The One About the Tea
It’s burnt. Oh lord…I can smell it as I’m running down the stairs. Multi-tasking, don’t do it. Just try and concentrate on one thing at once and then you will do it well. I heave the blackened breeze block out if the oven. It’s slightly smoking, singed at the edges and lurks in the tin in an accusatory manner. Bum, bum and triple bum. If I hadn’t nipped upstairs to go through my bit collection to try and decide which bit I might be able to manage to stop my 22-year-old driving horse from disappearing into the next county during each line. Then it was a little walk through memory lane. Have you got a bit box? I have a crate. Each bit I remember the purchase of from sales, auctions, swaps, trips to Brazil, America, Argentina, Sweden, Germany, Italy… Sigh. Anyway, see I got distracted just writing about it and that’s exactly what happened with the cake. 15 minutes too much for my lovely fruitcake and it was a charred brick. Absolutely no hope of a reprieve. Bum.
You see I was swept up in the very competitive exercise that is the hunt puppy show tea. There is something so quintessentially English about a hunt puppy show tea. The standard of the tea is reviewed by hunt staff visiting from other packs and therefore broadcast nationwide via the bush telegraph of hunting folk. “Oh yes” says I “Tea? absolutely no problem, I have it sorted”……. As I walked away from the committee meeting where I had foolishly made that statement, I was already freaking out… Baking!! I don’t do baking! I do roasts, pies, casseroles but fancy schmancy cakes? Not me. However, I ran pubs back in the day and had to provide for darts teams so can rustle up nice triangle sandwiches. That’s a bit of tea innit? Almost there. But that cake thing. Now I have always been able to do a fruit cake as my dear mother was a doyenne of the craft. But on this particular day I took my eye off the ball and cremated the offering. I had to throw it away, even the poor birds would not touch the lumps on the bird table. I think there was a robin struggling to extract his beak from a burnt sultana for some time.
As it happens, I had been given a subscription to a certain cookery magazine by my dear brother and in the same month of the puppy show, a supplement for easy cake baking! Thrills. I do work full time and run my two hunters and two demanding terriers myself as well as a bit of county level judging and generally putting the worlds to right with no cleaner or butler and a champagne habit that knows no bounds.. Anyway, I digress.
Baking cakes was something I was frankly a wee bit scared of. I had managed pies and roasts but avoided cakes as my mother was so accomplished it seemed I could never better her skills, however I had watched her a lot, licked the spoons and absorbed many of her skills without even being aware. And so I picked a few recipes from the bakery supplement and threw myself into the preparation. I really enjoyed the preparation. Lots of eggs and butter, beating and creaming. It was unfamiliar but soothing even though I was exhausted after a day in the office. I made two different cakes a night for four nights. The new challenge was a real stimulant. I followed the recipes to the letter and produced cakes that were not necessarily picture perfect but eventually hugely well received. ‘andsome is as ‘andsome does. Of course, there were also other small details like tables and chairs (hired from my local village hall) gingham table cloths (also from the village hall) and I managed a simple touch of producing tiny posies of flowers plucked from my garden, Rosemary sprigs with a few rosebuds, dahlias and other bits of attractive greenery that one of my great and long-suffering hunting buddies arranged artfully into some jam jars and set out onto the assembled tables.
On the day, a wonderful breezy day in July, our huntsman and his family who live at the kennels, had managed to produce amazing stripes in the lawn where the tea tent was in situ as well as groomed gravel, lime washed walls, geraniums, lilies and hounds with gleaming coats for the judging. I was keenly aware of the unspoken requirement to knock the socks off any visiting hunt staff in order that our reputation remained intact both for the quality of our hounds and the quality of our tea….
I drove up to kennels in my horsebox (in a silk frock) as I had to pick up the tables, chairs, tablecloths, extension cable, tea urn and transport the plethora of cakes, sandwiches, sausage rolls and cookies I had made. My creations were joined by wonderful donations from other people attending the puppy show, another tradition. Amazing cloud like pavlovas, decadent cookies, rustic buns, flapjacks and outrageous chocolate sponges. The bakers were evenly split between men and women! However far from drifting about looking elegant (as I had imagined) I ended up creased and rather pink from the steam of the hot water urn which smudged my mascara and frizzed my hair. Sigh.
The pleasure of providing food for others is a tremendous conduit for bringing folks together. I was frankly overwhelmed by the offers of help and the plaudits for my cakes on the day. Learning new recipes and stretching my comfort zone was, extremely enjoyable. Whilst it was a lot of work, I’m now a lot more confident about my baking skills, I’ve found a new team of bakers around me who are happy to donate to the great teas we provide after every hunting day on a Sunday. As someone who often thinks “I might as well do it myself…” I was grateful for the help from people more experienced than me at producing good fare for hunt puppy show tea.
I’ve learned a lot: When your friends say they want to help you, accept graciously. You can’t do it all.
Planning is all. Think of every detail and develop a plan, including help from others to deliver it.
Don’t try hard to make something happen that will not be great. Cut it. Be realistic and kind to yourself.
And the fruitcake? I had enough time and made another one. It’s now a firm favourite at our teas. It’s a grown-up cake and goes perfectly with a hot cup of tea. Possibly one of your five a day with a glass of port!! Everyone is always welcome at our end of the day tea. I’m really enjoying meeting everyone, eating cake and comparing notes. See you very soon.
Jane Owen MDH