This recipe is from the first page of Harriet’s book. Inside the front cover, she has written her name, ‘Harriet Ibson’ and ‘1903, Huttons Ambo Vicarage.’ Harriet was 22. Two years previously she had been working in nearby Pickering as the maid for a widowed solicitor, so I presume that this was a similar position. She was employed by a Welsh vicar, Reverend John Griffiths, and his wife and three daughters.
Harriet lists the ingredients for Tea Cakes as:
1 oz yeast
½ teaspoonful salt
My first thought on reading it was to wonder where the dried fruit was. Tea Cakes to me are peppered with plump sultanas or raisins. I don’t expect all of the recipes in the books to resonate with me but Tea Cakes certainly remind me of my grandma’s Yorkshire kitchen (five minutes round the corner from where Harriet lived her final years) and the smell of the gas grill. But those Tea Cakes were most definitely fruity.
On carrying out some research though, it appears that Yorkshire Tea Cakes did not always contain fruit. The marvellous Foods of England website describes them as an ‘enriched small bread-cake. More-or-less identical to the product generally known in England as ‘teacakes’ before the Fruited Teacake became universal’ and offers several Victorian and Edwardian recipes as examples. The newspapers from the time confirm this; candied peel and raisins only appear to turn up from around the 1920s.
I follow Harriet’s recipe:
“Rub the butter into the flour add salt & sugar make the milk lukewarm. beat up the egg, make a hollow in the flour pour into it 2/3 of the egg then the milk lastly the yeast mix from the centre & beat for 10 mins set to rise for 3/4 of an hr. Then divide into cakes & brush over with egg rise again 20 mins & bake for 10 mins in a very hot oven.”
It isn’t easy. Milk is omitted from the list of ingredients and so I don’t know how much to use. Adding a lump of fresh yeast seems strange so I let it dissolve and sit in the milk first. The consistency seems right but the smell of yeast is pervasive. I hope it will cook away but it doesn’t; the teacakes rise and cook perfectly but all I can taste is yeast. It isn’t a success.
It’s easy to smirk at such a bad recipe, imagining Harriet as a terrible cook. But the more I found out about her, the sadder it felt. Her mother died when she was just seven, so was never going to teach her how to cook. In 1891, when she was ten, she was living alone with her father, Thomas. Her older brothers were either dead or old enough to move away. Her younger siblings lived nearby with their grandparents.
Was Harriet already helping out with the cooking at this young age, or were they reliant on help from relatives and neighbours? Thomas himself had been born into poverty: his father died before he was born, leaving his widow a pauper, before she began taking in washing. The vicarage in Huttons Ambo must have been a different world; newspapers at the time report that the reverend ‘had spent a holiday in the land of the Pharaohs’ and, when his step-daughter married, the churchyard was laid with ‘carpet and felt…flags and bunting’ and she was gifted a ‘magnificent diamond crescent.’
I suspect from the way the recipe is written – little punctuation, mistakes made – that Harriet is watching someone else make them. Perhaps the cook has agreed to teach her, or perhaps Harriet watches her and makes scribbled notes when she gets back to her room. It’s not an auspicious start to the book but I have to admire Harriet all the same.