Grace’s Guide to Scones, for the Uninitiated.

scone

            You know you’re advancing in years when you begin to frequent coffee shops on a regular basis. You begin to have favourites. You get to know what’s on offer besides the coffee, too. For me this is likely to be a scone. For overseas readers here is an explanation of ‘scone’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scone
I consider myself to be something of an expert on scones and it is this, besides the quality of the tea or coffee that determines whether a coffee shop makes it onto the favourites list or if it is cast into the venues that are forever shunned. I have fond memories of scones in New Zealand, where the ubiquitous dairies produced substantial offerings boasting dried fruit in abundance, or made from wholemeal flour, often warmed and with ample butter on the side. Ireland also serves up generous, delicious scones in their many forms.
And yes, for the uninitiated there are several forms of scone, the most common being the fruit variety. This is best enjoyed with butter only but is too often used as part of a cream tea [that is to say, with jam and clotted cream: [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clotted_cream]. The most suitable scone for a cream tea is a plain or ‘Devon’ scone, since fruit detracts from the whole jam/cream experience. The best establishments may also offer cheese scones, which are a nod towards the less unhealthy option, being free of sugar, although it has to be said that dietary health is not a feature of this post.
Sometimes, having established that a café has scones before we select a table there is a prolonged wait for the scones to arrive. This is because the scones are already plated up and part of the [aforementioned] cream tea. Please note, café proprietors, that if we, the customers request a scone, this is not the same as a cream tea and while we are unlikely to turn it down we are not in the habit of devouring cream teas [treats that should be enjoyed on an infrequent basis].
Scones that do not pass muster tend to be dry, with a consistency akin to sawdust [such as those from a prestigious castle tea room in our locale] and too flat, with the appearance of an inflated biscuit. Mass produced scones may also have a slightly bitter taste, from having had too much raising agent added or with a leaden texture that sticks to the roof of the mouth and are sometimes available in the cafés of large department stores. Best are the offerings of small, independent coffee shops with their ranges of homemade cakes.
I am of course perfectly capable of baking scones at home and have done so in the past, but these days baking at home is an activity best avoided due to Husband and my propensity for eating the results.
For the foreseeable future, scone research has been put on hold. This, reader is due to the fact that overconsumption of scones has lead the researcher to begin to look like one. So having imparted what I know I leave you to pursue your own investigations. Enjoy!

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Travelling Hopefully on a Train

Unlikely as it may seem to many I have grown to like public transport. As a child in the fifties of course it was a great thrill to board a train or a bus. Trains, in particular were glamorous contraptions with long corridors and compartments with sliding doors. I loved tumbling into an empty compartment, fighting for a window seat and sitting on the prickly upholstery. The windows could be opened and bore only a warning not to stick anatomical parts out [especially in the approach to tunnels!].

When I began working life in London I endured a gruelling commute consisting of a 20 minute walk plus a train journey plus a tube journey plus another 15 minute walk. The tube, in particular was an unpleasant experience not unlike standing in a crammed cattle truck. There was never a seat but no chance of falling over due to the bodies on all sides. The station I alighted at, Vauxhall was a dismal, dirty drift of tarmac and I was delighted when I was able to change both my job and my place of residence.

Trains now have come to resemble buses-the utilitarian seats and the maximising of space to squeeze in as many travellers as possible in this age of too-many-people. Travelling jet-lagged and with that stretched feeling that not enough sleep bestows, we took a very early train back from the airport. Too tired to read I amused myself by observing our fellow passengers, most of whom were far more habitual train travellers than we are. They have long since become bored with the views from the windows. What do they do to pass this time they must endure each day?

A very large number indulge in eating and/or drinking. A woman with a number of bulging shopping bags withdrew one bag of sweets or crisps after another and set about each item with a determination that indicated none should remain, proffering the goodies to her companion opposite more out of duty than generosity.

Two teenage girls gossiped whilst one sipped from a giant, cardboard container of coffee and the other, her feet tucked neatly on to the seat beneath her arranged a fruit drink, a plastic container of prepared fresh fruit and a yoghurt on their table, working her way through all of this bounty with tiny bites of her perfectly white teeth and nodding at intervals while her friend talked. Does she do this every day? How can she afford it?

There is always, now, someone bellowing into their phone, unconcerned about the proximity of others whatever the subject matter might be. Others will be plugged into tiny devices to either listen to music or [and this astonishes me] watch films. As one who is barely able to see enough to text I wonder what kind of cinematic experience the little screen can provide?

We alighted at a provincial station where we were obliged to wait for the next train, stepping out into the freezing cold and back into 1950s Britain, where the comfort of a panelled, apple green waiting room provided warmth and an old fashioned café filled with an eclectic collection of objects served us a hot coffee reminiscent of the coffee of my childhood [ie nothing like coffee]. Long may these ancient, curious places remain!

Fiction Month 4-The Exchange [part 1]

The Exchange

            I am first. I am always first; always too early. I don’t mind. Getting here before the others gives me an opportunity to peruse the cakes and pastries at my leisure without the pressure of pretending disinterest. By the time they turn up I’ll have chosen; even, perhaps have consumed something. I’m leaning in favour of the ‘special’, a slice of Christmas cake, a rich, aromatic slab speckled with fruit and topped with a glistening, tooth tingling band of white icing and a dark green fondant holly leaf.

On the other hand, if I buy it now I may not have finished devouring it by the time one, or both of them appear, which would present an unseemly image. I should wait. I exert a seldom utilised self control, and having made a mental note of my preferred option I go straight to a table-the only remaining table, which is next to the toilets.

There are diners who are perfectly at home eating alone, able to consume an entire meal in solitude without appearing uncomfortable. They pull out a phone or a tablet with what seems like an endless deluge of emails, texts or photos, or they have some absorbing task to complete. I could take out my phone, but then I’d have to feign interest in the one text I’ve received today, from ‘Store 21’, alerting me to their ten percent off day, a snippet of information I have already viewed and which is unlikely to sustain my interest for the unspecified period I must wait. I fall, instead to studying the menu and have read it all through twice and memorised it before I spot Beverley weaving her way through the tables towards me.

While her sunglasses are incongruous on a winter’s day in the gloom of this dark corner of the café by the lavatories, she is dressed in her customary way, in flowing layers and expensive fabrics. She is a tall, statuesque woman and can get away with this look in a way that the shorter and dumpier of us cannot.

I rise to greet her and we embrace gingerly, like wary politicians before she discards her tweed cape and sinks down on to the seat. She is forcing a wan smile, which may indicate tiredness or something more sinister. When she tells me that Ava will be late I can only smile. Ava is late in the same way that I am early-by default. Not wanting to share too much before she arrives we talk of the weather, the traffic, how busy the shops are. I know my eyes are straying towards the menu as my stomach growls in an impatient demand for the cake, although Beverley is occupied in checking her phone to see if Ava has called again.

Then she is coming in, bumping tables and customers with assorted bags, turning this way and that as she scans the café for us. For a few moments I observe Ava, taking in her discomfort, her small, breathless panic as she stares over the heads of the assembled diners until at last I relent and offer a wave.

She bustles up, all puffing and blustering excuses. ‘What a busy life I lead’, she seems to say, though the bulging bags of her purchases tell a different tale. She is so sorry to have kept us waiting and only wants a black coffee. She places a solicitous, manicured hand on Beverley’s arm and inquires if she’s alright because she looks tired. I volunteer to order, more a ploy to ensure the capture of the Christmas cake than a magnanimous gesture, returning to the table to find them already engaged in showing each other photos on their phones. In the competition of life’s successes Beverley has scored the giant prize of acquiring a grandchild.

They turn to me-a diplomatic nod of interest in my unglamorous existence. Has George retired yet? Is Jacob working now? Still living at home? Such a shame.

The order arrives; black coffee for Ava, cappuccino for Beverley, hot chocolate and the cake for me. There is a slight pause as we all regard the cake, before I lever off the first, sweet, rich forkful.

Ava is asking Beverley how Rob’s business is going now, since he had to reorganise and lay off staff. Bev removes her sunglasses and rubs her eyes, bloodshot and dark ringed. The business is ‘ticking over’. They’ve begun looking for a smaller property in a less expensive area, seeking to down-size, to release capital. She speaks to Ava, avoiding my gaze. I am allowing a chip of hard, sugary icing to melt on my tongue, recalling how I visited for coffee one morning and found her in the kitchen, working her way through the contents of a vodka bottle with a determination that had eclipsed her memory the invitation. The failure of the business is not the sole reason for needing to release capital.

She straightens, takes a sip of the creamy cappuccino. In an abrupt change of subject she questions Ava about Matthew. Does Ava have any recent pictures? Ava reddens as she fumbles with her phone, then hands it across the table. Bev studies the photo of Matthew for what seems like a screen bite as Ava glances at me, eyes wide in her frightened face. Matthew is only two, an ‘afterthought’ as Ava describes him. Holding out the phone, Beverley frowns at the tiny sparrow of a woman opposite her and declares she cannot see anything of Steven in Matthew and I’m thinking, no, because there is nothing of Steven in Matthew-a fact that Ava confessed to me prior to his birth when faced with the dilemma of whether to tell her husband he was not the father. I lick my finger to sweep the remaining crumbs from the plate, wondering how three years can have passed since Ava blurted the tale of her sordid affair out to me in a moment of tearful desperation. What should she do? Should she tell Rob he could be the father of her baby? I’d advised her to leave well alone-after all he might not be the father. Who would know? She was frantic, sobbing. The child might resemble her friend’s husband; and of course, now he is older, he does.

To be continued-Part 2, the conclusion in next week’s post…