A Slice of Britain
AA Publishing, 2014
I blame Nigel Slater. Were it not for his BBC show back in November of 2014, Nigel Slater’s Icing on the Cake (the third in a series that also includes candy and biscuits), I’d never even have heard of Caroline Taggart’s A Slice of Britain. But in his search for British cake, Slater encountered Taggert and her recent book, and he interviewed her for the show.
I must have this book, I exclaimed, and promptly ordered it from Amazon UK. Then when it arrived, I proceeded to sort of ignore it for a few months, reading it in short bursts but not really enjoying it. To be fair, as a purchased book, it became my default reading when I didn’t have a library book or a book for an assigned review on the go. It didn’t help that I wasn’t originally enamoured with Taggart’s writing style — it felt too “bloggy”; a string of personal experiences as she travelled England, Wales and Scotland, searching out local baked delicacies, as opposed to a more factual, third person account with a clearly outlined history of each cake.
Determined to give it a second chance, I sat down again recently and plowed through half the book in an afternoon. Taggart’s chatty style grew on me and I found A Slice of Britain to be an enjoyable read. The idea to look up each cake on Google as I read about it helped immensely. Taggart includes recipes for many of the cakes she discusses (and “cake” is a loose term here — the book includes everything from scones to cookies/biscuits and full on cakes such as the ubiquitous Victoria sponge, as well as things we’d classify in Canada as a “loaf”, plus some candy items that are made in cake form), but with so many British cakes containing roughly the same ingredients, a visual aide (the book contains sketches but no photographs) was incredibly useful in determining the difference between, say, a Bath Bun and a Lardy Cake. Because, make no mistake, the Brits, or at least the ones in olde tymes in charge of making cakes, surely did love their raisins and dried fruit.
Taggart’s real charm is in her slightly snarky commentary about the places she visits. Eccles cakes, for instance, are no longer actually made in Eccles, although Taggart makes the trip there anyway and finds it a grey and dour place. This type of commentary might come off as a bit insulting to the places she visits, but it’s fun and honest in that “she says what we’re all really thinking” kind of way. Her tongue is firmly in cheek, so most comments are usually a good laugh. It’s also great to see someone write about local food without the weird reverence that we often use to discuss “local” cuisine. The author is honest enough to say straight up that not every bit of Britain is charming and pretty, and not all of its cakes are tasty.
My only ongoing annoyance with A Slice of Britain is that I can’t actually make many of the recipes Taggart includes due the the differences in British and North American flour. For pastries so dependant on a few basic ingredients, the quality of flour makes all the difference, and I’m reminded of an interview I did a few years back with Toronto shortbread baker Mary Mcleod about her many baking failures when she first arrived in Canada because of our hard wheat compared to the soft, self-rising flour in the UK.
Nevertheless, Taggart has compelled me to search out Canadian recipes for many of the cakes she includes (yay, colonialism!), and her ongoing fascination with gingerbread during her tour has caused cravings so bad I finally had to make some myself.
A Slice of Britain is not a definitive guide to the history of Britain’s local cakes — Taggart discusses local feuds about authenticity and the lack of knowledge of regional baking within those communities (she visited more than a few towns where the people had never eaten the cake named after where they lived) than she does about the history of the individual items. So, as mentioned previously, Google — and Wikipedia — make good reading companions. But ultimately, A Slice of Britain is a fun, enjoyable read for cake lovers, anglophiles and food nerds alike.