones and jam, little sandwiches, and a pot of tea. If you go for tea at one of the posh London hotels (brace yourself for the price tag!) this is inevitably what will come to your table, served on a tall structure of tiered serving dishes – and it’s what tourists and locals alike expect because it’s something you don’t really get anywhere else.
You see, I think that a lot of this sense of ritual and gentility is about nostalgia and the specialness of the occasion. We might serve a cake with tea to guests at home, but it’s the whole package which says something extra about Britishness. What proportion of Brits actually experience these little gussied-up oases of calm and indulgence? Very few, I’d imagine, and not necessarily because of the price tag – most tea rooms do a more reasonably priced version of afternoon tea after all. Rather, most of these occasions are quintessentially and even self-consciously middle-class and are either beloved or shunned accordingly. But even if the genteel tea isn’t univerally taken up, it’s still a powerful image of a British life which revolves around rural life, community events, and leisured gentility as depicted in period films and books.
Another peculiarly British aspect to these events is that they are the reward for hard work. I’m thinking here of the cricket tea in particular, which is served half way through a cricket match, when the players have often been out in the sun for a good few hours. The Scientist used to play cricket regularly, so we took our annual place on the cricket tea rota for several years. Traditionally the tea was provided by the wives; now I’m glad to say that the men generally take charge of the weekly budget themselves (I used our turn as an excuse to do some baking but it certainly wasn’t expected of me). I suspect that our tea (pictured – and you can read more here, here and here was more traditional than most because of my penchant for these customs, but the essential ingredients were always the same: sandwiches, savoury nibbles, cakes and tea. No matter that many of the players in most local teams turn out for the social side of things and barely break a sweat all afternoon: the tea is still looked upon as a well deserved break for a cuppa, a sweet treat and some chitchat about the day’s play. I’m sure that tea rooms at National Trust properties do a fine deal for the same reason: after an hour or two’s gentle huffing and puffing around a beautiful garden, most families will give each other that familiar, conspiratorial look: time for a cake.