In 1992, in the first months in our new home – the last house in West Croydon – disposable income was, erm, non-existent. We made do with what we had been gifted, inherited, accumulated while renting and borrowed. Working in Croydon, I used to browse the homeware departments of Debenhams and Allders during my lunchbreak and created a mental wish list of the crockery, cutlery, pans and kitchen gadgets I would buy when money became less tight. In the intervening 25 years, despite having purchased more china and ceramic plates, dishes and bowls than you can shake a stick at and owning Le Creuset cookware in three colour ranges, the wish list has grown, not shrunk. How does that even happen?
Sitting for several years in the “most desired” spot at the top of the wish list was Portmeirion Pottery’s Botanic Garden. I fell in love with this range of tableware. Susan Williams-Ellis’ designs were classical and the plant, butterfly, bee and ladybird decorations were full of life and beautifully executed. When the opportunity arose, I bought some. I also asked for pieces for Christmas and birthdays and had a lovely little collection after a few years. Somewhere in this period, someone, possibly me, possibly my parents or future parents-in-law, bought me the Portmeirion Book of Entertaining, a hardback collection of 140 recipes for both “formal and informal entertaining”. Published in 1990, the book offers recipes, indeed whole menus, for an array of occasions, from weekend brunch parties to afternoon teas by the hearth (how very hygge). The completed dishes are styled and photographed in Portmeirion’s Botanic Garden and Pomona ranges.
I would describe the recipes as “fancy traditional” (and some are fabulously dated): smoked haddock kedgeree; devilled kidneys; smoked salmon mousses; paupiettes de veau; turkey escalopes with plums; champagne syllabub and tropical pavlova. Reviewing the book through the lens of veganism, an overwhelming percentage of the recipes not only include, but have at their heart, meat, or poultry, or fish, or seafood, or dairy, or eggs. This presented me with much more of a challenge to convert to purely planted-based. I got there though.
A butternut squash, put into my Ocado basket at the beginning of the month as it was on special offer and which has been propped in the fruit bowl since (a squash in a fruit bowl; what madness is this?) prompted me to try Portmeirion’s recipe for pumpkin gratin. And thinking of my lovely boy, Will, who is away at uni, and whom I am missing, led me to try the marbled chocolate teabread recipe; Will and I used to make another marbled cake recipe when he was a kid and we used to have fun swirling the light and dark batters together to create the marbling.
Both recipes turned out pretty well. Five of the gratin’s ingredients – olive oil, onion, pumpkin, fresh thyme, ground pepper – are vegan, and it was simple enough to switch the sixth, Parmesan, for vegan “fakesan sheese”. I also mixed some nutritional yeast flakes with the fake cheese for a taste boost; if you haven’t yet tried nutritional yeast, do! My butternut squash came up light, by 300g, on the amount of pumpkin called for in the recipe but fortunately I had half a loaf of stale bread so topped the dish with breadcrumbs for extra ballast. A tasty dinner, served with steamed greens, and enough left over for Steve to have as his meal another evening in the week.
The marbled chocolate teabread required more adaptation: vegan margarine for butter; egg replacer for the four eggs; vegan plain chocolate for the 75g of chocolate listed in the recipe. The light (non-chocolate) half of the batter was flavoured with orange zest, orange juice and a few drops of orange-blossom water. Taste-wise, the orange and chocolate halves, together, were delicious. Texture-wise, I wish I’d used apple puree to supplement the powdered egg replacer, as the teabread was a bit crumbly. I notice that, bar a few crumbs, it has disappeared from the cake tin while I’ve been working away from home this week, so I conclude the texture didn’t hinder the eating too much.
I’ve enjoyed rereading this cookbook and looking at the photographs; the styling looks busy and cluttered compared to contemporary tastes. As I’ve read, I’ve taken great pleasure reminiscing about our early days at the house in Croydon and about how I gradually moved away from the floral decorations of the Botanic Garden range to plainer china. The very large, and very heavy, 13-inch Botanic Garden salad bowl I bought lives on; it has been re-purposed as my cake and pancake mixing bowl. I have also been thinking about how, more recently, the family spent a very special weekend at the whimsically delightful Portmeirion Village; my brother and sister-in-law married there at Easter 2014.
In parting, I share with you a thought that I have been pondering all week: when is a cake a teabread?