My foodie penpal parcel for this month arrived this morning all the way from Lithuania – and some wonderful items in there! Look out for the reveal post next Friday!
But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. Today I am talking tea bread. Or tea loaf. Mary Berry’s done it. Nigella’s done it. The Hairy Bikers have done it. James Martin’s done it. Delia’s done it. I would imagine that pretty much every farmhouse north of Birmingham (West Midlands, not Alabama) has its own favourite recipe, and you can find varieties that range from luxury to traditional, from raspberry to honey and from green tea to Guinness.
If you’re thinking “No idea at all what you’re on about” then I’ll summarise: a tea loaf is a spiced and fruited non-yeasted cake moistened with tea. Its generally served in slices that may or may not be buttered, but always with a nice mug of tea.
All very English.
The making of this was actually inspired by a conversation I was having with my … well, let’s just say cousin for the sake of simplicity … about Brussels sprouts. Stay with me.
He’d gone out for his birthday and the meal had included sprouts, and we were talking about that and how they are slightly divisive – you either love them (like my mum) or hate them (like my dad). Very few people seem to be ‘they’re okay I guess’ about them (like me). This got me thinking about other foods that seem to polarise opinion. Marmite (if you believe the adverts) is one and, in my house at least, rhubarb is another.
Technically a vegetable, but used as a fruit, rhubarb is native to the wilds of Siberia and thrives in full sun. In West Yorkshire (much like Siberia) during the early 1800s they discovered that if you dug up the plants in November after they have been frosted and kept them warm and – most importantly – in the dark then the plants would convert the stored carbohydrate from its rootstock to glucose and produce sweeter, more tender, stalks in the early spring. Due to the intense nature of this forcing, the season for forced rhubarb doesn’t last long – and afterwards the rootstock is spent. In the late 19th century, forced rhubarb from Yorkshire was sent to the Christmas markets in London and Paris – and Yorkshire produced 90% of the world’s winter forced rhubarb.
Anyway, I like rhubarb. I like the bittersweet flavour and the colour. My mum always had a rhubarb crown growing in the garden and would force it under a bucket to produce the tender stems, the early ones of which we would have sliced in a bowl and dip into sugar. Later stems would be turned into pies, crumbles and what we always knew as ‘cola mousse’ but was, in fact, some kind of rhubarb jelly affair.
My husband, however, is not a huge fan. In my grandiose dreams I crystallise rhubarb in small pieces and use them in the base of a gloriously smooth and pale pink rhubarb fool-cum-trifle-cum-cheesecake or some other glorious creamy confection. For more rhubarb recipes please visit Chef Hermes!
That is not to be. However, I did get permission to make rhubarb and ginger tea loaf – mainly because his love of tea loaf outweighs his dislike of rhubarb. So I did.
The original recipe came from Nutmegs, seven, although I made a few adjustments: no ground almonds because no – these were replaced by 50g of self-raising flour; I reduced the amount of ground ginger by half a teaspoon; the tea I used was a mix of two Duchess Grey teabags to one bag of breakfast tea (Duchess Grey is a black tea flavoured not only with bergamot but also with orange and lemon peels and has a wonderfully complex floral flavour that I thought would work well with the fruity tartness of the rhubarb and the warm spice of the ginger); I used spelt flour – an option given in the recipe.
Tea loaf is beyond easy. Possibly the easiest baked item I have ever made. The fruit is soaked in strong tea overnight, and the next day an egg and brown sugar are mixed in and then that is combined with the dry ingredients (flour and spices) before being poured into a lined loaf tin and baked for just under an hour.
And the result?
Sweet, spiced, moist. Possibly a little too much ginger – I like ginger, and it works very well with rhubarb, but even 1 teaspoon, combined with the crystallised ginger, may be a little much for delicate palates.
Make again? Definitely.