Food more than fuel – In praise of cricket teas

The cricket season is nearly upon us, so especially for Cardiff School of Journalism’s cricket supplement (edited by the wonderful Will and Tom), here’s a tribute to one of Britain’s best inventions – the cricket tea.

For most sports, food means fuel. Whether it be protein shakes, dubious muscle-building powders or, for the Olympians, three fried-egg sandwiches and a five-egg omelette for breakfast, none of the scientifically-proven meals eaten by today’s athletes would find their way onto a Michelin-starred menu.

Nor, of course, onto a cricket tea table. With its day-long matches and meal breaks, cricket is the one exception to sport’s food is fuel rule. The cricket tea is a centuries-old institution, and without it club cricket – or its players at least – would crumble.

Although there’s no hard and fast rule for the perfect cricket tea, a lot rides on its quality. Your club will soon be blacklisted if away teams are greeted by nothing more than a curled-up marmite sandwich and some lukewarm squash.

Up until recently, most clubs either had an official tea lady or an unofficial squad of teamakers – the players’ wives, who get a starring role in a Yorkshire cricket heritage project. Although some still do – Lisvane Cricket Club are currently advertising for a cricket tea caterer, at £60 a time – more and more teams have had to enlist the players themselves as chefs-in-chief.

But whoever makes it, the teatime staples haven’t changed much over the years. For sandwiches, egg and cress, cheese and cucumber and tinned salmon are all favourites, usually accompanied by pork pies and sausage rolls. Some more adventurous clubs have even introduced young pretenders like cold pizza and samosas.

Tacky is usually the order of the day. Buy-one-get-one-free Mr Kipling cakes, doused with icing sugar and nestling on a doily, are a must, and a huge multipack of Walkers crisps (with the prawn cocktail left until last) is a given.

And of course an urn should sit steaming in a corner, ready to make umpteen cups of PG Tips. It’s all very 1950s, and no-one – least of all the old-timers who are more interested in the tea than the score – would want to change it.

But the best teas, the really memorable ones, the ones which will make away teams squabble over who gets picked to travel to your club, take the kitsch classics and transform them into a gourmet meal.

Sliced white bread will be replaced by fresh brown or granary straight from the baker’s. Fillings will be generous – creamy egg mayonnaise will ooze out of the sandwiches, plastic wafer thin “ham” will surrender to crumbly butcher’s ham smothered in English mustard and the sausage rolls will be warm, with flakey buttery pastry and peppery sausages.

But most of all, Mr Kipling will be abandoned in favour of homemade cakes. Light Victoria sponges, filled generously with buttercream and strawberry jam, will vie for space with rich chocolate cake and sticky brownies, and buttery scones will be served with clotted cream and tangy lemon curd.

At its best, a cricket tea encapsulates everything great about English cooking. At its worst, it will look like you’ve gone to Kerry Katona and asked her for her Iceland leftovers. Know which side your bread is buttered on, and make sure your team rises to the challenge this season.

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