Eating In

Feasts in far pavilions

The cricket tea season will soon be upon us

This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

There was a Lancashire toreador but has there ever been a real Spanish cricketer? The national team all seems to be of sub-continental or British origin.

My deficient enthusiasm for the game confined me to shrinking or shirking in the outfield at my English school, and gobbling the wonderful teas at Magdalen College’s pavilion, where the cucumber sandwiches and chocolate cake were unsurpassed.

I always feel more wistful for the food of cricket than for the field

When the season resumes I always feel more wistful for the food of cricket than for the ringing field and the grass-stained whites. One of Hugh de Sélincourt’s stories of village sport features yokels — bowlers, I suppose, as I have a notion that, according to tradition, the gentry provide the batting at such contests — discussing their favourite menu items.

“I fancies,” says the opening bowler, “a bit of cu-cumber” — the hyphen signifying, I suppose, the elongation of the vowel in an English dialect unknown to me — “Wunnerful with me tea.”

“A nice stick of celery now,” a team-mate suggests. “Ah!” echoes a colleague, “After a touch of frost,” before another lets the side down by recommending a raw onion.

The conversation is puzzling, since I can hardly imagine a game early or late enough in the season to coincide with frost, and, in any case, only grapes for eiswein would benefit from its touch. Nor would cucumbers ripen with frost-bitten celery.

Still, there is something realistic in the exchange. It evokes faithfully the pleasure vegetables can inspire, munched undressed in rustic innocence, when they are young and just harvested. And there’s the rub: unless you grow your own, you can’t get them fresh enough to share the village bowlers’ delight. So you have to cook or dress them or combine them with other flavours.

As cricket resumes in England, newly sprung vegetables are curly kale, Jersey potatoes, sorrel, watercress, spinach, spring onions, the first delicate asparagus spears and wild morels.

For the first, I like to brown sliced garlic and pine nuts in olive oil with a tiny pinch of cayenne and a generous teaspoonful of ginger, before stirring in some fat raisins and just wilting the kale, cut in strips.

New potatoes need only to be boiled until soft and dressed with butter, garlic salt and pepper, but a sprinkling of spring onions, finely scissored, suits them magnificently. So does sorrel: it needs only to be softened in warm butter, and adds a zesty tang.

Watercress is a perfect food for sandwiches, as Oscar Wilde affirms

A big bunch of spinach, wilted over steam in the same colander in which it’s rinsed, combines deliciously with gently warmed cream and grated parmesan: the recipe might not be macho enough for Popeye, but the flavour will stay strong to the finish. Any of these dishes will work as a course to be served alone, between hors d’oeuvres and entrée.

When teatime comes, especially if it’s a cricket tea, watercress is a perfect food for sandwiches, as an anecdote of Oscar Wilde affirms. In the Randolph Hotel, he consumed the kitchen’s version — doorstep thick, saltily buttered, and generously filled — with unbridled greed and affected disdain.

“Tell the chef,” he commanded the waiter, “with the compliments of Mr Oscar Wilde, that when I ask for a watercress sandwich, I do not mean a loaf with a field in the middle of it.” There is no need to over-emphasise gentility: those fast bowlers need nourishment and must be tempted away from their raw onions and passé celery.

Asparagus and morels demand special respect, as both are among England’s most delicious products. I think they should be combined in celebration of spring. Sparingly sautéed together in salted butter, they need no other complement.

Morels will exude their own liquor after a few minutes in the pan; a couple of minutes more with the asparagus added will be enough to cook both ingredients to understated ecstasy. Either is good on wholemeal toast, with a soft-boiled egg, if the cricketers want something hot at tea time — but for a properly unctuous tartine, olive oil is better than butter.

My evasive cricket career resumed when, in advanced maturity, I played once for a village team, when people I was staying with were short of a man. On that occasion, the tea comprised roast beef and smoked salmon sandwiches and thick wedges of Victoria sponge or buttered teacakes. In England, clubland and cricket echo each other.

I went in at number eleven and carried my bat for no runs. I’m not sure where that puts me in the averages, but I think I ate record quantities of sponge.

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