…and of course I could go on with that fantastically vague description.
We all agree, surely, that the wonderful but at times overwhelming world of Tea and Things To Eat With It can get a little tricky to navigate. Reading informative but entertaining books on the subject is certainly one way forward.
The following book reviews were originally posted to my book blog but I thought that you lot would like to see them too 🙂 Enjoy!
A NICE CUP OF TEA AND A SIT DOWN
“Put a cup of tea in your hand, and what else can you do but sit down? This wonderful new book is a celebration of that most British of life’s cornerstones: taking a break, putting your feet up and having a breather. There is, however, a third element that any perfect sit down requires and it is this: biscuits. As Nicey so rightly points out, a cup of tea without a biscuit is a missed opportunity. Finding the right biscuit for the right occasion is as much an art as it is a science, and it is a task that Nicey has selflessly worked on for most of his tea drinking life. From dunking to the Digestive, the Iced Gem to the Garibaldi, everything you’ll ever need to know about biscuits is in this book, and quite a lot more besides. Is the Jaffa Cake a cake or a biscuit? And have Wagon Wheels really got smaller since your childhood, or have you just got bigger? […]Nicey and Wifey’s Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down does exactly what it says on the biscuit tin. So go on. Take a weight off, put the kettle on, and enjoy.”
Ever since e-publishing and the web in general took off in any serious way, there have been worried whispers among teachers, librarians and other book-lovers regarding the future of the beloved book. However, with popular web editions increasingly coming off the web and into people’s hands in the form of physical copies (you only have to look to Belle du Jour and Petite Anglaise for examples of this), for now at least it appears that we can all breathe a sigh of relief.
Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down, by Stuart Payne, is one such book. Initially conceived as a website to catalogue information on currently available biscuits and to mourn the passing of biscuits from days gone by, and for people to get into deep conversations on this subject, it has now come off the web and appeared before us in real book form. Sales of this have probably enabled the author (and his co-contributor, referenced in the book only as Wifey) to sit back, relax, and enjoy their new-found wonga, as the website itself has not been active now since 2008. While it remains available now for consultation, this may not be the case forever, and so it does seem to be distinctly advantageous to have a real book at our fingertips as an encyclopaedia for all biscuity matters.
While that description may seem slightly overblown, the deceptively slim-looking book truly has encyclopaedic qualities. It contains everything you could ever want to know about biscuits old and new from around the world (and, to be honest, in some cases, more than you ever wanted to know – in some places it becomes wildly detailed), as well as giving information about tea, the history of tea, the best way to drink it, and what to drink it with. Cake is also given a passing mention somewhere towards the back. All of this is laid out very methodically and articulately, making it a handy reference tool.
But, further to this – even if it is slightly politically incorrect to judge a book by its cover – it is certainly not boring, as perhaps one would expect from (you guessed it) the fun-loving cover design. Stuart Payne’s piercing wit shines through at every turn, making the reader’s quest to find out more about biscuits as entertaining as it could possibly be. Accessible and intelligent without being patronising, and with a good dose of humour along the way, this is a one-of-a-kind, detailed book which will find a place on any bookshelf in the land – even in houses that don’t normally have bookshelves.
THE RITZ LONDON BOOK OF AFTERNOON TEA
“An irresistible collection of traditional teatime recipes and charming stories from the world famous Ritz Hotel.”
You may have noticed by now that I am becoming a tad obsessed with tea, given my reading of this and Stuart Payne’s missive within a very short space of time. I also noticed this occurring when somebody at work was asking me about tea, for me to say “Oh, I don’t know very much about it really” only to rattle off quite a few quite specific pieces of information, including about my own favourite type of tea (Lapsang Souchong) and how to prepare the tea.
So books like this are really for entertainment just as much as for knowledge, although by the end of this one the reader is rightly confounded by the apparent lack of link to the Ritz (in spite of its title). Apart from the book possibly being sold there, and the hotel being mentioned from time to time in the book’s earlier sections, the book really is just about tea and cakes and the history thereof in general rather than it being anything to do with the place in particular. Still, it’s not as if it matters terribly in the end, as it still makes for a satisfying and informative read as well as being lightly entertaining. The humour, tone, typeface and illustrations are all so genteel that I did in fact wonder if this was a modern reprint of a book from a bygone age; however, it was written in the mid-2000s. Whether it is intended to be satirical or serious is therefore something that comes into play but does not really matter all that much when all is said and done – much like the book’s premise itself.
Slim and concise, it is packed with information, humour, cake recipes, history and anecdote, as well as quotations from various luminaries on the subject of tea and tea-drinking. It is all highly British with its sense of “this is how you pour the tea” and “oh, but that will never do”, and all without seeming too preachy. We marvel and drool with awe at the recipes and descriptions that are included and immediately make up our minds to spruce up our own afternoon teas; in reading the history of this British institution, too, we feel proud to be imbibing a little history in our cups and feel inclined to go beyond the humble tea bag. It is, in short, aspirational and delicate while continuing to be cuttingly witty in unexpected places. In addition, its well-written, precise and slightly coy style helps in transporting us to days gone by.
A faultless and unpatronising book which not only educates, informs and entertains but also introduces us to the work of Helen Simpson – which, it seems to me, would be well worth seeking out.
Other works by Helen Simpson
Four Bare Legs In A Bed (1991)
Dear George, and other stories (1996)
Hey Yeah Right Get A Life (2001)
Getting A Life (2002)
In The Driver’s Seat (2007)
In-Flight Entertainment (2010)