Putting On Aires
My colleague, Mary Pat Baxter, was Hyacinth Bucket when it came to "Keeping Up Appearances". I should have suspected an awkward affair when she invited me to afternoon tea. I am not ashamed to admit that I am rarely invited to tea, let alone by a woman pretending to social status. Suffice it to say that my presence could perhaps have a diminishing effect on one’s standing among the best people. I am not a bore by any means, just a little clumsy when it comes to an intimate knowledge of the graces.
So, I foolishly accepted Mary Pat’s unexpected invitation and set about deciding the proper etiquette regarding a gift. I decided my favourite Czech pastry, Bublanina, would be a pleasant upgrade over the ubiquitous “Victoria sandwich” that stuffy hostesses seem compelled to serve at every tea.
Victoria sponge cake has been served at afternoon tea since Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting, created “teatime” back in 1845. Apparently the noon meal had become quite “skimpy” in the early 19th century, so the Duchess began inviting friends to join her for an additional afternoon meal at five o’clock in her rooms at Belvoir Castle. By 1855, Queen Victoria adopted the new craze for tea parties and began serving her favourite simple sponge cake that became known as a Victoria sandwich.
Bublanina is a light and airy Czech version of the Victoria sponge cake. If you're not familiar with Bublanina, imagine taking the plain flour, water, and sugar sponge cake we're all familiar with and adding sour cream, lemon zest, and vanilla then whisking egg whites to stiff peaks and gently folding in the flour mixture and topping with fresh raspberries. Let me say, simply, that these additions bring Victoria sponge cake to life.
With my Bublanina proudly in hand, I rang Mary Pat’s bell at the appointed time. As her maid ushered me in, Mary Pat entered the foyer and, glancing at the pastry box I was holding, said, “You’ve brought your own food; how thoughtful.” With a radiant smile that slowly turned into a smirk she let me know that one didn’t bring one’s own food to tea. It might be construed as an insult to the hostess; my firstfaux pas.
Proud and clueless, I replied, “Bublanina from the Czech Republic; a light and airy version of the Victoria sandwich,” I heard myself saying as the maid placed my Bublanina alongside an array of traditional Victoria sponge cakes spread out on a sideboard in the day room that was already abuzz with animated female conversation.
“I’ll have you know,” Mary Pat intoned for everyone to hear, “my Victoria sandwiches are prepared strictly according to a recipe from Isabella Beeton's 1874 cookbook, Mrs. Beeton's Cookery and Household Management. I have embossed a copy of the recipe for all my guests today. Please be sure to pick one up before you leave,” she said to me in a pointed and condescending manner.
I picked up the embossed recipe card from the sideboard and read it carefully. “Mary Pat,” I called to my hostess after reading the recipe. “You’re recipe does not call for lemon zest, or whipped egg whites, or sour cream. Try the Bublanina and see what you think. Please…here…have a bite,” I said as I handed our reluctant hostess the first piece of my Bublanina; my second faux pas.
I could see on Mary Pat’s face that she loved it. "I will be happy to provide you and all your guests with a copy of the recipe," I said in my most charming voice; my third faux pas.
I heard that Mary Pat began serving Bublanina at all her subsequent teas. I was never invited again.