I’ve been blessed to travel to England at least ten times, and that doesn’t count the little stopovers for a day or two while going somewhere else. I studied English Literature at the undergraduate level and have studied English history and particularly English theology; thus, I enjoy my time in England immensely.
What absolutely bowled me over last month on a trip to England with a group of my students and choristers, however, is something I ought to have noticed long before. The English are really, really into their cake. I don’t know how I missed this on all the other visits I’ve had over there. Of course, the search for English “real ale” might have something to do with it, or the search for the perfect steak and ale pie, or fish and chips. I really found myself mystified by this heretofore unknown (to me) fact about English cuisine, and also that I’d never caught on to it before. . .
They love their cakes in every shape and size, like the giant piece of really amazing Lemon Cake—the really tangy lemon kind that the sugar in the frosting complements so nicely. I found this in the local bakery in Sherborne during a deluge that turned the medieval streets into rushing rivers and seemed to challenge God’s promise that accompanied the rainbow. The little cinnamon apple cake–only an inch high, but bursting with homemade goodness at Tom’s Cakes in St. Ives’s, Cambridgeshire was worth the wait I had until any shop had opened in that picturesque little town.
The supermarkets in England are filled with the same decent-to-really-bad cakes as are the supermarkets in America. The real difference, I find, is that there are many more options of decent and really bad cakes in England. I sampled a number of supermarket cakes and of the homemade variety in Church “potlucks” in England on this last trip in particular. This was definitely one of the places that awakened me to the reality of the English and their cake. Church dinners are where the rubber meets the road when it comes to what people really eat.
I mentioned my new epiphany about the English to a number of priests that hosted us throughout England. Father Mark Amey chuckled and said, “Why of course! The English must have their cake. After all, we’re a nation that drinks a lot of tea. Certainly you’ve heard of tea and cake, yes?”
And so my humiliation about missing the obvious continued. I do think, however, that the fact that I didn’t drink so much tea on this last trip helped me to understand this reality about cakes. You see, I found myself a bit more tired that usual on this trip (some dear friends have suggested age and leading a troop of young people all over England might be the problem), and thus, I was after what I’m used to: deep, dark, strong coffee. I’ve never tried before, really, because coffee was just plain unavailable in England. This trip, however, showed me that coffee is bursting upon the little island so long known for tea. My newfound friend, Arthur Barnard, near the Peak District, brewed an amazing cup via french press, but finding a really good cup of coffee is still somewhat difficult. But, with all the options, I tried and tried. I found myself at little cafes and bakeries in the mornings, and this, of course, led to cake.
And so, with all the amazing places we visited, the amazing music we heard, the amazing people we met, and the out of the way hikes we had, I learned about cake and the English. One of my favorite moments in England, however, I have to admit, was sitting in an old castle and having a lovely homemade apple pie covered in custard.