Monday, September 08, 2008

Swinburne's tea cakes

I had a young friend in high school who wanted nothing more in life than to be a chef. And, with admirable constancy, that is precisely what he became. In fact, he achieved a significant ranking in the profession, attending international competitions and finally taking his dream job as the head pastry chef at the Empress Hotel, famed for its formal afternoon tea, in our home town Victoria.

Much later, and with a great deal less seriousness of mind, I trained as a pastry chef, and I too had a little dream, which I never pursued. I have told friends many times (apparently) that I would love to open a proper English tea shoppe, one with a picture of the Queen on one end and a St. Francis on the other, mis-matched tea cups and home made Devonshire cream. There were quite a few tea shops in Victoria in my time, catering mainly to tourists from the US who liked lots of frilly tablecloths and chintz. There were a few, however, that were worth going to even for those who knew the difference between Darjeeling and Tetley.

Mr. Morton tells me that this little dream is a commonplace of ladies in circumstances like mine.

"The tea-shop as we know it today is a fairly recent development. It is the feminine counterpart of the inn. Refinement is its key-note, and it has also inherited a lot from the arts and crafts period. That is because once upon a time when a lady in a chintz overall decided to go into business, it was a toss up whether she opened a tea-shop or bought a hand-loom and some herbally dyed wool. And the number of ladies who do pervade tea-shops with a tremendously lady-like air of bravery and resignation is legion. Another of my theories is that the first generation of such ladies, long ago, when it was daring and emancipated to have a tea-shop, plunged into the tea world in order to forget an unhappy love affair, much as men of the same period are believed to have worked off their sorrow upon wild animals in India or Africa.

"And even today if you wish to find a lady whose heart is elsewhere, you have only to look for the nearest collection of home-made cakes, jam, lemon-curd and ginger nuts, and there you will see, gazing into the distance, the wistful features of Sister Alice. I have always understood that neither Swinburne nor Burne-Jones were much addicted to tea or crumpets, nevertheless they have, in some strange way, bequeathed to the tea-shop their drooping, sad madonnas."

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