Hot, hot, it’s so hot, that’s what everyone was saying when we got to London, and it’s going to be even hotter tomorrow. The temperature had been rising steadily since Christie and I left Chipping Campden for Oxford, and only continued to climb as we made our way to London. We sat sweating in the heat of the Tube, and the sun beat down on us as we towed our roller bags through crowded city sidewalks like tugboats parting a sea of pedestrians. Our tiny rooms weren’t air conditioned, either, in our grandly scruffy hotel near Victoria Station.
In the stifling evening heat, I made my pilgrimage to 221b Baker Street, the erstwhile lodgings of Sherlock Holmes and his loyal Watson. I stood on the hot sidewalk and craned my neck upwards, imagining Holmes sitting at his window with pipe and violin, looking down on a foggy, gas lit winter street.
The next morning, I stuck my head out of my 4th floor hotel room window. The noises of London greeted me—cars whizzed by, sirens wailed, conversations drifted up from passersby, and music blared from somewhere down the street. I smelled exhaust fumes and breakfast. Morning sun gleamed off of the white façade of the Georgian townhouses opposite. I looked up at the sky. The morning haze was already burning off.
Immediately after breakfast we started out on foot. We had a lot of ground to cover and no time to let the grass grow under our feet.
Everything seemed a little more in London. More cosmopolitan, more diverse, more crowds and hustle and traffic and different languages being spoken on the street. It was intense and a little overwhelming. But just when one is really in a daze, there is a helpful British sign to keep you out of serious trouble. Mind the Gap. Look Left. No blinking lights or beeping warnings, just an understated but well-timed reminder before you step off of a curb and into oblivion.
It was a wonderful day. We saw Buckingham Palace, and walked through the pleasant shade of St. James Park, then past the Horse Guards & Cabinet War Rooms to Parliament and Big Ben. “Listen,” Christie said, and we stopped in our tracks as that famous clock chimed the hour. We gazed in wonder at Westminster Abbey, and bought fast passes to jump the daunting (but orderly) queue for the London Eye. We went on to St. Martin-In-The-Fields, where we had a late lunch in the crypt café and made brass rubbings.
We parted ways in Trafalgar Square. Christie set off for the National Portrait Gallery, while I walked to Piccadilly Circus, and then on to Fortnum & Mason, where staff circulated with trays of tiny iced teas and I imagined that I was a character in a 1920’s British novel ordering a picnic hamper for a motor trip to the country…
but I really only bought a lot of rich tea biscuits and little cakes for souvenirs, all the while thinking, I am really at Fortnum & Mason! and squealing with excitement inside my head.
And finally, a ride on top of a red double decker bus.
After this whirlwind day of walking around London, the English custom of afternoon tea seemed not only civilized, but an absolute necessity.
We met up, hot and tired, and found a tea shop near our hotel that was nothing like the lace curtain variety found in the Cotswolds. It was sleek and modern, but served all the expected cream teas, cakes, sandwiches, cookies, and scones.
I dropped my shopping bags, sunglasses, and hat and lifted the damp hair off my neck. My tea and scone came, along with strawberry jam and cream. I slathered the scone liberally. I’m talking equal parts scone, jam, and cream. We compared notes on our separate expeditions, then fell into a companionable silence as we ate and drank.
That was the best scone I have ever had. Dense but not heavy, it was both creamy and flaky at once. Jam and cream dripped down the side of my hand and I licked it–surreptitiously at first, then openly, so as not to miss a drop. The sweet strawberry jam tasted twice as red as any other jam that had come before it, and contrasted beautifully with the light, slippery, tangy, slightly salty, buttery cream.
I stretched out my tired feet and gazed out the open windows of the tea shop, savoring every bite as I reflected on the kaleidoscope of images and sounds filling my mind from our busy day. I am really in London eating scones! my brain said. Squeal!
Maybe the scones really are better in England. Or could it be that I was just hungry and blissed out and high on sightseeing? Or both? It’s hard to say for sure, but I’ll never forget the delights of that place, and that scone.
Fortified by my tea, I had the energy to make it back to the hotel, to shower and change, and go out again for dinner and more Pimm’s.
I am not a very good baker, generally. But the baked goods that I can reliably produce are scones. I have been using the recipe below successfully for years. Thus, I conclude that it is foolproof. The raisins are optional and the scones are just fine without them, or you could also substitute currants to good effect.
The resulting scones are biscuity and substantial. Obviously they are best just out of the oven, with lots of fresh butter and maybe a little jam. But they will keep reasonably well in a sealed container for a day or two. Reheated and generously buttered, you won’t find the day-old version desiccated or disappointing.
Good scones are good. Bad scones are bad. I think I’ll stop there, because doesn’t that pretty much sum up all scone lore and wisdom?
(from The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American)
- 2 cups flour
- ½ tsp salt
- 3 tsp baking powder
- 2 tbsp sugar
- ¼ cup cold butter
- ½ cup raisins, soaked in hot water for ½ hour, drained (optional)
- ½ cup half-and-half or cream
- 1 egg, beaten
Sift the dry ingredients together. Cut the butter into the dry ingredients, using a pastry blender. Add the drained raisins to the flour mixture. Mix the half-and-half with the beaten egg and stir into the flour mixture. Use a fork and do not overmix. It should take only a few turns to get a dough. Divide the dough into three balls and pat each out into a 1/2-inch-thick circle. Cut each into four triangular scones. Bake on an ungreased baking sheet at 450 degrees for about 12 minutes or until golden brown. Serve with butter and jam. Makes 12 scones.