Winter picnics at Lodhi Garden were an important part of growing up in Delhi. A basket of food would be packed in the boot of our pista green Fiat along with a thermos of piping hot chai for the grown-ups and a large bottle of nimbu paani for us. As casseroles of aloo and mooli parathas were laid out on the chatai, my sister and I would curl up with our favourite Enid Blyton books and secretly crave scones and ginger beers instead.
After all, picnics and tea were a lavish affair for Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timothy the dog, the Famous Five. And really, if the Famous Five were to be believed, picnics were made better with eggs and sardine sandwiches, great slices of cherry cake, and ginger beer. And tea time meant enormous cakes, new bread with great slabs of butter, and hot scones with honey and homemade jam.
But what in the world was a scone? This was a question that plagued Enid Blyton readers in India for years. When you have lavish descriptions like this one in Five on Finniston Farm – “‘Hot scones,’ said George, lifting the lid off a dish. ‘I never thought I’d like hot scones on a summer’s day, but these look heavenly. Running with butter! Just how I like them!’” – how could you not crave one? A friend thought a scone was like a golden cupcake without frosting. Another was convinced they were the cream puffs we got in local bakeries. The reality, when tea shops started serving them here (somewhere between a cake and a bread), was different from our collective imagination. And really, where was the clotted cream? Hmph.
Having grown up on a steady diet of British books, my food memories were sumptuously stitched together by treats that were alien, yet familiar. Recently, a friend and I came across Jane Brocket’s Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer: A Golden Treasury of Classic Treats. The book, we were delighted to discover, offered recipes from children’s books along with an introduction of the story they originated from. The chapters have original illustrations as well as recipes for tuck-box treats, goodies whipped up by storybook Cooks and midnight feasts. There’s seed cake from Swallowdale by Arthur Ransome, pickled lime from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Jean Webster’sDaddy Long-Legs (don’t get too excited, it’s lime brined and stored), and even calf’s-foot jelly from Eleanor H Porter’s Pollyanna.
Brocket tosses together breakfast recipes of creamy porridge and bacon with hash browns. Having grown up in a vegetarian household, I had no clue what bacon rashers were back then, and imagined them to be some cousin of the tomato, since they were all being fried together. It was only when I read EB White’s Charlotte’s Web, did I discover, to my utmost horror, the source of the mouth-watering bacon that all the adventurers loved. Brocket also has recipes for Elevenses, what she describes as “a quintessentially British ritual” loved by Winnie-the-Pooh and Hobbits. There’s Paddington Bear’s favourite marmalade buns, which go well with hot cocoa; and fresh and gooey macaroons from Blyton’s Five Find-Outer series which were adored by Fatty.
Tea-time was sacred in children’s books. How many of us brewed pretend tea for our dolls, teddies and even parents, complete with mini cups and saucers? And before toast became the new global food trend, Mr Tumnus, the faun from CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, had a toasty tea with “a nice brown egg, lightly boiled… sardines on toast, then buttered toast and then toast with honey”. Since tea-time is really about cakes, there’s Mrs Banks’ bribery and corruption cocoanut cakes from Mary Poppins Comes Back, Milly-Molly-Mandy Has Friends’ muffins which can be toasted on forks over a crackling fire, and treacly, sticky ginger cake, a speciality of Aunty Fanny in Famous Five (“It was dark brown and sticky to eat. The children finished it all up and said it was the nicest thing they had ever tasted”.) Treacle, as I only recently found out, was just liquid molasses.
Brocket suggests an alluring recipe for hunger in which all you need is an outdoor space like a beach, garden or even a secret island. The method is simple – add adults and children to that fresh air along with outdoor equipment “according to season” and allow “to blend for several hours”. Feed the kids and adults well and leave them “to read good books”.