I found The Vintage Tea Party Book on a table at the venerable Strand bookstore in New York, where it was placed with a number of cookbooks chosen by bookstore staff. The cover, which has a cutout that acts as a frame for the watercolor on the frontispiece, is definitely prettier than most cookbook covers. It proclaims that the book is “a complete guide to hosting your perfect tea party”, and that one should “expect: glamour, roses, rabbits, headscarves, foxes, tea pots, crows, parlour games, cakestands, hair and make-up tips and, not forgetting, humongous amounts of magical tea-party food fit for the Queen and easy enough for you to make.”
None of this looks or sounds particularly promising. Another coffee table book bursting with food porn that traduces British foodways by reducing them to the trivial and twee? Yes, and emphatically no. Vintage Tea Party does indeed feature lots of pictures but they serve a playful purpose, not only in setting a loopy tone but also in showing the reader how to fashion those teatime treats.
But there is more, actually. There are recipes robust enough to transcend tea; there is the stuff of lusty breakfast and the full-blown dinner party. There are instructions to make playthings and props. There is a stencil of young Queen Elizabeth II that you can use to make your own decorative flags or bunting. There are directions for making an Art Deco-inspired apron. There are instructions for making the tiny hats called “fascinators”. There even are section showing how to dry edible flowers and apply false eyelashes. There is, however, no trace of curry, an odd omission from so British a book.
Ms. Adoree has a welcome eye for the macabre. Her salad cemetery alone (“Sometimes I hide toy coffins at the bottom of the couscous!”) screams for the purchase of the book, and all you need to make one is the merest half an hour.
The Salad Cemetery
All of this vintage lifestyle stuff is fun, and does not really distract from the wonderful, typically British recipes arranged by the time of day for which the author considers them appropriate. The recipes for coddled eggs in the brunch section of the book had me combing the internet for vintage porcelain egg coddlers like the lovely ones in the illustrations.
Many of the recipes are clever takes on British standards.
Devilled kidneys arrive under a dome of woven toast, because, Adoree explains, “they tend to have a little bite, so I relish the idea of keeping them caged. This is a classic recipe, but the bread lattice gives this dish crunch, texture, a buttery taste and STYLE!” And so it does.
The recipe for Scotch eggs uses quail eggs. The recipe for bacon rolls, that standby of midnight hangover prevention, is made with chicken. There is a leek and goat’s cheese rabbit (misspelled ‘rarebit’) with chive “grass” along with savory Brie and walnut scones. Potted prawns are covered with crumbled pork scratchings (or, to Americans, rinds), a wonderful idea--the pork adds some welcome crunch and a pleasant saltiness to the buttery prawns. Ms. Adoree notes that potting is a traditional British method of preserving foods that “like all things old and wonderful, is making a comeback!” Perhaps that is the case in Britain, but Americans will not know a potted prawn from a potting shed without a book like this.
There even is a recipe for Eccles cakes – something I never have stumbled upon outside of Britain. There you can buy them in packages at any grocery store; St. John’s Bread and Wine, Fergus Henderson’s outpost in Spitalfields, sells them hot from the oven, to go. Adoree’s Eccles cake adds orange, a novel variation which brings a spritely squeeze of citrus to the rich raisiny filling of the little pies, for Eccles cakes are nothing if not misnamed.
Ms. Adoree also includes loads of interesting drinks, many involving tea, both alcoholic and non. Her Bloody Mary shots include fresh tomatoes and sherry in addition to Vodka and tomato juice. She has a recipe for a drink she calls “Gunfire”, basically tea and rum, which she notes is a manlier drink than many of her concoctions, “the kind of thing a big, strong pirate would have drunk on a cold night.” There is also a “Scottish classic” called Atholl Brose Morning Drink that includes oatmeal, cream, honey and whiskey; it should provide quite the jump-start for your day. The legends have it that in 15th century Scotland, the Duke of Atholl poured this stuff down an enemy’s well. His foe downed too much of the delicious draught and Ahtholl captured him without a fight. Perhaps it would be best to sip your Atholl Brose after dinner rather than at breakfast. Either way, it remains unclear how the enemy failed to notice the oatmeal in his well water.
The recipes are illustrated both with elegant photographs of the food served in vintage cups, plates, bowls and glassware, and with delicate watercolor drawings of animals (including the many foxes, rabbits and owls promised on the cover). All of the recipes include preparation and cooking times; most, as the author promises, are accessible to the novice cook.
All in all, The Vintage Tea Party Book is a fun, visually beautiful but quite practical book that unabashedly celebrates traditional British cooking.