Tea with Book Club.

Here’s how book club usually works:

  1. Amanda, Darlington, Heather, Melissa, Sarah, Stephanie and I trickle in, toting the food we’ve brought to share.
  2. We set up the food and catch up with what’s been going on with each other since we last got together.
  3. We load up our plates.
  4. We discuss the book in between snacking.
  5. Somehow, we always end up talking about strange things to say to our bedmates.
  6. We eat some more.

Last week was no different. *

innocent-traitor1We gathered at Darlington’s place in Harvard Square for what we were calling a high tea, even though it was only ten o’clock in the morning.   We chose tea rather than breakfast or brunch as  a wink to our book, the Britain-based Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir.

That this month’s book was my pick — we take turns choosing titles, the same way we alternate hosting duties — and it just so happened that Innocent Traitor climaxes at the Tower of London, where I spent a morning a few months ago. It was there that I first heard of our book’s protagonist, and where I learned of her place in English history.  Knowing how the story of the “innocent traitor” in question unfolded over four hundred and fifty years ago didn’t prevent me at all from thoroughly enjoying Weir’s work.

Something interesting is that Weir is a historian and a writer of narrative non-fiction; Innocent Traitor marks her first foray into fiction.  Here she writes a based-in-fact account of Lady Jane Grey‘s life during the sixteenth century.  Jane is portrayed as being an erudite girl and an avid student, wanting nothing more out of life than to continue her studies and live as a fervid Protestant.  Of course, Jane can’t get her way (if she didn’t face conflict, Weir wouldn’t have much of a novel).  It doesn’t help that Jane is a Tudor — the ruling family of England, Ireland and Wales  from 1485 to 1603 — and therefore has a something of a shot of wearing the a crown.  Positioned by her parents and ambitious men to be the next Queen of England after Edward VI dies of “consumption,” Jane soon finds hers incarcerated in the Tower.

book-group-1We traded opinions on both Weir and Jane while we balanced our heavy plates on our knees; I shared how I (uncharacteristically) cried cried cried earlier in the week because Weir’s Jane is like a candle underneath a glass dome: burning brighter and brighter until all the air is consumed.  Truly, even if you know the real story of Jane and her time, Innocent Traitor will take hold of your shirtsleeves and not let go until you’ve reached the end.  At that point, you may cry.  You’ve been warned.

Food-wise, we found ourselves faced with a feast, as usual.  Stephanie assembled tea sandwiches spread with cream cheese, layered with baby cucumbers and sprinkled with herbs; Heather rolled cheese and salmon into spirals wrapped in spinach-flavored tortillas; Amanda had made scones sweetened with pecans and dried fruit; and the day before I baked a cake made only of clementines, eggs, sugar, nuts and little else.  My mother used to make cakes similar to this one, and the entire house would smell sunny and warm, even on the coldest winter days, until the last slice mysteriously went missing.

For the record, my house still smells like sunshine.

Clementine Cake, from Nigella Lawson via Deb at Smitten Kitchen
Makes eight portions.

4to 5 clementines, about 1 pound total weight
6 eggs
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 1/3 cups ground almonds (I used walnuts since that’s not only what I had on hand, but also because that’s what my mother uses in her citrus cakes.)
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder

  1. Put the clementines in a pot with cold water to cover, bring to the boil, and cook for 2 hours. Drain and, when cool, cut each clementine in half and remove the seeds. Then finely chop the skins, pith, and fruit in a food processor or by hand.
  2. Preheat the oven to 375°; butter and line an 8-inch springform pan with parchment paper.  (I used a 9-inch, as that’s what I own, and the cake turned out fine.)
  3. Beat the eggs. Add the sugar, almonds, and baking powder. Mix well, adding the chopped clementines.  Pour the cake mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour, when a skewer will come out clean.  If necessary, cover the cake with foil after about 40 minutes to stop the top from burning. Remove from the oven and leave to cool, in the pan on a rack. When the cake is cold, take it out of the pan.

Note:  If you do cover your cake with foil, I suggest poking a few toothpicks, skewers or similar into the top and creating a foil tent; mine stuck.

* There was a slight variation this month, as we played a game.  Amanda had a stack of cards, each depicting a portrait of one of England’s reigning monarch.  She had shuffled them and divided them amongst us; we then put them in order, lining them up chronologically across the windowpanes.  It was more fun than it sounds.  And Lady Jane, the Nine Days’ Queen, was not amongst the rulers.  She was mentioned a few times though.

Overheard at the Tower of London.

British Schoolboy #1: Oooh, the torture chamber!  Look at that! [points at replica of the rack]
British Schoolboy #2: Wicked.  Let’s tie Liam up!
British Schoolboy #1: And feed him broccoli!
British Schoolboy #2: [pause]  I like broccoli.
British Schoolboy #1: Ugh, broccoli’s terrible.
British Schoolboy #2: No, it’s lovely.
[Argument ensues.]

Late Morning at Borough Market.

Though there were several spots Keith and I both wanted to drop by during our short stay in London — Liberty, the National Gallery, Selfridges, the Tower — the one place I really wanted to swing by for a visit was a food market.  While there were so many to choose from — Broadway, Cabbages and Frocks, Blackheath, etc. — we decided on Borough Market, the oldest at 250 years.

borough-marketbmpUnlike so many of the other markets in and around London, Borough is open three days a week (Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays) as opposed to the usual Sunday or Saturday.  It was also incredibly easy for us to get to, since both the market and our hotel were on the Northern Line of the Underground.  Once we emerged from the tube at the London Bridge stop, we barely had to walk any distance before catching sight of the huge painted finger pointing through a narrow passageway beneath what I believe was the London Overground.  Then, like a magical creature emerging from the mists, the market was in front of us and we stood there speechless, jaws agape.

(All right, so I know that’s terribly cheesy, but what can I say?  I love markets.  The only thing that could make a market better would be a market in which you could befriend a unicorn or get a free puppy whilst picking out a bouquet of cauliflower, broccoli, rhubarb and kale.  Like they say: a girl can dream, can’t she?)

What makes Borough Market so interesting is its history: it’s been standing in the same location in one form or another for over twenty decades.  Imagine the sights the market has seen, the people who have passed through as both seller and buyer, the produce…  Honestly, the produce.  The wares here range from freshly killed pheasant to freshly picked fennel, with some toffees, coffees, wines, whiskys and wheatgrass juices thrown in for good measure.  Also easy to find are cookies, fudge, fish and flowers — with more than one hundred vendors, cafés, kiosks, restaurants, shops and stands open for business, it’s easier to think of what you can find instead of what you can’t.

Click on the picture for a short market-themed slideshow.


Borough Market
8, Southwark Street
London SE1 1TL
+44 020 7407 1002