"The story of the finest tea to have been experienced by any cricketer of my acquaintance does not take place in the green and leafy shires of England; instead, our journey takes us north of the border..."
The article below is the one I had published in issue 12 of the Guild of Food Writers award winning magazine Fire and Knives. Generously, the publishers have allowed me to post it here for your viewing pleasure - just in time for the start of the new season!
It seems to be a rite of passage for most television chefs that at some point during their career the producer will present them with a cricket bat and tell them to knock up a couple of summery recipes with which they can impress the yokels down at the local village cricket club.
The appeal to the television producer is obvious: not only does cricket instantly symbolise the English summer, allowing for plenty of shots of our green and pleasant land accompanied by the sound of leather on willow, it is about the only sport around where meal-breaks are included. Two birds, one stone.
And after all, what could be better television than seeing Sir Hugh or Saint Jamie, looking all sporty in a brand new pair of whites, knocking up a plate of curried egg and lentil sandwiches, a lemon thyme and spinach pasty (with home-made rough puff obviously) and a sour cranberry bakewell tart with an orange and lemon sherbet drizzle? The gourmet grub is then ceremoniously served up to the adoring masses, before they genuflect at the altar of cheffiness and proclaim it to be the best tea they've had all season.
However, I have a problem with this whole affair. For a start, it usually becomes painfully obvious that the television chef barely knows which end to hold a cricket bat, never mind the difference between a doosra and a chinaman. So for the cricketing purists amongst us, it is time to hide behind the sofa when the chef attempts to join in the fun, with a dodgy 'arse-out' batting stance and agricultural technique betraying a lack of ability straight away.
Not only are these cricketing celebrity chefs a bit of a fraud, so are their teas. While the attempt to jazz things up might be laudable, anyone who has more than a passing acquaintance with the game would be able to tell you that in general home-made cakes and spinach and lemon thyme pasties at tea are rarer than hens’ teeth.
There is of course a temptation to overplay my hand and it is true that once in a blue moon a tea worthy of Hugh and Jamie will appear in front of the village cricketer. Often in the most unlikely of circumstances. Indeed, the story of the finest tea to have been experienced by any cricketer of my acquaintance does not take place in the green and leafy shires of England; instead, our journey takes us north of the border.
Bonny Scotland might not be home to this island's finest cricketers, but if my man is to be believed, it could be home to its finest tea; at Strathmore Cricket Club in Forfar. Home to Mrs Mackay and to her Forfar bridies (for those not in the know, a bridie is a meat pasty made with minced beef and onion). Unlike the usual buffet-style arrangement, tea for the cricketers at Strathmore was a sit down affair: four to a table with the cutlery all laid out. It consisted of the delicious bridies with a squeeze of brown sauce, followed by sandwiches, boiled eggs and sliced tomatoes, all rounded off with a caramel shortbread. Obviously being in Scotland there was no greenery and no fruit to sully the palate.
Then, when the cricketers had finished, the tables were re-laid and the ladies ushered in. After which a whole new set of culinary delights wheeled out by the redoubtable Mrs Mackay: cakes of all type, including a lemon meringue pie that was smuggled out to a couple of the players, whose noses were now pressed to the window, appetite not sated by a brace of bridies.
But after years playing cricket in both Yorkshire and London, I have found the standard offering to vary markedly from what Mrs Mackay had on offer. For starters, a selection of sandwiches on white sliced - wafer thin ham, cheese and tomato and maybe an egg mayo. This would then be followed by main course of service station style scotch eggs and sausage rolls and crisps. To round things off, how about a couple of slices of malt loaf liberally spread with margarine and if you are really lucky, the pièce de resistance, a selection of Mr Kipling cakes – apple pies, jam tarts and maybe a French fancy or two.
Not forgetting the tea itself of course. Fiendishly strong at the start before the recycled tea bags start to give up the ghost, and a second helping will often resemble the brackish water used to wash the dishes.
Most clubs have a tea rota, so the menu will change somewhat throughout the season. A pork pie, a cheese and pickle sandwich, or a Cadbury's mini roll could also appear, and with our magpie habit of picking up food from other cultures and making it our own, you might even get a plate of cold samosas, greasy spring rolls, or slice of pizza to munch on.
If this doesn't sound too appetising then you obviously haven't spent forty-five overs chasing the ball around, and in any case, an appetising tea can be a disaster waiting to happen for the side going out to field. Playing in the national village knockout tournament one year, the home club provided a tea of such quality that I stuffed myself stupid with the scones and cake made by the local WI ladies, before heading out to field. Ten minutes later and besieged with indigestion and a side-stitch, I was dispatched down to fine leg (the cricketing equivalent of Coventry) to digest, repent, and think about my youthful greed.
This type of tea is the holy grail of the amateur cricketer, so when one appears it is necessary to fill your boots. Rather like a hamster, storing those memories in a metaphorical cheek pouch for when you are next presented with a plate of cold garlic bread and a wagon wheel.
The tea lady seems to be something of a dying breed and more often than not it is the cricketers themselves and who are responsible for the tea making. If my Dad's experience is one to go by, this would all be done in a mad rush round the supermarket at 11am on a Saturday morning. Apparently once upon a time, many moons ago, Mum would head down to Leeds YMCA CC to help out, but soon realised that putting four sugars in the opposition wicket-keeper's tea and washing up wasn't the most exciting way to spend a Saturday.
Consequently, Father was on his own. This was fine if his side was batting first, as the odds were that he wouldn't be in bat at the end of the innings when the players were about to come in for tea. However, if they were fielding, he would have to abandon stations and run off the pitch twenty minutes before the end of the innings to put the water in the massive urn on to boil. As a keen-as-mustard ten year old, I could be trusted to take £1.50 for the tea, but dealing with that ancient and rather dangerous contraption was another matter.
Of course, for a professional cricketer it is a whole different ball game; no dashing round the supermarket and lighting the gas under the urn. At Lords, the home of cricket in London's Marylebone, apparently the players can have anything they desire. But in the days of sports nutrition and isotonic drinks, Andrew Strauss probably won’t tuck in to a piece of cake at the tea break between the afternoon and evening session.
Although the same cannot be said for the members of the BBC's Test Match Special radio commentary team. Their taste for cake is legendary, and one which is usually indulged by their loyal listeners, who will often come to the ground armed with a home-made cake to ready to present to Aggers, Blowers, Tuffers et al.
So if the professionals at Lords can choose their perfect tea, what would be the amateurs’ choice? Well in order to gain a better idea I turned to my own team of talented amateurs, the Gardeners Cricket Club. Their responses to my ad hoc survey suggest that the perfect tea does not take place in any particular place or time; it is an ideal, a paradigm, something to wish for, to argue over, but not necessarily ever find.
An old clubhouse; a sunny day; some doorstep sandwiches, proper ham and English mustard and cheese and pickle; maybe a scone; a couple of home-made cakes, Victoria sponge and a coffee and walnut for choice; and two rounds of proper tea (Yorkshire for me) in a china mug. It is here that Hugh and Jamie perhaps miss the mark; a sour cranberry bakewell tart is frankly a bit much. Something simple done well is more the order of the day.
In any case, with some runs in the bank or a hatful of wickets, even that cold garlic bread tastes like heaven.