ALGERNON: When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me. …At the present moment I am eating muffins because I am unhappy. Besides, I am particularly fond of muffins.
JACK: Well, that is no reason why you should eat them all in that greedy way. (Takes muffins from ALGERNON)
ALGERNON: (Offering tea-cake.) I wish you would have tea-cake instead. I don’t like tea-cake.
(Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest)
Food-wise you can’t get much more quintessentially English than afternoon tea: sandwiches (ideally cucumber and crustless), scones with jam and cream and an array of cakes. And some of the fondest food-related memories of my Devon childhood are of Sunday afternoon tea: scones (both oven-cooked – with jam and clotted cream – and the drop version), sweet yeasted buns with glace cherries (my favourite) and a cake of some description.
The classic English afternoon tea dates back to the 19th century, when the drinking of tea – which was popularized in England in the 17th century – increased rapidly. Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, apparently complained of ‘having that sinking feeling’ in the afternoon, at a time when people generally ate only two meals a day: breakfast and dinner (at around 8 in the evening). She began taking a light snack (bread and butter) with a pot of tea in the middle of the afternoon. This began as a private pastime, but Anna then began inviting her friends to join her for tea. Other social hostesses picked up on the idea and the tradition of afternoon tea began.
Oscar Wilde’s best-known play The Importance of Being Earnest – first performed in 1895 – which mocks the hypocrisies and duplicities of fashionable leisured upper-class English society includes a number of scenes in which afternoon tea features. Cucumber sandwiches, bread and butter, muffins, cake and tea-cake are all consumed by characters on stage.
The food in Wilde’s play serves a number of symbolic and dramatic functions Characters play out their petty squabbles and rivalries through fighting with each other over food, forcing unwelcome food on people or withholding it from them. On a basic level it thus provides some key comic episodes in the play.
But food also serves a symbolic purpose, acting as a metaphor for unsatisfied (principally sexual) desires. In the episode quoted above, Algernon blames his greed for muffins on his unhappiness – he has in fact just been rejected by his fiancee, Cecily, who has discovered he is not the person he claimed to be. He gorges on the muffins because he has lost – albeit temporarily – the woman he so fervently desires.
The link between food and sex is made more explicit in the opening scene of the play. There Algernon – who has not yet met Cecily – eats all the cucumber sandwiches that have been prepared for his aunt, Lady Bracknell, who is coming to tea. Lady Bracknell is bringing her daughter, Gwendolen, whom Jack, Algernon’s best friend, is in love with and hopes to marry. When Jack asks Algernon for a cucumber sandwich his request is turned down and he is told to eat the bread-and-butter instead which has been prepared for Gwendolen, who is “devoted to bread and butter.” When Jack helps himself and praises the bread and butter, he is swiftly reprimanded by Algernon, who makes a connection between Jack’s appetites for both food and Gwendolen: “Well, my dear fellow, you need not eat as if you were going to eat it all. You behave as if you were married to her already.”
Having already made muffins from Jane Austen’s Emma, and thinking that cucumber sandwiches were perhaps not quite ambitious enough, I decided to turn my attention to the tea-cake that Algernon attempts to force on Jack. I thought it was interesting that he offers Jack ‘tea-cake’, rather than a tea-cake, suggesting to me that the intended tea-cake is a large one from which slices are cut, rather than the individual toasted tea-cake we are familiar with nowadays. When I consulted my baking Bible – Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery – I did find recipes for large tea-cakes that can be sliced and slathered with butter. So that is what I decided to make. It’s a simple sweet enriched yeasted dough with no dried fruit – though you could add some if you wanted – and it’s absolutely delicious; I cannot fathom why Algernon wouldn’t eat it!
A VERY ENGLISH TEA-CAKE (makes enough for 6-8 slices)
225g strong bread flour
7g instant yeast
4 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons caster sugar
1 teaspoon salt
60g butter, softened
1 tablespoon milk and 1 tablespoon caster sugar for glazing the cake
Place the flour in a bowl and mix in the salt and sugar. Next add the yeast.
Warm the milk and mix it with the softened butter.
Make a well in the flour, add the egg, warm milk and butter and mix together into a dough. Then, using either your hands or a food mixer, knead the mixture into a soft and pliable, but not too sticky dough – add extra flour if needed.
Form the dough into a ball, place it back in the bowl, cover with clingfilm and leave to rise for 1 – 1 1/2 hours.
Towards the end of the rising time, warm a shallow cake tin (20cm in diameter; 3.5cm in depth), either by pouring boiling water over it in the sink or by putting it in a preheated oven for 5 minutes. Dry it – if necessary – and grease it.
When the dough has risen to approxinately twice its original size, empty it out of the bowl onto a lightly floured surface. Knead it lightly and briefly before reshaping it into a ball, placing it in the centre of the cake tin and pressing it out with your knuckles until it covers the surface.
Cover with a clean tea-towel and leave to rise until the dough reaches the top of the cake tin – this should take between 45 minutes and 1 hour.
Pre-heat the oven to 220C / Fan oven 200C / Gas mark 7.
Using a sharp knife cut a cross in the centre of the dough and leave for another 10 minutes to puff up again.
Bake the tea-cake in the centre of the oven for 10 minutes then place it on a lower shelf and reduce the heat to 190C / Fan 170C / Gas mark 5 for another 10 minutes.
The tea-cake is ready when it is golden brown and risen. Remove it from the oven and immediately brush the top with the milk and sugar mixture to make a glaze.
Best eaten fresh with plenty of butter.