In recent years, food writing has been heavily focused on nostalgia. It is rare to find a cookbook that does not contain at least one recipe that the writer has found in an old relative’s recipe box or remembers from childhood. Looking back, in part, gives us some comfort through the association of the food with better times or loved ones no longer with us, but also considering our own history and lives in food provides inspiration for what we may wish to cook in the future. By understanding our relationship with out past and our relationship with food, we can create in a way that is individual to us and links feelings of family, heritage and continuity with the past with the present day. Food is a very powerful trigger of memory and, in the same way that the smell of suntan lotion can take you right back to your first holiday or the smell of burnt petrol to your first car, the taste of something nostalgic can also give us a kind of happiness through remembrance. The old cliché of married men preferring their mother’s cooking to their wife’s is indicative of this – it is not that the mother’s cooking is necessarily better (although she has, inevitably, had considerably more practice!) but it is this that the husband is used to and what he associates with the days of being looked after and of carefree responsibility.
Today I feel more nostalgic than usual as it is two years since my grandmother, known to us as Nan, passed away following a long illness. A mere paragraph in a blog post would be insufficient to cover the many wonderful things about Nan, but I will just say that she was an exceptional person and the loss was felt by everybody that knew her. Nan, unknowingly at the time, taught me two things that have come to shape my life enormously: how to read and how to bake. As a young child, I spent most days at her house and we would read for hours on end. There was a bookshop close to her house that would sell the Key Words with Peter and Jane books and, once I had mastered one, we would go and buy the next one. Through this, I developed a love of writing that has not diminished after more than two decades. Nan also taught me how to cook. Whilst my younger brother would occupy his time with the Nintendo, I would be in the kitchen. One of my earliest memories is being stood on a chair next to the kitchen worktop, rubbing butter into flour to make pastry. Perhaps it was just her way to keep me occupied, but we would often make pies, cakes, jam tarts and biscuits. She had very few gadgets by modern standards, so I learned how to make pastry by hand, cakes without a mixer and how to whip up cream using nothing but a hand whisk and a lot of effort.
When Nan passed away, my kitchen provided a welcome distraction. I had cleared out my diary for a couple of months to allow myself time to recover but the downside of this was that I had a lot of time to think. Spending a couple of hours baking a cake or a loaf of bread gave me something else to think about. The concentration and meticulousness of baking took my mind off my grief and gave me time to develop new skills. When I felt ready, I wanted to start working on recreating one of Nan’s favourite cakes: a simple fruit tea loaf. She probably made one of these every week, a sturdy loaf of mixed fruit soaked in tea, and everybody loved them. A slice, alongside a cup of strong tea, would greet every visitor to her house, and she would often wrap a slice in tin foil for them to take home if she felt she had a surplus. Despite making this so often, she never wrote down the recipe. My challenge to recreate this started with making every tea loaf recipe I could find to see which was the closest and, consequently, my boyfriend, friends and colleagues ended up eating a lot of cake. Eventually, I created my own combination with aspects of each and am now pretty close to the original. Like Nan, I make this cake a lot – when friends are visiting, to take into work for colleagues and, recently, for my boyfriend to take to France to give the ex-pats he was working with a dose of nostalgia. Each time it comes out of the oven he remarks, “I think this may be your best one yet.” To which I respond, “Perhaps, but it’s still not as good as Nan’s.”
Nan’s Tea Loaf
- 400g mixed fruit
- 250ml black Earl Grey tea, cooled
- 75g light soft brown sugar
- 1 egg
- 250g self-raising flour
Put the mixed fruit in a large bowl and cover with the tea. Cover with clingfilm and leave for a few hours, or preferably overnight.
Preheat the oven to 180ºc / 350 f / gas 4. Grease and a 1kg loaf tin and line with greaseproof paper.
Add the egg and brown sugar to the fruit and tea mixture and stir until fully combined. Add the flour, a little at a time, stirring after each addition until just incorporated. When all the flour has been added you will have quite a thick batter.
Scrape this into the prepared pan and bake for about an hour or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. You will be able to smell it when it is cooked!