The crème de la crème of afternoon tea: Chester cakes in Muriel Spark’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1961)

I came to Muriel Spark by a rather odd route: through the poetry of Louis MacNeice. If you follow this blog regularly you will probably be slightly bored of the fact that I frequently mention my absolute passion for MacNeice’s writing. If you feel that thought brimming up inside your mind, just go and read MacNeice’s Autumn Journal and hopefully you will understand why my ideas circle back to him.

In the anxious days of 1944, Spark – stranded by a late train in the middle of blacked-out London and vulnerable to the flying doodlebug bombs – found shelter with MacNeice’s maid whilst the poet and his wife were away. Unaware of the identity of the house’s owner, Spark admired the ‘enterprising sort of library’ and pondered whether the eccentricity it displayed was the ‘expression of a new and living system of thought’. When she discovered that the house, in fact, belonged to one of the great poets of the time, Spark sought some transference of brilliance by touching his books and pens.

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Many of us have probably done that. I certainly did when reading writers’ manuscripts in the Bodleian Library at Oxford (Tolkien!) and later in the Irish Writer’s Museum in Dublin (Yeats!). But Spark’s reverent contact with MacNeice’s possessions generated more success for her writing career than my sighting of James Joyce’s suitcase in the Martello Tower at Sandycove.

So perhaps part (a very small part!) of the credit for Spark’s renowned serio-comic novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), can go to MacNeice. Like her visit to his house, the novel is shadowed by the tumultuous political upheavals of the 1930s and World War Two. Miss Brodie, a teacher at a girl’s school in Edinburgh, combines a ‘progressive’ educational philosophy with a lot of sympathy for Mussolini’s Italy. At one moment Miss Brodie states that ‘education is a drawing out, not a putting in’, whilst in almost the next breath she suggests that one of her students becomes involved in the Spanish Civil War. Thus, the humorous satire of Miss Brodie’s character is constantly held in tension with a more troubling sense of menace.

Like Mussolini, Miss Brodie seeks to control the world around her, hand-picking a group of pupils – who come to be known as the Brodie Set – at the girl’s grammar school where she teaches. The aim: to transform them into the crème de la crème. She also seeks to control the male teachers at the school, approaching one man in particular (the eligible bachelor Gordon Lowther) through his stomach.

She shops and cooks for him, force-feeding him Chester cake so that he does not lose weight:

And she made him eat a Chester cake, and spoke to him in a slightly more Edinburgh way than usual, so as to make up to him by both means for the love she was giving to Teddy Lloyd instead of to him.

‘You must be fattened up, Gordon,’ she said. ‘You must be two stone the better before I go my holidays.’

He smiled as best he could at everyone in turn, with his drooped head and slowly moving jaws.

When I first read this I assumed that Chester cake was either English, as the name suggests, or a Scottish recipe. I was surprised to find that it is actually based on a traditional Irish traybake. I also realised that I had unknowingly eaten this in Northern Ireland, or seen it sitting quietly amongst the more flamboyant fifteens and malteaser traybakes which are ubiquitous in Belfast’s coffee shops. In Dublin, Chester cake is known as ‘gur’ (gutter) cake because of its cheap ingredients, which comprise mainly of leftovers. Irish food blogger Catriona (of wholesomeireland.com) tells us that the Irish name originally came from an old Dublin word for a young, mischievous, working-class boy – a gurrier – who would scrounge cake and bread remnants from bakeries in order to make this treat.

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The poor origins of the Chester cake seem far removed from Miss Brodie’s faux-upper-class airs and her fabricated Edinburgh accent. But, perhaps, her desire to fatten up Mr Lowther is tempered by a Scottish Presbyterian dislike for earthly indulgence and a horror of waste.

The delicate yet masterful pouring of tea and serving of cake seem to be the perfect setting for the exercise of power. Miss Brodie is not the only character who asserts herself through this simple ceremony: whoever has charge of the teapot and wields the cake-knife is in control of the tea-table (writer Gill Fyffe depicts a similar tea-time experience in another Scottish boarding house in her memoir LifeBlood). In her exquisite depiction of the tensions, allegiances and betrayals at each of these afternoon teas, Spark manages both to depict a segment of mid-century Edinburgh society and to gesture towards much more serious negotiations in the political realm.

So I advise caution when choosing who to invite round to share the recipe below! And make sure you are holding on to the teapot.

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References
Muriel Spark, ‘The Poet’s House’, in The Golden Fleece: Essays (Manchester: Carcanet, 2014).
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (London: Penguin, 2000).
Catriona, ‘Gur Cake’, http://wholesomeireland.com/gur-cake-2/.

 

Ingredients
300g plain flour
150g unsalted butter
Some ice-cold water
2tbsp sugar
1 egg
400g mincemeat (see our mince pie recipe for how to make this at home)
Breadcrumbs (from 3 slices of bread)
Method
1.      Rub the flour and butter together until it looks like fine breadcrumbs. Add in the egg and a little cold water. Bring together into a dough, adding more water if necessary. Try not to overwork the pastry.
2.      Wrap the pastry in clingfilm and put in the fridge for about 20 minutes.
3.      Mix the mincemeat with the breadcrumbs.
4.      Grease a 20cm square baking tray. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
5.      Remove the pastry from the fridge and separate into two portions. One portion should be 2/3 of the dough.
6.      Roll out the 2/3 portion and lay in the baking tray. Fill the pie with the mincemeat mixture.
7.      Roll out the 1/3 portion to make the lid for the pie. Put it on top, crimping the edges with a fork. Make a few holes in the lid to let the steam out.
8.      Bake for 20 minutes, or until golden brown.
9.      Cut into squares and serve cold.

 

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