|Yesterday's lemon & pistachio cake. Just because.|
Nigel Slater always strikes me as painfully shy on television. He sounds so exuberant on paper, but seems slightly awkward on screen. But his excitement over the food he has cooked for his plate is still infectious, and it always looks amazing, but makeable. And I also love his "food history" programmes, like this one about cake. I should call them "food nostalgia", because he has retained his childlike enthusiasm for the (probably actually not terribly inspiring) food of his youth despite the pretty miserable time his autobiography recounts him having. In this programme, the wicked gleam in his eye when he laughs as he bites into a fondant fancy is a telling image of the wonderful effect of food and how powerfully the senses of taste and smell recreate memories.
He starts in Konditor & Cook just behind Waterloo station, home of the most incredible lemon cake I have ever eaten. Nigel says he would just as happily buy a cake from a shop as eat a home-made one by Auntie Marjorie.(When did he meet my grandmother?) He stresses cake's universal appeal. It is the ultimate in comfort food in times of need. It doesn't have to meet Mary Berry's perfection. It just needs to be naughty but nice. But what makes a cake truly a cake?
There's a history bit. It all started with compacted porridge. There's a science bit. Why eggs bring the magic, originally whisked in by twigs. There's the religious affrontery and the banning of buns. There's why we have an innate liking for sweetness. There's a Home Economics lesson that teaches us that dropping cakes fresh out of the oven is actually good for them. There's what rationing did to cakes. Then there are just lots of glorious regional cakes with silly names - lardy, parkin, Rutland plum shuttles, Selkirk bannock, Norfolk vinegar, and Cumberland courting. (Never got one of those out of my husband.) There's the exceedingly crap ones we buy from Mr Kipling and Lyons - the aforementioned fondant fancies, Jamaica Ginger cake and a slice of Battenberg. Cake is what we do in this country to be sociable and make us smile. Or it was until we discovered binge-drinking.
Then Jenny Eclair comes on and tells Nigel why, despite being named after one, she hates cake. It's a throwback to her anorexic days at drama school. She claims cupcakes are the most evil of all - so disappointing and dishonest, so bad for you, as unnecessary and harmful as high-heeled shoes. Much as I personally love cake, I have to admit she does have a point. Cupcakes, piled high with swirls of buttercream and sweetie toppings, usually look so much better than they taste. The insurmountable icing invariably swamps a tiny morsel of dry sponge, and tips off onto the floor at the first bite.
But what makes a cake a cake? For Nigel Slater, it's the spirit behind it. The love that creates it. And the fact that we always share it.
It's impossible to deny that wherever I go, I eat cake. Grasmere Gingerbread in the Lake District, Fat Rascals and macaroons from Betty's all over Yorkshire, Bara Brith in Pembrokeshire, Bakewell pudding in Derbyshire, brownies in Baltimore, Sachertorte in Vienna, tartes aux fraises in Paris, and pink-frosted cupcakes from a bakery on Bleecker Street in New York just like the ones Sarah Jessica Parker ate on Sex And The City (wearing stupid high-heeled shoes).
The winners will always be the Germans, however. Bakeries were the only shops open on a Sunday when I went to university in Heidelberg. Cake was the only thing that made me truly happy in a rather difficult year. There is much to be said for the healing powers of a bite of Apfelstrudel or a slice of Mohnkuchen or Streuselkuchen. Stollen at Christmas, washed down with Gluehwein from the Christkindlmarkt. But my favourite always - the simple baked Quark Kaesekuchen from the students cafe in Heidelberg's Marstallhof. It just about made up for the fact that everything else that the Mensa served was inedible - greasy gravy stodge with a side of cold fruit soup dolloped on to a metal tray. You weren't even allowed a plate. It was all stupidly cheap but utterly revolting. I still feel nauseous thinking about it. But the cheesecake was in another league.
|Heidelberg,. The Marstallhof Mensa and Cafe is the building on the right|