Is there anything nicer than tea and cake? In my book, it’s difficult to find a more pleasant way to while away an afternoon, especially when the tea is served in beautiful vintage china and the assortment of cakes on offer rivals the finest French patisserie.
As you can probably tell, one of my personal highlights of the Wells Food Festival earlier this month was the wonderful vintage tea party at the Fountain Inn. I adore vintage but it can be a tricky look to get right and there’s a fine line between vintage chic and bring-and-buy shabby. So this was the perfect opportunity to get a few tips from the experts.
All the charming china at the tea party was on loan from Sara Kirkby, who runs a vintage crockery hire business called Elsie Florence based in Wincanton, Somerset.
With a degree in fashion and textiles, Sara attributes her appreciation of all things vintage to her grandmother. “As a child, I would use my bedroom wall as a fashion mood board,” Sara tells me. “My granny was my soul mate and my love of vintage and the start of my huge china collection comes from her.”
After college, Sara worked as a surface print designer and then a design consultant in fashion and interiors, working in both London and Hong Kong. Following the birth of their son and daughter, Sara and husband Steve bought an old town house (one could say vintage) in Somerset, which was in need of lots of work.
“With an original double shop front it was then that I started Elsie Florence, named after my granny,” Sara explains. (There’s a fantastic photo, by the way, of her grandmother on a motorbike on Sara’s website.) “I use the windows for styling vintage china displays and have a store room one side and a show room on the other.”
What is it about vintage that makes it so popular, I wonder?
“For me there is something magical about vintage,” says Sara. “It stirs emotions and always captures one’s eye. It makes people reminisce. Latterly vintage has become so popular because of fashion trends. Wedding budgets are different for everyone and the trend now seems to be smaller weddings but the detail is the key which the vintage theme provides. Vintage afternoon tea suits this trend and always impresses guests and appeals to all generations. Quite often each guest will have a tea cup and saucer as a place name or a favour to take home. What is there not to love?”
And Sara’s advice for anyone trying to create their own vintage look?
“With vintage styling I think you must have an eye. You can get it so wrong and it can end up like a jumble sale. Less is more in some cases and mixing vintage pattern with plain white can allow the eye to appreciate the delicate patterns. I have spent years sourcing vintage china and I will only buy a piece I adore. This is now a collection of over 600 teacups!”
The Wells tea party was hosted by former model and fashion designer, turned vintage guru, Pearl Lowe. Like Sara, Pearl has been in love with vintage from an early age. “I’ve always loved pretty things,” she tells me. “I don’t like the minimalist look. For me things have to be beautiful and decorative. That’s why my house is absolutely brimful of beautiful things. My husband tells me ‘That’s enough!’ but I can’t stop!”
“History was always my favourite subject at school,” Pearl continues, “and I’ve adored old houses and old clothes since I can remember. My grandfather sold antiques and my mother did up old houses, so perhaps it is in my DNA.”
Pearl is currently setting up her house for a vintage Christmas-themed photo shoot for the Sunday Telegraph’s Style magazine. “It’s incredible how quickly you can transform a room with just a few simple additions.
“You can pick up boxes of beautiful old crockery for next to nothing at auction rooms,” Pearl advises. “The auction rooms in Frome is fantastic. And then with a pretty vintage lace tablecloth, some scented candles, a few jam jar posies of garden flowers and fairy lights strewn around the place – you’ll find you’ve created a gorgeous vintage look in next to no time.”
If you do plan to throw a vintage tea party yourself, I think I might have the perfect cake for you to serve your guests. It’s the coffee, cardamom and walnut cake I baked for the cake competition at the Wells Food Festival. The recipe is from professional cake baker Fiona Cairns and all the entrants in the Taste category were tasked with baking this same recipe. Sadly, I didn’t win – it was the first baking contest I’d ever entered, so I honestly wasn’t expecting to – but nonetheless it’s a simply delicious teatime cake; the cardamom raises the classic coffee and walnut combination to a whole other level.
The winner of the Taste category was Helen Roberts and even without tasting it, you could easily see hers was a cut above the rest.
When I asked her for the secret of her success was, she reckoned it was down to the caramelising of the walnuts. You’ve got to let the caramel turn really dark golden brown apparently and Helen says she used a sugar thermometer to make sure she got hers to precisely the right temperature before drizzling onto the walnuts. Now I know for next time.
And according to Fiona Cairns, originator of the recipe and judge of the cake competition, it was also down to the balance of flavours. I must admit I didn’t taste my cake batter at all while I was baking, placing my trust entirely in the quantities specified in the recipe. In hindsight, perhaps I should have added a little more coffee and a little less cardamom. But do you know what? Fiona also said all the entries were delicious, and considering I’m not really that experienced a baker, that’s good enough for me! So if you do fancy trying out the recipe for yourself, you’ll find it at the end of this post.
As well as judging the cake competition, Fiona Cairns was also the guest speaker at the vintage tea party, sharing her experiences as creator of the royal wedding cake for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
It was fascinating to hear Fiona’s story. Trained as an illustrator, Fiona then went on to train as a pastry chef in a Michelin-starred restaurant for three years. She started her cake making business from her kitchen table 25 years ago. “Baking wasn’t trendy back then,” Fiona recalls. “There weren’t cupcakes everywhere, and no-one had heard of the Great British Bake Off. How things have changed!”
Fiona set up the business with her husband. “He was the one who spotted the business potential for my cake making,” explains Fiona. “I couldn’t have done it on my own. I’m just not a business-minded person; creative types quite often aren’t.”
Today there are more than a 100 people working in Fiona Cairns’ bakery and from the very early days, she has been supplying high-end stores such as Harrods, Fortnum & Mason and The Conran Shop. “I always aim for the top,” Fiona smiles.
Despite making plenty of cake for celebrities over the years, Fiona isn’t really known for making wedding cake. She says this is precisely the reason she was chosen to make the royal wedding cake for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
“We received plenty of calls asking if we were in the running, but we really had no idea we might be,” says Fiona. “It was such a surprise to get the call in February (bearing in mind the wedding was in April) from Clarence House to inform us we were being considered. And at this point we were invited for tea with Kate. I was so nervous going into Clarence House, I actually managed to walk right past Prince William without even noticing him!”
Fiona says that Kate was very clear on her wishes for her cake; she wanted the whole wedding to tell a story. The language of flowers was to feature throughout the cake decoration, and the Duchess chose 17 flowers to be included, such as the four national flowers (the English rose, the Welsh daffodil, Scottish thistle and Irish shamrock). Lily of the valley symbolising sweetness and humility was also to feature on the cake, and echoed in Kate’s bouquet and in Westminster Abbey. There would also be acorns, taken from the Middleton crest.
“I was told the cake was to be simple but elegant,” says Fiona. “And the Duchess was very clear that there was to be no glitter!” Fiona was also given a piece of lace to take away with her to see if she could transpose designs from it onto the cake. It was only later she learned this was actually a piece of lace from Kate’ wedding dress.
Four days later, Fiona received the official call to say she had been selected to make the royal wedding cake, and from that point her life was pretty much turned upside down. “There were lots of visits to London and we had to make up so many excuses, as we weren’t allowed to tell anyone what we doing. Everything to do with the wedding was top secret!” Fiona and her team had to work on the cake in a secret room for seven weeks.
Word got out to the media about a month before the big day that Fiona was creating the royal wedding cake and so Clarence House had to make an official announcement. “The world’s media absolutely swarmed on us,” remembers Fiona. “Of course there was lots of interest from the British press, but I think we got most attention from the US and Brazil. It was crazy and we had to take on a PR agency to field all the calls.”
Building the cake the day before in the Picture Gallery was one of the most stressful days of Fiona’s life. “This was the first time the actual cake had been put together and we had spare bits of everything with us, just in case. When the photographer climbed up a ladder to take the official photograph of the cake, I was so scared he was going to topple over and fall right into it! Once the cake was complete, it was just so difficult having to walk away from it.”
It wasn’t until the royal pastry chef Kathryn Boyden sent word to Fiona that the Duke and Duchess had seen the cake and told her it was “beyond all their expectations” that she could finally relax and enjoy the wedding with her husband.
Fiona’s life and business has been transformed since then. She’s gone on to publish books and host TV cookery programmes, created a Jubilee celebration cake for Harrods’ window, make the cupcakes for Heston Blumenthal’s Jubilee picnic, and this year her company will be baking more than 24,000 Christmas cakes!
It was a real delight to meet Fiona at the Wells Food Festival, and equally lovely to sit with her mother during the vintage tea party, who is clearly so proud of what her daughter has achieved. And I’m very grateful to Fiona for providing me with her top baking tips, which have transformed my approach to baking!
If you’d like to try Fiona’s coffee, cardamom and walnut cake recipe, here it is…
Coffee, cardamom and walnut cake
For the cake
175g unsalted butter, really soft, in pieces, plus more for the tins
50g walnuts, roughly chopped
15 cardamom pods
175g caster sugar
1 tbsp instant coffee, dissolved in 1 tbsp boiling water, cooled
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
50g ground almonds
125g self-raising flour, sifted
For the caramelised walnuts
50g walnut halves
100g caster sugar
For the buttercream
5 cardamom pods
150g unsalted butter, softened, in pieces
250g icing sugar, sifted
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp Camp coffee essence (or 1 tbsp instant coffee, dissolved in 1 tbsp of boiling water and cooled)
1 tsp double cream
Preheat oven to 180°C/gas mark 4. Butter two 20cm round sandwich tins and line the bases with baking parchment.
Keeping them separate, place the nuts both for the cake and the caramelised nuts on baking tray and roast for six minutes. Watch carefully, as they can turn from beautifully toasted to bitter and singed quite rapidly. Set aside to cool.
Lay the walnut halves you have toasted and cooled for the caramelised walnuts on a baking tray lined with baking parchment.
Have a sink or washing up bowl of cold water to hand. You are about to make a caramel, so take great care: hot caramel can be dangerous.
Put the sugar and 100ml of cold water in a saucepan and dissolve the sugar over a gentle heat, stirring with a metal spoon. Once it has all dissolved, increase the heat to a boil, stop stirring and occasionally brush down the sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in cold water to prevent crystals forming. Boil until the mixture turns a beautiful caramel gold and has thickened. Immediately plunge the base of the pan into the cold water to stop the cooking. Then using a teaspoon, drizzle the caramel over the walnuts on the tray. (You’ll need to be speedy here; I found the caramel thickened very quickly.) Leave to set.
De-seed all 20 cardamom pods for the cake and buttercream. Grind the seeds to a powder in a mortar and pestle and sift to remove husks. Keep one-quarter aside for the buttercream.
In a food mixer (or a bowl with a hand-held electric whisk), cream together the butter, sugar and coffee until very light and fluffy. Take a good five minutes, which is longer than you might expect.
Gradually add the eggs, then the almonds and cardamom for the cake. Gently fold in the flour and chopped nuts; don’t over-mix, but fold until they are just combined.
Divide the batter between the tins, smooth the surfaces and bake in the pre-heated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean.
Leave the cakes in their tins for a couple of minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack and remove the baking parchment. Leave to cool.
To make the buttercream, in a food mixer (or in a bowl with a hand-held electric whisk), beat the butter and icing sugar for a good five minutes – again this is longer than you might expect, but it leads to a far fluffier, buttercream.
Add the vanilla, cardamom, coffee and cream and beat until smooth. Spread over both cake, then place one on top of the other. You can spread the buttercream over the sides of the cake too, if you like. Decorate with the caramelised walnuts and shards of the caramel.
Recipe from SEASONAL BAKING by Fiona Cairns, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson