Lyons used to operate teahouses all over England in the early 20th century, only to begin shutting them down in the 1980s. To my eternal regret, I arrived in England too late to visit them.
These teahouses turn up in all sorts of novels, especially before, during and after the war. In a bleak social landscape, all grey and littered with suffering, it was the beacon of light where you could forget your worries for a few hours, chatting in the bustling interior with a pot of strong, hot tea and a plate of biscuits and cake. Sarah Waters, one of my favourite contemporary British writers has mentioned it a few times in The Little Stranger and The Night Watch. And many a teatime was spent discussing the trials of life in the Lyons teahouses in the early 20th century domestic fiction republished by Persephone Books.
In Britain, biscuits hold a special place in people's hearts. As a land of tea-lovers (Ceylon, Assam, Darjeeling, Earl Grey, Gunpowder and Green tea - I know, it reeks of empire but good things have to come from somewhere), it's imperative that we have something to dunk in it.
One of my family's perennial favourites is the rich tea biscuit. In Japan, it's called the Marie biscuit. And in Sri Lanka, well, it was the biscuit of choice of our late pooch, Puccini. Turns out my nephews love them too. And my mother swears they are the perfect thing to settle a dodgy stomach. There are many choices including the supermarket brands but probably the most famous in the UK is Lyons, established in 1894. I went to the supermarket and found these which are just perfect dunked in a cup of hot, strong, milky tea.
They also make other delicacies reminiscent of the days of yore, such as battenburg cake (chequered pink and yellow and sugary which screams plastic and preservatives), chocolate bourbons (how I loved these at boarding school) and custard creams (was never sure of these but everyone else scoffed them at teatime). And let's not forget the delightfully named French Sponge Sandwich (which we would normally call the Victoria Sponge in celebration of Queen Victoria). But why French? Who knows. I'm not sure why people still buy these biscuits considering there are so many newer, better tasting varieties. However, part of their appeal taps into our memories of childhood, school fêtes and sitting out in the garden in summer reading Enid Blyton and happily munching on these biscuits. I, for one, wouldn't say no to a chocolate bourbon.
Unfortunately, having trawled through the biscuit and cake section of the major supermarkets and the little newsagents near where I live, I found very few Lyons products except for the original rich tea biscuits and the suspicious looking 'teashop classic', the sultana and cherry cake.
My heart was set on a battenburg cake but alas, it was not to be. It seems Lyons has been superseded by the more popular McVitie's, famous for their chocolate digestives.
The rich tea biscuit was perfect for dunking, light and porous enough for the tea to soak in without crumbling too quickly. But the 'teashop classic' sultana and cherry cake was too crumbly, dry and sugary and tasted like it was made in the early twentieth century. Fail.
So, what are your favourite biscuits and cakes?