August tea and a book: Penelope Lively

Aug 27, 2014 |

This summer in Oxford I discovered Penelope Lively. In fact I gobbled up three of her books, utterly captivated by her appreciation for setting, history, and the imagination. I won’t go into great detail about the plots because they really aren’t plotty sorts of stories, but I will tell you that The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (winner of the Carnegie Medal) is a humorous ghost tale set in the Cotswolds, A Stitch in Time (winner of the Whitbread Award) is a gentle mystery set in Lyme Regis, and The House in Norham Gardens is a coming-of-age story set in Oxford.

Is it obvious yet that Penelope Lively and I were made for each other? (If not, note italics above.) Her writing is gorgeously expressive. She even enchants with her description of painting an old swing:

There is the moment you dip the brush in the paint and tap it on the edge to get rid of the drips, and there it is all lush and fat with paint in your hand, ready for the stroke down that sad, hungry, unpainted surface. And there is the moment you lay it on the dull, unpainted surface, and what was rusty and tattered is transformed with one majestic sweep into glistening sparkling black. And there is the dabbing at the links of the chain to make them all neat and painty once more, and the picking out of every curl and flourish of the swing’s seat, and the lying on your back to get at the underneath . . . (A Stitch in Time)

I’m delighted that there are many more Penelope Lively books to read, both for adults and children, and at the top of my list is her Booker Prize winning Moon Tiger. (Click here and scroll down for a complete list of her titles.)

And now for tea!

This month’s tea is inspired by my friend Caroline Trevers, the conference manager who makes everything work so beautifully for all the summer groups at Brasenose College. At the beginning of our stay, Caroline introduced me to Earl Grey Blue Lady from Cardews of Oxford. This tea is a treat with its spicy flavor and delicate bergamot scent, but it’s also just lovely to look at. (My American friends can find similar Earl Grey blends at

Caroline also provided the recipe for her Lemon Drizzle Cake, which I first tasted when I co-judged the Brasenose Bake-Off. A decadent chocolate concoction took the top prize that day, but I would have awarded Caroline’s Lemon Drizzle “best tea cake ever.” I can’t seem to get mine to look as beautiful as hers (even after two tries), but it’s still very tasty. See the recipe below (translated into American measurements).

Lemon Drizzle cake

¾ cup Fine Caster Sugar (called Baker’s sugar in the states? Or just use granulated)
¾ cup Margarine or Butter
3 eggs
¾ cup Self Rising Flour
3 lemons
¼ cup Caster Sugar
1 lb loaf tin (8.5 X 4.5-ish?)

Rub oil or butter around the inside of the loaf tin then dust with a teaspoon of flour so that all the sides are lightly covered. Grate the rind from the lemons and squeeze the juice and put it in a pan. Cream the fat and sugar till well mixed and fluffy, add the lemon rind and mix more. Add the eggs one at a time beating well in between. Sift the flour into the mixture and fold until incorporated.

Pour the mix into a 1 lb loaf tin – bake in the oven at 350 degrees for 40 minutes or till cooked.

5 minutes before the cake is due out of the oven add the extra 2oz of sugar to the lemon juice in the pan and heat it till the sugar melts then boil it for a minute. As soon as the cake comes out of the oven prick it over the top with a fork and pour over the boiling sugar syrup allowing it to soak into the cake. You can pour it down the side and over the top – pour slowly to make sure all the surface is covered so it soaks in evenly.

Let the cake cool a little and then turn it out onto a wire rack till it cools completely.

Caroline, co-judges Alice and Alan, and me in the Brasenose Deer Park

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