I would not be able to tell a Malteser from an allsort, if I found them in the pocket of a toggled Royal Navy duffle, but still: I have a complicated nostalgia for British sweets that I have never even tasted. Nigel Slater’s Toast is probably to blame; so is our deep cultural thirst for Englishness in America, which the current parched season of Downton Abbey cannot come close to quenching.
So when my colleague, the photographer Chris Rochelle, gave me a box of Tunnock’s Teacakes last month (a late Christmas present, I suspect, though he dropped them on me pretty casually, like “Hey, keep the box man,” because guys) my Anglophilism flared like stoked coals in a cottage grate. Anglophilism yes, despite the fact that Tunnock’s are from a place in Scotland with a deliciously clunky, hauntingly bovine name, Uddingston.
Uddingston’s finest are the fragile precursors of American Mallomars. Where the latter have a plasticky marshmallow filling that could serve as foam insulation, Tunnock’s have delicate white centers like spun batting. The cookie underneath this filling is pale and friable (the Mallomars cookie seems built to survive a pallet drop in a New Jersey warehouse), the chocolate coating thin as veneering on a Georgian console. But the spangly wrappers, red rays spinning from an eight-point star at the center, when you smooth out the foil, have loads of sweet gimcrack bravado, part Sgt. Pepper, part Archie Rice. (Rachel Rochelle, Chris’s wife, and a Scot raised in London and Glasgow, remembers spreading the wrappers flat.)
Indeed, people can love the wrappers even if they despise the cakes. “I hate the things,” replies Guardian Weekend restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin, a Scot, when I poke her about Tunnock’s. “The thin, cheap 'chocolate', rubbery marshmallow…. Bleaurgh.” But, she says, “everyone loves the design (me too) and they pop up in cool cafes and hotels these days.” They are geeky enough to have turned into icons of Britishness, apparently, or of nostalgia for a Britain where no one toted up the cacao percentages of chocolate, and where sweetness and stickiness were measures of value.
I like Tunnock’s Teacakes because they’re delicate in a way that American factory sweets are not and also: They are called teacakes. Oh look, I have just eaten four of them.
Photos by Chris Rochelle