November 1998

A Farmhouse Tea with Anna and Ugo

Cowley, Exeter 22 November, 1998 "When are we coming to you again for tea?," Bella asked Anna, inviting herself -- and us -- with her usual six-year-old forthrightness to one of Anna's spendid farmhouse teas. Tea for us is an unusual meal that we rarely encounter these days, so it's a treat that we look forward to as much as the children. Once a normal feature of English (and Welsh, Scottish and Irish) life in town and country alike, this is a meal that was formerly enjoyed throughout the world wherever there was or had been a British presence, though inevitably modern lifestyles, combined with changing eating habits mean that it is definitely on the decline.
Tea is a late afternoon meal, enjoyed well after lunch, but equally well before supper or dinner. In times past, people must quite simply have eaten considerably more than we do nowdays (energy expenditure levels for manual and farmworkers would have necessitated greater calory intake) because tea was a meal often enjoyed in addition to lunch and supper or dinner (as well, sometimes, as 'elevenses'). For children, tea is often the evening meal, served to them before being despatched to bed, leaving the grownups free to enjoy a civilised supper or dinner ('children are to be seen and not heard' was the reasoning, 'we're British after all'). But a true farmhouse tea is a delightful family meal enjoyed by all around an amply laden kitchen or dining room table.
"We always enjoyed a tea like this together every Sunday with our children," explained Anna, as she urged us to sit and eat. The house was warm on this cold, damp Devon afternoon, heated throughout by the comforting glow of Anna's kitchen AGA, as well as by log fires. Outside we could see the chickens, ducks, and geese scratching in their penned in yard, while clouds hung low over the hills and fields beyond. Turning inwards to the fire, the dining table was almost completely covered with an ample all-at-once mixture of both sweet and savoury foods. The centrepiece was two fragrant loaves of homebaked bread that had only recently emerged from the AGA, one a potato loaf, the other a light rye bread. There was a tray of sausages, slow-roasted in the oven, slabs of rich yellow farm butter from nearby Quicke's dairy, cheeses, tomatoes, and a delicious egg salad made with fresh eggs laid by Anna's own chickens. There were mustards and homemade chutneys and pickles, delicious with the cheeses that Anna had brought back from a recent cross-channel shopping trip to Brittany.
"Why can't our supermarkets supply us with produce as fine -- and as cheap -- as in France," she asked. Why indeed. It is a familiar moan: our supermarkets here have undoubtedly improved in recent years and we now have an enviable choice of foods from around the world, but at a price. And do the supermarkets here encourage us to value the genuine, local, artisan made foods that we have in abundance on our very doortstep, and whose counterparts remain such a part of the gastronomic scene in France? Sadly not.
What caught the childrens' eyes, not surprisingly, were Anna's cakes and jams and jellies. Guy especially loved the potato bread, first spread thickly with butter, then slathered with dollops of homemade apple and grape jelly. Bella, meanwhile, eschewed the savoury foods and instead tucked directly into homemade Danish pastries, rice krispies biscuits (made with melted marshmallows, something my mother used to make too), oat and honey flapjacks, and finally, the pièce de resistance, the richest and most luxurious chocolate cake Bella had ever tasted.
We washed down this immense farmhouse meal with endless cups of strong tea and milk (the children with milk or juice), finally retired to the lounge to luxuriate in front of the fire, before making our way from country back across town to riverside Topsham (if a car could waddle, then ours did).
Speaking of the artisan made, Anna's fruit cakes are famous among the conoscenti, produced to order by Anna herself with only the finest ingredients -- fresh farm eggs and butter, superb products like Somerset apple brandy or the finest malt whisky, and slow-baked in the everlit Aga. For those who would like to sample them, they are available by mail order or over the web from Real Cakes of Exeter. Or email Anna if you have any particular requests or requirements.

Copyright © Marc Millon 2000


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Copyright © Marc and Kim Millon 2000