Charles commanded an awestruck girl in a white apron to bring at least a dozen of the cakes she personally liked best, and a gallon of tea. She evidently favoured coconut: there were macaroons, and speckled shortbread, and lozenges of cake doused in raspberry jam and rolled in coconut flakes.
The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry
Twitter is still relatively new to me. I have some friends who were 'early adopters', but I have only been properly using it for the past year or so. To my immense surprise, it's become a lifeline, particularly in the early months of working and writing from home; I've found a group of food and book loving friends, happy to trial recipes, offer feedback and support, and recommend favourite books. A few months back, some of these friends finished proof copies of The Essex Serpent, and began to tweet about it. I was immediately desperate for a copy. I adored the dark, murky atmosphere of Perry's debut, After Me Comes the Flood, and people who felt the same way were saying that The Essex Serpent was entirely different, and even better.
Last month, when visiting one of these friends for brunch, I spotted a proof copy of the book, and pulled it down to steal a glance at the first chapter. As I was leaving, Christina pressed it into my hands, assuring me that she'd already read it twice. I didn't need much encouragement. I spent the next day, a sunny Sunday, reading it from cover to cover. I opened it seated on a log in Epping Forest and from then on barely looked up, through the Tube ride home, an afternoon in the garden, a long bath, the preparation of dinner and the final hours of the evening beneath my duvet. It is just as extraordinary as I'd been promised. This was a month ago now, and I have still not stopped thinking about it, recommending it or buying copies for friends. It will sit with (and in) me for a long time to come.
I have always loved books set in Victorian London, but The Essex Serpent felt different. It was the first I've read in a long time that presents the city as a place I recognise; much more than a collection of caricatures and grime. A little over a hundred years ago, those who dwelled in London rode the Tube, performed cardiac surgery, battled against a housing crisis and walked along the Embankment. Not so different, then, from the London we know now.
Like the city she paints, Perry's characters are layered, intricate and real; they're people I have loved getting to know. Cora, particularly, who sits at the centre of the multiple character and story threads, has come to reside in a place I reserve for my favourite characters in literature: alongside Cassandra Mortmain, Mary Lennox and Elinor Dashwood. I feel that I know her as I do some of my friends. A lover of long walks and the natural world, Cora moves from London to Essex after becoming a widow. Once there she forms rich friendships with the local Reverend, Will, and his wife Stella - another extraordinary woman - and is drawn to the illusive serpent.
Regarding Cora, I imagine it's almost impossible for me not to love a character of whom the following is observed:
She'd pictured a woman of ladylike melancholy, who'd peck at her food, and sometimes fall silent to turn her wedding ring, or open a locket to gaze on the face of the departed. It was bewildering instead to be presented with a woman who ate elegantly, but in great quantities, making smiling apology for her appetite by declaring that she'd walked ten miles that morning and would do the same tomorrow.
In this quote, and in so much of the book, I was thrilled to find a great love of food. There is a glorious sounding midsummer feast, some lovely dinners and the tea and coconut-laced cakes described in the quote above. The lozenges of cake sound almost like lamingtons, one of my old favourites. I was drawn to them immediately.
Raspberry and Coconut Cakes
Makes at least 20 small cakes, with offcuts for the cook
3 eggs (weighed in their shells)
And then the same weight of:
Golden caster sugar
A pinch of salt
100g desiccated coconut
150g caster sugar
Coconut flakes, or more desiccated coconut if you prefer
Mixer or electric hand whisk
Square or rectangular cake tin (I used a straight-sided baking dish, measuring 25cm x 15cm)
1. Preheat the oven to 160C fan (180C non-fan) and grease and line the cake tin.
2. Weigh the eggs, and then weigh out your other cake ingredients. Beat the butter and sugar until very light, smooth and white in colour. This takes a good five minutes on a high speed; don't be tempted to skip it. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Fold in the flour with the salt and then, finally, the coconut.
3. Transfer the batter to the cake tin and smooth the top carefully. Place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes, until the top bounces back when pressed lightly, and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.
4. Meanwhile, you can prepare the jam. Squash the raspberries and sugar together in the saucepan to form a paste. Place the pan on a very low heat and allow the jam to simmer for ten minutes to reduce and thicken. It will still be runny when you take it off the heat, but will become stickier as it cools. Cool for five minutes or so, then sieve the jam to get rid of the pips.
5. When the cake is ready, take it out of the oven and immediately spread half the jam over the top. Allow the cake to cool in the tin for ten minutes, then remove from the tin and cool completely on a wire rack.
6. Once the cake is cool, spread the other half of the jam over the top. Allow to set for a minute to two. Slice into squares or lozenges (diamonds). If you want the diamond shapes, cut the cake lengthways into four equal lengths, and then slice widthways on a 45 degree diagonal. Cover the top with coconut flakes (or more desiccated coconut) and serve immediately.