Phoebe has been away for much of the summer holiday, and we have missed her and her baking. Now she is back, almost ready to return to school (but would still prefer never to have to go at all), and making cakes. This is Devil's Food Cake, the kind of thing that the likes of Leslie Phillips might declare 'devilishly good'.
I notice my fingers and toes are getting cold in the evenings: this sad fact reminds me that it's time to knit some gloves and socks. These are the 'green finger' gloves from the book (now available in the US) which are a combination of sensible wool and flight of fancy, inspired by lady gardeners such as this:
Lady Birley (1900-1981), photographed by Valerie Finnis whose work as a plantswoman and photographer is the subject of one of my favourite gardening books, Garden People, by the ever-readable Ursula Buchan. It contains wonderful, densely colourful photos of plants and many more equally colourful gardeners (the ladies win by a mile in the style stakes).
My own thoughts are turning green, with my bulb order sent to Peter Nyssen and plans to sow annuals soon so that they can overwinter and flower earlier next spring. I know it makes sense, and follows nature as this year the garden is full of strong self-seeded flowers which grew up from seed scattered this time last year. We have huge fennel, tall sunflowers, swathes of marigolds blocking the path, patches of love-in-a-mist, and pink and yellow hollyhocks have popped up in all sorts of odd places, after years of refusing to settle here. They have all reminded me of the value of autumn sowing, so I'm going to dress warmly (I think I need a Lady B hat) and sow the the type of seeds that Sarah Raven recommends. (She's another formidable lady gardener who is often photographed looking inseparable from her amazing garden.)
5. Albion Caff
With utensils in recycled Lyle’s Golden Syrup tins, daily newspapers, Brown Betty tea pots, formica-topped tables, red leather banquettes, and simple wood panelling, Albion is an upmarket and stylish reincarnation of the endangered, much-loved, humble British caff. The only things missing are grease, smoke, and steam.
Albion is in the historically fascinating Boundary Estate in the heart of Shoreditch, an area which is now attracting all sorts of creative types and businesses, many of which, like Albion, are housed in converted buildings. It’s ideally placed for Sunday morning visits to nearby Columbia Road flower market, but also a haven of civilised café life all day, every day.
The kitchens are open to view, and the baked goods come out thick and fast, with large numbers of cakes, pastries, biscuits and breads cooling on racks before being despatched to seated customers, and to the large table laden with good things in the small shop area.
Although there is a French flavour to the breakfast baking, including the biggest, most richly filled almond croissant ever tasted (£2.90, could feed two), the rest of the line-up features impressively made, old-fashioned favourites fairly priced. Portions are generous: gingerbread men are truly mannish and not boyish, and a reworked filled Bourbon biscuit is the equivalent of a fistful of the tiny packet variety. Although there is the inevitable cupcake, the cakes are definitely what you would hope your mother would make: a rich, layered chocolate cake, a startlingly pink and yellow Battenburg with real marzipan and a pleasingly home-made appearance, and a creamy-jammy Victoria Sponge Cake that wouldn’t look out of place at a village fete.
Albion has much to recommend it: smiley staff, plenty of seating including tables outside on the pavement, fish and chips, a hotel above should you want to indulge in a cake blow-out, a restaurant below should you wish to stay all day, and a wonderfully rich neighbourhood to explore. It has all the hallmarks of a carefully designed Conran enterprise which is why it does cake n' caff so well.
Cake: £1.50 - £3.50
2-4 Boundary Street
London E2 7DD
Tel: 0207 729 1051
Open: 8 am – 11.30pm seven days a week
When the August Bank Holiday is almost upon us, I know that it's the beginning of the end of summer (a summer that never really began this year). Now that Tom & Alice will definitely be leaving in a few weeks, I'm starting to tidy up after the unravelling of quite a few months with teenagers at home. I can feel the first stirrings of organisation coming from Tom & Alice : buying text books, making lists of stuff for halls of residence, applying for student cards, and this is making me take stock and sort out the loose ends of summer.
There are also a few blogging loose ends that need to be wound up into neat balls, like the skeins of tapestry wools I use to knit colourful edges.
:: There is a review of The Gentle Art of Knitting on Knitty which is a huge honour, as this was the first knitting website I discovered a long time ago, and it's still brilliant.
:: Amy Singer who is the brains behind Knitty is running what sounds like an excellent workshop in Wales in October with Brenda Dayne, the voice behind Cast On, the Podcast. Amy is one of the most yarn-committed people I have ever met - she is passionate about knitting and knows a thing or two about it.
:: Another friend with a textile passion, this time French linens, is Victoria who also knows a thing or two about her subject (she has taught me plenty). She'd like help with what will be a fascinating project; I can't say any more about it, but I know it's something that a huge number of this blog's readers would find interesting.
:: Yesterday, I put up then took down a post about discovering that someone who had been leaving long, long comments which have caused a kerfuffle (as they say on Little Britain) had done so under three different anonymous/pseudonymous names. The penny dropped when I looked up an IP number and I decided that I was going to play host no longer. I have deleted all his/her comments, and will now be less willing to leave suspect contributions where they can be read. Multiple-identity commenters make a mockery of blog discussions and keeping on top of the incoming comments could turn into a game of Splat the Rat - not something I want to play.
:: Here's a review of the second book in the 'Clever Concepts' series for children which is published on 1 September. The subject is colour ('color' in the book) and it was a delight to write and photograph. I'm very pleased it's called Ruby, Violet, Lime and not something like Red, Yellow, Blue because one of the most enjoyable things I did with Tom, Alice, and Phoebe when they were little was teach them lots and lots of colours, and I loved it when we found books that went beyond the predictable shades. Never for one moment thinking I would one day do it myself.
4. National Cafe at the National Gallery
Once a dismal, cavernous cafe where everyone looked as glum as some of the sitters in the paintings upstairs, this was recently transformed by caterers Peyton & Byrne into a light-filled cafe with something of the Old Dutch style (black wood panelling, white walls above, plain windows) crossed with a seventeenth century London-coffee house. With one major difference: it looks as though an army of Women’s Institute bakers has visited overnight and left all their prize-winning cakes, biscuits, and treats on display.
It’s the type of display to make you gasp with delight, sigh with pleasure, hum and hah about what to choose, and talk animatedly about the joys of old-fashioned baking. It’s also one of the most tempting you’ll see anywhere in London, so hats off to P&B for reviving the ritual of a cup of tea and a bun after a cultural fix.
Cakes and treats are beautifully presented on a separate, glass-shelved, self-service counter with customers circling carefully in order to make wise choices - not easy, as all the great and good examples of British baking are lined up here [added: 'unashamedly British' it says on the website]. There are slabs of cake (fruit, banana, Dundee), slices of cake (lemon and poppyseed, chocolate, coffee and walnut), mini loaf cakes, cupcakes, rock cakes, scones, biscuits, buns (including huge, sticky Chelsea buns) and re-imagined classics such as home-made jammie dodgers, ‘Jaffa cakes’ and rich, circular, melt-in-the-mouth millionaire’s shortbread. They taste as good as they look ie a work of art in themselves.
Prices are reasonable, and appealing to families. Access is possible via a side door so cake-eating is not restricted to gallery hours. There is a self-service area (be warned though, hot drinks come in unpleasant paper cups), and a waitress service area if you want your tea in china, or a full, traditional afternoon tea (the Lord Nelson option at £19.50 comes with a very civilised glass of port or sherry), or if you want to sample the full range of comforting, just-like-mother-used-to-make savoury dishes.
Various cakes: £2.30 - £3.40
Afternoon tea served 3 – 5.30pm, £6 - £21.50
National Cafe at the National Gallery
London WC2N 4DN
NB use the entrance on St Martin’s Lane outside gallery opening times
Tel: 020 7747 5942
Open: Mon to Fri 8 – 11, Sat 10 – 11, Sun 10 - 6
And an additional slice of culture: the National Gallery Cafe is next door to the National Portrait Gallery, and close to Soho, many theatres and cinemas, Whitehall, and St James's Park. And Trafalgar Sq if you must.
[Geranium and begonia house, West Dean]
It's all quiet on the domestic front today. As quiet as a greehhouse, in fact. It's never raucous or hectic in a greenhouse, is it? A greenhouse should always be hushed and full of stillness and silent growth, although I do think Radio 4 in the background would add to the atmosphere.
I visited the spectacular Victorian greenhouses at West Dean at the weekend (does anyone else feel as I do that the plural of greenhouse should be greenhi?). These are quite unbelievably perfect; every plant equidistant from its neighbours, not a hint of muck or mould, not a stray leaf or a rogue colour. It's almost all too perfect; I think I prefer something a little more rackety and makeshift, a greenhouse that has the character of its owner even when he/she is not there. But it did remind me of one of my favourite Eric Ravilious watercolours, The Greenhouse: Cyclamen and Tomatoes (1937), the date of which proves just how anachronistic this pre-war, big house, labour-intensive level of greenhouse growing and maintenance is nowadays.
One of the joys of visiting gardens open to the public,whether they are big National Trust type properties, ramshackle allotments or privately owned, is having a look inside any greenhouse that might be there. I like seeing what people grow, how they arrange this private space, whether they create a thing of beauty or simply use the interior as a plant factory (the above has something of the production line, and the one in the painting reminds me of an aircraft hangar). It helps me plan my fantasy greenhouse: warm, inviting, and smelling of damp soil and tomato leaves, with trugs full of seedpackets, labels, secateurs and trowel, morning glories and melons growing up to to roof, and gloriously red and pink geraniums creating a colour storm. There would be a chair, an old crocheted blanket, bulb catalogues, muddy wellies, an old battered hat, a radio (of course), and plenty of hot tea.
Goodness me, it's so quiet here, I was in another world. One day I'll make it happen (the melons might be an ambition too far, though.)
Thank you for all your comments on the posts this week. It has been a huge pleasure to have such a full cyber post-bag, and I very much appreciate everyone's messages about A level results. We are relaxing nicely into the role of parents of soon-to-be university students, and have already had the calculators out to work the financial damage.
[bright and cheerful dahlias at West Dean last weekend - to match the mood]
Phew-ee. Thank goodness for that. The most horrible school year to date has a happy ending. Tom and Alice have both got the A levels they needed to do what they want at their first choice universities. So next month they will go off in different directions to universities 200 miles apart, one to do Geography and the other to do Psychology.
The waves of relief started at 6.20 when Alice bounced into our room having found out that her place was confirmed, and they haven't stopped yet. However, Phoebe has pointed out that we now have another three consecutive Augusts of exam results when the process starts all over again with her next year. But as Scarlett O'Hara might say, next August is another year.
The wine is chilling.
What makes us anxious, keeps us awake at night, and leads us question our judgements and our lifestyles is of enormous interest to academics, politicians, sociologists. We often allow ourselves to be made anxious by all sorts of bodies, often those that have a vested interest in our maintaining those anxieties: the media, politicians, big businesses, cultural figures. One example is the pernicious current anxiety about physical appearance (dear me, if I believed what I see and read, I'd think that it' s an act of daring to go grey instead of part of the very natural, unavoidable, and irreversible process of ageing). The very prevalent anxiety about teenagers worries me even more, and I could name dozens more current anxieties which are far more damaging than the subjects themselves. But I never thought there would be cultural anxiety about baking.
Last year I started watching the Great British Bake-Off but stopped very quickly because I couldn't bear to see grown men and women crying about cakes or, more to the point, being reduced to tears by 'judges'. To tell the truth, I was shocked. I'd spent many years naively baking for enjoyment, for relaxation, for the pleasure having something nice to eat with friends and family. And all the time, it never once crossed my mind that my amateur efforts could be classed as not good enough, that there might be a correct form of homely, gratifying, domestic baking. So to watch people who clearly enjoy baking for pleasure (and have many appreciative takers) being made to look like sad failures in the name of TV entertainment really isn't my idea of a good night in.
Last night the new series started, and I watched to see if anything had changed. Well, it seems to me that even more than last year the programme-makers have chosen a mix of people more for their personal variety and telegenic qualities than for their baking skills. So you know straightaway that there are going to be disasters, wrecks, novelty for the sake of novelty, and plenty of humiliating results. And sure enough, there's a grown man in tears about a chocolate cake, a sniffy judge telling someone their creation tastes 'disgusting', and the overriding impression that there is a correct way of making a Mary Berry Battenburg recipe (and the underlying message that Mary Berry herself is correct about everything to do with cakes).
It's all too predictably judgemental and laugh-at-them-talent-showish. Home-baking was never meant to be treated this way. I know the contestants have gone in with their eyes wide open, but why do programme makers think that the only way to have an entertaining programme about British baking is to make it a competition? Baking is one of the last bastions of gentle and creative domesticity, and even this is being turned into a heart-pounding, anxiety-inducing, competitive activity in which you can be judged a failure.
I'd rather be in the kitchen making anxiety-free butterfly cakes, especially today when there is understandable, inevitable teenage anxiety (have you seen the papers today??) about A level results and futures tomorrow.
[classic Penguin classics]
Apart from the fact that so much of it is bleak, depressing, and soulless, one of the reasons I don't read a great deal of contemporary fiction is that I feel the classics are classics for a reason. I often find myself waiting a couple of years after publication before picking up a 'new' book, almost to allow it time to prove itself. But the wonderful thing about true classics is that they have already stood the test of time, risen above the era in which they were written, and still speak to us across the decades or centuries.
I was so dedicated to reading when I was a teenager and student, that in my free time I pretty much only read the classics, although these did span several centuries from Austen to Amis, Waugh, Greene, Steinbeck, and Hemingway. I read Thomas Hardy in Biology lessons, William Makepeace Thackeray after exams, and DH Lawrence in private. I just couldn't see the point of reading fly-by-night books when there are so many genius books to be tackled before I die/give up and turn to Barbara Cartland.
I still struggle with most modern novels, which is why I was so delighted to make a new classic discovery on holiday. I hadn't read any Edith Wharton before, knew virtually nothing about her and, crucially, had no idea of the plots of her books. What a reading treat, therefore, to be engrossed in The House of Mirth and not know what happens to Lily Bart. Or to enter the world of Fifth Avenue in The Age of Innocence with no clue as to Ellen Olenska's fate. The problem with so many classics is that the endings are so well known (Anna Karenina, Oliver Twist) and have been used so often in popular culture (films, musicals, plays) that it's hard to read them in the same way they were read when first published (if in instalments, even the author him/herself often didn't know the ending). So I revelled in a reading experience I hadn't had for years, in the not knowing, in the sheer delight of turning pages to find out what happens.
And my goodness, are these good endings. Edith Wharton is such a brilliant writer and these two novels must be her masterpieces (I have yet to read the Old New York Stories) as I can't imagine anything better. She is undoubtedly grand American but with touches of Zola, Balzac,and the great C19 Russian writers which is why the stories of these phenomenally rich and rigid New Yorkers still have something to say about society, snobbery and, most forcefully, about women's lives. Her style is beautiful, amazingly visual and textural, and she weaves her themes and sustained but subtle metaphors with a very sure and elegant touch.
I also hadn't realised quite how grand a grande dame she was, and how influential in the world of interiors and gardens. I took Hermione Lee's biography with me on holiday, read The House of Mirth (1905) first, then up to 1905 in her life, then The Age of Innocence, then almost the rest of her life - although I did fade towards the end as this is a huge biography and the descriptions of her later years (all the lists of books, plants, wines, petty quarrels) began to wear me down. So I stopped before I was disillusioned, and now have the memory of reading two crystalline, classic novels and an equally classic life story imprinted on my brain.