GRUB!: Jaffa Cakes

Sunday, April 24, 2011

It’s time to discover another typically Brit treat that will probably be new to anyone who hasn’t been over here: Jaffa Cakes!

Jaffa Cakes Box
Jaffa Cakes are produced by McVitie and Price (McVitie’s also manufacturer another local favourite, the sublime dark chocolate covered Hobnob) and were first introduced  in 1927.  For reasons which will shortly become clear, they’re named after Jaffa oranges.  Jaffa Cakes are not precisely cakes and not precisely biscuits.  They’re the size of a biscuit, and tend to be consumed in the same way, and are found in the biscuit section of the grocery store.  However, they are most certainly composed primarily of cake, or, to use the correct local term “sponge”.  (More on the cake vs. biscuit debate later.)

A 2-1/8” (54mm) diameter circle of sponge forms the base of the common Jaffa Cake, and the top is covered in a thin layer of dark chocolate, which is not a bad start.  But it’s what's in between the sponge and the chocolate where the magic happens.  Sitting atop the sponge is a thick layer of what is best described as “scrummy orange stuff”, a sort of thick orange flavoured jelly.  It’s that scrummy orange stuff that makes the Jaffa Cake great.

Jaffa with labelsThe anatomy of a Jaffa Cake

They’re soft and a bit chewy and quite chocolately, with just the right the hit of orange.  And they’re really good with coffee, or a nice cup of tea.  Also, they are really good consumed one after another after another after another until the end of the package is reached with surprising haste and no small amount of regret, both at the realization that you’ve just eaten an entire package of Jaffa Cakes, and at the realization that there are no more Jaffa Cakes.

However, Jaffa Cakes are not perfect.  For one thing, it bothers me that the scrummy orange bit only covers a portion of the top of the cake – a mere 1-1/2” in diameter.  Also, it’s distressingly rare to get a truly fresh Jaffa Cake, meaning that the sponge on the bottom is usually somewhere between “a bit stale” and “dentally challenging”.  I’ve had some good luck with one particular knock-off non-McVitie imitator, which defiantly covers almost the whole top with scrumminess and which also seem to manage to stay fresher longer (likely with the addition of alarming chemicals, but who’s kidding who? That scrummy orange stuff is probably mostly chemicals too. Though encouragingly the package does actually list concentrated orange juice as an ingredient).

Some might consider the oranginess of Jaffa Cakes to be a defining characteristic (Patrick, I’m talking to you).  But McVitie’s have made special edition flavours in the past, including lemon-lime, strawberry and black currant (So there!).  Personally, I’m a fan of the knock-off raspberry Jaffa Cakes that were available at the miserable grocery store I used to go to when I lived up in Arsenal.  Arsenal did not have a lot going for it, but those Jaffa Cakes certainly helped. (As did the Happening Bagel Bakery, which was across the street from the miserable grocery store, and which did the best bagels I’ve had in London.  It also stayed open to all hours so that if someone happened to be coming home late after a hash run and was feeling slightly tipsy, and kinda hungry, and certainly lacking in self restraint, someone could get a hot samosa or sausage roll to consume while wending his or her way home from the tube station.)

And what about the cake vs. biscuit controversy I alluded to earlier?  Here’s the scoop, straight from Wikipedia:
In the UK, value added tax is payable on chocolate covered biscuits, but not on chocolate covered cakes. McVities defended its classification of Jaffa Cakes as cakes in court, producing a 12" (30 cm) Jaffa Cake to illustrate that its Jaffa Cakes were simply miniature cakes. McVities argued that a distinction between cakes and biscuits is, among other things, that biscuits would normally be expected to go soft when stale, whereas cakes would normally be expected to go hard. It was demonstrated to the Tribunal that Jaffa Cakes become hard when stale. Other factors taken into account by the Chairman, Potter QC, included the name, ingredients, texture, size, packaging, marketing, presentation, appeal to children, and manufacturing process. Potter ruled that the Jaffa Cake is a cake. McVities therefore won the case and VAT is not paid on Jaffa Cakes in the UK
So there you have it – no VAT on Jaffa Cakes.  One more reason to love them.  (And as an aside, I wonder how that tribunal Chairman, Potter QC, ended up getting the Jaffa Cake file?  Was it a punishment or a reward?)

Finally, one last bit of Jaffa Cake trivia.  I bet you can’t guess the world record for greatest number of Jaffa Cakes eaten in one minute.  Twenty?  Thirty?  Fifty?  Nope.  It’s… eight.  And for a long time it wasn’t even that.  For a long time, the record was a lousy four.  I’m not kidding.  You’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute.  They’re only 2” across, and the most anyone could get down was four in a minute?  I’ve never even tried one before and I bet I could do better than that.”  Not so fast.  It turns out the rules set out by the Guinness World Records people are quite strict.  You can only eat one Jaffa cake at the time and you must show a completely empty mouth before starting to eat the next one. And, most importantly, you can’t drink anything during the minute.  I think it’s the no drinking thing that flummoxes most people.  However, Gustav Shulz, a German student studying English in the UK was undaunted by the challenge, and thus I am able to bring you this video:

By the way, Gustav agrees that Jaffa Cakes are certainly cakes and not biscuits, and I think we can assume he is a man who knows a thing or two about Jaffa Cakes.

And there you have it, the low-down on another native delicacy that’s become part of my life here in London.  And for the record, I would like it known that I only ate THREE Jaffa Cakes the whole time I was writing this, which I think is a world record for Least Number Of Jaffa Cakes Consumed While Composing A Blog Post About Jaffa Cakes.

P.S.  In researching this blog post (no, I don’t just make this stuff up.  Well, at least not ALL of it) I came across a website that I feel like sharing.  The writing style reminds me a bit of my own, if I were to devote myself exclusively to tea-and-biscuit related blogging.  It’s quirky, it’s fun, and if you want the warts-and-all reviews for just about every biscuit that you can find on the shelves in the UK, have a look at A Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down, where there mission is, and I quote “Well I think we should all sit down and have a nice cup of tea, and some biscuits, nice ones mind you. Oh and some cake would be nice as well. Lovely.”

"Watching the English": a book review

Sunday, April 17, 2011

I recently took a short weekend trip to Stratford-on-Avon (definitely NOT to be confused with the Stratford in north London which is, shall we say, a tad rougher around the edges.  Though it would be exceedingly amusing to discover how many blue-haired foreign fans of Shakespeare end up hurrying out of the Stratford tube station expecting to see tipsy half-timbered Tudor buildings, tea rooms selling Bakewell tarts and Shakespeare trivets and  are instead confronted with shuttered storefronts, kebab shops, and people hawking cheap international phone cards. I bet there are one or two a year, at least…)

But back to my trip to Shakespeare’s Stratford – I was there mostly to visit a friend who works at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and had a lovely day touring around with him.  He showed me all the theatre spaces and also took me the church where Shakespeare is buried, and the building where it’s generally believed he was born.  It was a really lovely break from London, and I came away glad for the trip, and well into a book of his that he recommended and loaned me: “Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour” by Kate Fox.

Watching the English
Fox is a social anthropologist who has devoted much of her career to studying the behaviour of her own tribe: the English.  In pubs, at race tracks, in shops, on trains and on sidewalks, she has devoted much of her professional life to discovering what she calls “the hidden, unspoken rules of English behaviour, and what those rules tell us about our national identity.”  I took to the book instantly, probably because, though I grew up among a lot of English relatives and figured I’d have no trouble at all fitting right in when I arrived, I’ve discovered there are many times when I just want to scream, “Stop being so ENGLISH!” because of the sheer maddening perverseness of it all.  Conversely, there are probably an equal number of times when I think, with a little glow of pleasure, “Awww… that’s so ENGLISH!”

It’s a proper academically rigorous book, with footnotes and everything, but the language and writing style is fun and easy to get through, with lots of first-person comments from the author herself.  The book is peppered with anecdotes about the research Fox did, and how she went about it.  Favourite among these is her story about her hands-on experiment (properly termed “participant observation”) to do with the natural tendency of the English to apologise for almost anything.  The section was called, with clinical precision, “Bumping Experiments and the Reflex-Apology Rule” (but honestly, it was an easy read!).  Fox’s goal with the experiment was to see how many apologies she could elicit from people she had intentionally bumped into on the street.  That is to say, how many people would say “Sorry” to her when she bumped into them
“My bumping got off to a rather poor start. The first few bumps were technically successful, in that I managed to make them seem coincidentally accidental, but I kept messing up the experiment by blurting out an apology before the other person had a chance to speak.  As usual, this turned out to be a test of my own Englishness: I found that I could not bump into someone, however gently, without automatically saying “sorry”. After several false starts, I finally managed to control my knee-jerk apologies by biting my lip – firmly and rather painfully – as I did the bumps.”
Classic.  I loved how the author struggles with her own instincts in trying to step out of herself long enough to try to be an impassioned observer.  It seems much more interesting, or at least different, than reading about some sociologist living in a mud hut and trying to “go native”. 

The same thing happened in another amusing section wherein the author attempts to observe what she calls the “money talk taboo” by deliberately bringing up the awkward topic at dinner parties, even going so far as to ask the hosts, outright, how much their house cost.  This made me laugh and  cringe at the same time when I read it: Fox trying to screw up the courage to bring up such a forbidden topic, and everyone else’s reaction when she finally managed to get the question out: uneasy coughs, raised eyebrows and sidelong glances across the table – classic signs of an Englishman in high dudgeon.

I think “Watching the English” is really well done.  It covers a huge range of topics – conversation, humour, class, home life, work life, travel, dress, food, sex – this book has it all.  Fox combs through all these aspects of life and looks at how “Englishness” is displayed in each.   And what are the conclusions of the book?  What is it that defines “Englishness”?  Kate Fox makes her diagnosis that central to the very core of it all is a general sense of unease and awkwardness in any social situation – she called it the English “social dis-ease” and sees it as the root of all the other behaviours she defines as typically English.  One way I can describe what I think she’s driving at with this social dis-ease is that stereotypical stammering, awkward Hugh Grant kind of character we’re familiar with from films like “Notting Hill”. 

Here are a few of the other traits that Fox singles out as defining “Englishness”:

Humour:  The English sense of humour is justifiably renowned.  Fox sees it as a way of coping with all those awkward interactions required when one is faced with something so daunting as other people.  It’s like an antidote, and it’s everywhere.  “In other cultures, there is ‘a time and place’ for humour: among the English it is a constant…” And like any muscle that gets a lot of exercise, the English sense of humour is positively Schwarzenegger-like.  For instance, the comedy shows on English tv are smarter and funnier than anything I’ve seen elsewhere.  The BBC show “QI” alone is really worth a whole blog post, and this is, after all, the home of “Monty Python” and “Fawlty Towers”. But beyond staged funny stuff like television it really is true that everyday encounters with anyone will often lead to a small, funny exchange of some kind.  For the English humour is a reflex, like breathing.

Class-consciousness:  This one is particularly hard for me, as a North-American, to grasp, but the class system is definitely alive and well in England, and everyone brought up here has an innate sense of class-radar that’s always on.  Shaw was not kidding around when he wrote “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”  Class determines and is determined by where you live and what kind of house you live in, how you speak, how you dress, where you send your kids to school, who you socialise with and what you do when socialising, which newspapers you read, how and what you eat, in short – everything about how you live.  It’s not always obvious, but it’s pretty much always there.  One co-worker – definitely a middle class bloke – related a story about having to pull his young son up short because the boy was starting to develop a bit of a “south London” accent – that’s the one that sounds like all vowels mushed together, where “th” becomes “f” or “v” (“nothing” becomes “nuffink”) and where the “t” sound is missing entirely, replaced by a glottal stop.  It’s not as complicated as it sounds, you’d know it when you hear it - think early Jamie Oliver.  “No, no”, my colleague protested to his 5-year old,  “You must pronounce your Ts!”.  They start ‘em young.
“What is distinctive about the English class system is (a) the degree to which our class (and/or class anxiety) determines our taste, behaviour, judgements and interactions; (b) the fact that class is not judged at all on wealth, and very little on occupation, but purely on non-economic indicators such as speech, manner, taste and lifestyle choices; (c) acute sensitivity of our on-board class radar systems; and (d) our denial of all this and coy squeamishness about class…”
Moderation: “What do we want? GRADUAL CHANGE!  When do we want it? IN DUE COURSE!”.  (See, there’s the sense of humour again.)  It’s about avoiding extremes and excesses and certainly about never, ever making a fuss.  I encountered this at work one day when a guy cut his finger fairly badly and came up to the office for some help.  Rather than simply announcing he was hurt and needed a bit of first aid - far too dramatic - he mumbled past the bleeding finger in his mouth, repeatedly asking for a particular co-worker who eventually spirited him off to deal with the matter in private.  The rest of us were left wondering if we were dealing with something on the order of a bad paper cut, or whether we should be pawing through piles of sawdust for a missing digit.  Though of course no one asked because we didn’t want to make a fuss. 

Moderation can also be observed in things like the English love for “a nice cup of tea and a biscuit”.  Honestly, could they not set their sites a bit higher?  A mere biscuit? It probably doesn’t even have jam in it, or icing.  But then again we “mustn’t have too much of a good thing.”

Fair play: Fox describes this as “a national quasi-religion obsession”, but is quick to point out that it’s not about devising a fake, happy scheme where everyone wins.  The English accept that there will be winners and losers, but feel that everyone should be given a fair crack, as long as they follow the rules, don’t cheat, and don’t shirk from duty.  And it’s not just about cricket – the sense of fair play shows up in everyday life too, perhaps most famously in the English skill and propensity for queuing (that’s “lining up for stuff” for the North Americans out there).  Queuing is practically the national sport, with an unwritten code that everyone understands.  Chief among the rules for queuing is that no one shall ever, ever, jump the queue (cut in line).  Queue-jumping is roughly on a par with asking someone how much his house cost or possibly with first-degree murder.  There are even “invisible queues” in pubs where everyone clusters around the bar to order drinks but everyone in the cluster and the barmen serving knows exactly who’s next in line.  And if there’s any doubt, they will automatically defer. My favourite quote from the book about queuing is one Fox credits to George Mikes: “an Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.

ipad queueAn orderly queue of quite a bit more than one – outside the Apple Store on Regent Street, waiting for the iPad 2

Modesty: Fox is quick to point out that the English are not necessarily more modest than others, but they are scrupulous about maintaining the appearance of modesty.  Thus where someone else will justifiably boast about winning the Olympic gold medal for, oh… archery, say, an Englishman in the same position might be coaxed into admitting that he “does a bit of shooting”.  In fact, there’s actually complex reverse-modesty going on here.  The more one protests one’s lack of skill or knowledge, the more one can reasonably be expected to be at least a PhD in the subject, if not actually a world-renowned expert.  This allows the listener to be simultaneously impressed not just with one’s (presumed) achievements, but also with one’s reluctance to trumpet them.

There are some other traits that Kate Fox writes about in “Watching the English”: courtesy, hypocrisy, empiricism, and something she calls eeyore-ishness, (which is roughly about the English love of a good moan, not to be confused with whinging or whining) but honestly, it’s Sunday afternoon, I’ve got a tax return to do (thank you Revenue Canada), and there could be some important napping in the near future.  If this has piqued your interest, I’d recommend getting the book yourself – it really is a good read and has helped me start to understand the motivations behind the quirky, maddening, charming and confusing people with whom I share this tiny island.

And now I think it’s time for a nice cup of tea and a biscuit.

Off the tourist track: Postman's Park

Monday, April 4, 2011

Ok, enough of Gherkins and Shards and the biggest this and the tallest that.  It’s time to take a look at some of the lesser-known but charming sites of London – small places just slightly off the Tourist Trail, but certainly worth some attention.  First up in this new series (well, let’s hope it becomes a series) is Postman’s Park.

P1080005Postman’s Park

Postman’s Park is a small green area just a few minutes walk north of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and is made up of the churchyards of three different churches that occupied or surrounded the grounds as early as 1050.  Those churchyards – Christ Church Greyfriars, St. Leonard Foster Lane and the brilliantly-named St. Botolph’s Aldersgate – were once all burial grounds.  However, by the mid to late 19th century, they, like most of London’s burial grounds, were full-to-bursting.  Apparently it was not uncommon for bodies to simply be stacked on top of previous graves, having the effect of raising ground level in churchyards by several feet compared to surrounding streets. 
“A Royal Commission established in 1842 to investigate the problem concluded that London's burial grounds were so overcrowded that it was impossible to dig a new grave without cutting through an existing one. Sir Edwin Chadwick testified that each year, 20,000 adults and 30,000 children were being buried in less than 218 acres (0.88 km2) of already overcrowded burial grounds; the Commission heard that one cemetery, Spa Fields in Clerkenwell, designed to hold 1,000 bodies, contained 80,000 graves, and that gravediggers throughout London were obliged to shred bodies in order to cram the remains into available grave space.” (Wikipedia)
Following on the findings of the Royal Commission, and considering the general public unease caused by recent cholera epidemics, it was declared that no further burials would be allowed to take place in built-up areas of London.  All burials were subsequently moved to large cemeteries that had opened outside of London, including one which was the largest at the time and was run by the also-brilliantly-named London Necropolis Company and connected to the city by the London Necropolis Railway.  Those Victorians knew a thing or two about naming.

With London churchyards no longer used for burials, it was decided to turn the churchyard of St. Botolph into a public park; the grounds of Christ Church Greyfriars and St. Leonard Foster Lane were incorporated into the park a time later. 

P1080002Some of the gravestones from the former burial grounds, which are displayed in different spots around the park.

But why is it called Postman’s Park? Because the headquarters and sorting office for the General Post Office was built a short distance away in 1829.  By 1895 the building had expanded enough to become the southern boundary of the park, and it became a popular spot for workers in the Post Office to relax.  Hence, “Postman’s Park”.

And why do we care about Postman’s Park, other than the fact that it is a small and pleasant green space in the heart of the city?  Good question.  We care because it is also home to the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice (another one of those Victorian names).  The idea of the memorial was that of painter and sculptor George Frederic Watts, who felt strongly that there should exist some monument to the bravery of ordinary people.  He had been collecting newspaper stories about such people for many years, and during the planning for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee he proposed a monument to them, which he argued for eloquently in (of course) a letter to The Times:
The character of a nation as a people of great deeds is one, it appears to me, that should not be lost sight of. It must surely be a matter of regret when names worthy to be remembered and stories stimulating and instructive are allowed to be forgotten.

It is not too much to say that the history of Her Majesty's reign would gain a lustre were the nation to erect a monument, say, here in London, to record the names of these likely to be forgotten heroes. I cannot but believe a general response would be made to such a suggestion, and intelligent consideration and artistic power might combine to make London richer by a work that is beautiful, and our nation richer by a record that is infinitely honourable.

The material prosperity of a nation is not an abiding possession; the deeds of its people are.
George Frederic Watts, "Another Jubilee Suggestion", 5 Sep 1887
After having ideas for a “colossal bronze figure” rejected, and finding no support for a grand marble wall in Hyde Park, he eventually succeeded in creating a modest but touching memorial in tiny Postman’s Park.  I say he succeeded, though the lengthy period of planning and fundraising between the approval of the idea and the unveiling of the memorial itself in 1900, meant that Watts, by then 83 years old, was too ill to attend the opening.

The memorial consists of a series of ceramic tile plaques set into the wall in front of one of the buildings that surrounds the park.  The tiles are protected by a simple timber roof which forms a walkway in front of the tiles.

P1070996The memorial

It doesn’t really look like much, but when you get up close enough to read the individual plaques, it’s quite compelling.  Each one is made up of six or eight standard ceramic tiles in roughly the same style, with blue of green lettering and decorative embellishments.  And each plaque tells the the tragic story of some poor soul who was killed while attempting to save others.  The language is brief enough for Twitter, but purely Victorian in tone.

P1070985A few of the plaques

The memorial was unveiled with only 13 tiles, though the wall space would allow for 120 in total.  Various people and committees determined what other names would be added, and different makers were used to create tiles themselves, which accounts for the stylistic differences in tiles of different eras.  The last tiles were placed in 1931, and following the death of Mary Watts, George Watts’ wife and a champion of the memorial following his death, the site was largely forgotten.

That is until 2009, when a 53rd tiles was added to the wall after a 78 year lull.  The plaque was in memory of Leigh Pitt, “a print technician from Surrey, had died on 7 June 2007 rescuing nine-year-old Harley Bagnall-Taylor who was drowning in a canal in Thamesmead.”  Pitt’s work colleagues and fianc√©e lobbied the Diocese of London, arguing that Pitt would be an appropriate addition to the wall.

P1070979The plaque honouring Leigh Pitt, with a small bouquet apparently laid by his fianceé not long before I arrived.

And that, in a blogshell, is Postman’s Park.  It’s a lovely, quiet spot, especially on a warm Saturday afternoon in the early spring.  If you’ve had your fill of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the crowds and crush and queues that go along with it, take a few minutes to visit Postman’s Park. 

Finally, on a personal note, a few of you have expressed a bit of disappointment that the new blog doesn’t give you as much of an insight into me and my life as Go See Run Eat Drink used to do.  This is mostly because GSRED was about a very different sort of thing – I really couldn’t travel like I did, and write about it, without also getting into how that works and feels.  Now I’m living a mostly “normal” life.  I get up in the morning, I go to work, I come home, I go out for drinks, I get together with friends, I cook, I watch tv, I do laundry, I buy groceries – all the things that I bet most of you do too.  Daily life just doesn’t seem interesting enough to write about, so for now I’m writing about the city and the culture and the odd, different things here that ARE interesting – big things like Tower Bridge, and small things like Marmite.  Along the way you’ll get glimpses into my life, but I don’t think it will ever be the blow-by-blow chronicle that GSRED turned into.

So how am I doing? Not bad.  Work is paying the bills and is in the field I want to be in.  It’s not a job I want to be in forever, but it’s a reasonable stepping stone.  Sometimes I get frustrated thinking that I’m getting stale, or that I could be doing more challenging, professionally fulfilling work back in Canada.  Then I take a step back and think, “Wait a minute.  You’ve been here for less than eight months and for six of those you’ve been working in a full time job, earning enough money to pay the bills, in your chosen field.  And you’re living in LONDON.  Shut up and quit your whining, you’ve got nothing to complain about.”

And my home life is quite happy – being back in the big house in Brixton is simply brilliant and feels like somewhere I’ll be pleased to settle in to for a long time.  I’ve re-arranged my furniture and hung things on the walls, so it’s really homey now. (Though here they’d say “homely”.  Weird.)  I even managed to get those photos from the trip hung, and am quite pleased with how they turned out.

P1070940A peek at my current favourite corner of the world (Spot the Boston Marathon medal! It’s really nice to have some things back…)

Best of all?  If you’re reading this on the day I’ve scheduled it to be posted, then as you’re reading, I should be lounging in the sunshine on the Greek island of Rhodes, enjoying a short holiday from work, London and life.  So I’ll have an ouzo for you all, and maybe I’ll tell you about it when I get back.