Tea for Victory

Over the last fifteen years or so, my husband and I have acquired more tea sets than we can reasonably use (or house).  We didn’t set out to collect them and if pressed, we would not call ourselves “collectors”.  “Rescuers” feels like a better description, especially in the face of the appalling “smash the crockery” stalls from which we frequently run in horror at garden fetes.  A tea set has the same resonance as a family photo album, something that might have been a wedding present, perhaps saved for “best” instead of being used every day.  Once we happen across a tea set that calls to us from the jumble of a second-hand shop, we no longer have a choice.  We hold our breath as each piece is wrapped, then carry our new treasure home, where it must fight for space on our already-crowded shelves.

One of our favourites is an angular green and white Palissy tea set, painted with gold stars.  My husband found most of it – a large tea pot, sugar bowl, cups and saucers and tea plates – in a charity shop on Leyton High Road, near where we used to live.  The milk jug was missing, presumably broken by a previous owner, so my husband started looking for one online.  During the search, he acquired a matching but smaller tea pot, another sugar bowl and, eventually, the elusive milk jug.  Buying china online is a risky business.  Someone posted a sugar bowl and milk jug to us with no more protection than a jiffy bag.  The sugar bowl survived but the jug arrived in pieces.  It wasn’t the one we wanted to complete our favourite tea set but the seller’s lack of care was still upsetting. 

One pot or two?
The elusive jug

Palissy china in this style was made by AE Jones Ltd in Longford, Stoke-on-Trent during the 1930s and early 1940s.  The Palissy name was bought by The Royal Worcester Porcelain Company in 1958, later passed to Spode after a merger in 1976 and was sold to Aynsley China Ltd, also of Longford, in 1989, when the Palissy Works were demolished.  The mark on the underside of our tea set seems to date it to the years between 1935 and 1939.

Which brings me to VE Day.  We wanted to remember and mark this significant event in our collective past but felt a bit queasy about any sentimental “flag-waving”.  Our solution was to focus on the personal – things we now have and cherish that other people owned 75 years ago.  My husband carried a wind-up gramophone into the garden and provided a soundtrack to the day with a fabulous collection of 78s.  Our playlist included Glen Miller, George Formby, Flanagan and Allen and even (to my great surprise) the band of the Coldstream Guards playing the National Anthem – a rare engagement by my husband with that particular piece of music.  We enjoyed afternoon tea from the Palissy tea set, thinking of our families’ war time experiences and wondering who had eaten from those plates and drunk from those cups to celebrate the end of the war in 1945.

Grandma cake

This is the cake that sustains me in times of adversity.  It isn’t fancy and it doesn’t demand artistry.  It is easy to make.  You rub together butter and flour, stir in sugar and dried fruit, then bind together with eggs and a little milk.  Scoop it into a buttered tin, bake in a medium oven and your kitchen will be filled with the comforting aroma of sugar and love.

I have been eating this cake in one form or another most of my life.  I first tasted it as rock-cakes, made by my maternal grandmother, Maggie.  Before I started school, my mum would take me on two buses every Wednesday, to visit my Grandma and Grandad.  In my memory, we always ate the same meal: meat pie from Marks & Spencer, soft, sweet tinned peas and carrots (a sort of treat, because we only had fresh carrots and frozen peas at home) and Grandma’s rock-cakes.

When Maggie died, my grandad Jim started making rock-cakes.  Looking back, I find that quite surprising.  He never seemed to be the sort of man to think of providing treats or luxuries.  I did often hear him mutter “Oh dear, Maggie…” under his breath, so perhaps the rock-cakes were a way of keeping her around.  Whatever the reason, we all enjoyed eating them.

At the end of the 1970s, my parents, my brother and I moved 250 miles away, so we saw Jim much less frequently.  My mum must have started making this cake round about then.  During the “high fibre” 1980s, she experimented with a wholemeal version.  It was nice in its way and made us feel virtuous but it couldn’t match the soft, sweet comfort of the original.

During my university years and my early adult life, the cake faded into the background.  It came back to me in 2001.  When my husband was in hospital with leukaemia, my mum regularly made it and sent it me.  When I got home at midnight, after sitting with him, nothing was more comforting than a large slice of this delicious cake.  My husband had practically no immune system, so on one occasion, my mum made a cake with scrupulously sterilised equipment and the freshest ingredients and sent it, double-wrapped, so he could enjoy at the least the first piece with me. 

When my son was born in 2007, my parents visited often, always bringing this cake.  My mum was now “Grandma” and the cake became “Grandma cake”.  This cake was my son’s first taste of real sugar.

Our lives were turned upside down in 2011.  In the same week that we left London and moved to a rural village, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Throughout my 9 months of treatment and recovery, my parents were there with support and, of course, Grandma cake. 

In difficult times, this cake gives us love, energy and emotional scaffolding.  This week, even with flour, eggs and butter in short supply, I felt the need to make it myself and we have all been very glad of it.

The recipe comes from the Be-Ro cookbook.  It was first published in 1923, three years before Maggie and Jim were married.  My mum still has her 1960s copy and I have my own copy, now in its 40th edition.  I would have loved to include a picture of my mum’s copy, which is well-used and now lacks its front cover.  Sadly, it is 260 miles away and while my dad has both a digital camera and access to email, he lacks the ability to put the two together.

Four generations of my family have made this cake: my grandparents, my mum, me and now, my 12 year old son.  This week, I found a series of images of pages from the 1923 edition.  In the editions my mum and I have, this cake is simply “fruit cake”.  To my delight, I discovered that in the 1923 edition, it is called “Family cake”.  Whoever wrote that recipe knew what they were talking about.