You can take the girl out of the W.I. but she’ll not stop making cakes.

Ok, so technically I was never in the W.I., although I did intend on joining.

When I lived in Newcastle and broke up with my boyfriend I was sharing a one bedroom flat in a former convent with him and he was an alcoholic.   He was sleeping in the sitting room, I had the bedroom.  I didn’t feel like I could have friends round, as there was nowhere for them to sit and I didn’t want them to see him in that state.  Neither did I want to deal with the hours of talking that would inevitably follow over many, many days if someone came in and had upset his personal space.  We lived like this for 6 months before he moved out.

I had to find things to do to occupy my time.  working shifts as a careers adviser I couldn’t really commit to regular classes or activities in the evenings, unless you count the night shift activities of ‘Sing the lyrics of one song to the tune of another’ or ‘Read out song lyrics in a sort of Radio 4 voice for other people to guess’ or, my personal favourite, ‘How long can I try to talk like Reeves and Mortimer being Geordie Otis Reading and Marvin Gaye sitting on the dock of the bay before I begin to sound like Sarah Milllican?’.  They don’t really count as activities.  Fun, yes, getting me out of the house for something other than work, not so much.

I used the trusty friend Google to see what was going on and found the Wingrove W.I. met once a month not far from my flat.  I emailed the lady who oversees the North East branches and she gave me the details of the group’s next meeting and let the organiser know that a younger woman was coming along to see what it was like.

The night of my first meeting was rather cold and rainy, as were many May evenings last year and so I decided to take the bus all 3 stops rather than walking 19 minutes up the road.  Lazy.  But warm.  I wandered into Wingrove Church hall amongst a gaggle of ladies of (I presumed and was later proven right) pensionable age and a couple in their 40s.  I did stick out a little like a sore thumb, but I’ve spent a large portion of my life around people roughly 30 years older than me so I wasn’t too concerned about fitting in.

A sporty looking woman with a large bag came in behind me and as I was signing in and discovering I didn’t have to pay (woo hoo!) I heard an older woman, presumably a former teacher (yep) asking if she was Ellie.  The sporty lady (very unlike me) looked confused and I introduced myself.  The older woman (have temporarily forgotten her name but will update this to be less rude when I find it) said that she was expecting a younger prospective member but didn’t think she would be under thirty!  I was welcomed, introduced to a few people and given a seat in the circle.

We all stood and sang Jerusalem.  I didn’t realise that this was an actual thing that happened.  I’ve sung it before, I was in many choirs so I was bound to have bumped into it at some point, but couldn’t fully remember the words.  I made a mental note to bring the sheet music next time.  And listen to the Coope, Boyes and Simpson song ‘Jerusalem Revisited’ on the way home.  Both of these things I did.

What followed was one of the most unintentionally hilarious evenings I have ever had.  It turned out that the sporty lady was there as the night’s speaker and was there to give a practical all participant demonstration of arm-chair exercises.  I was met with nervous smiles by some of the ladies to my right as the elastic bands were passed around that would be stretched under the chairs and used to a soundtrack of classic 70s disco.  I loved it.  I gave it a try, although I was not as enthusiastic as Chrissy, the group’s oldest member at 94 who put the rest of us to shame.  I bought raffle tickets, didn’t win and promised to come back for my second free invitation in July.  I couldn’t make the next month because I was going to Germany and France but I probably wouldn’t have had much use from that session  – how to check new babies’ hearing.

The July meeting was going to pose somewhat of a problem, however.  It was coinciding with the Queen’s Jubilee and the group’s 30th birthday.  They were having an indoor Red, White and Blue street party.  With cake.  And biscuits. And sandwiches.  And cocktail sausages.  All attendees were expected to bring something.  And somehow I’d ended up designing the icing patterns for bothe the Jubilee and birthday cakes…

If you’re not in the UK you may not be aware quite what the W.I. is.

The Women’s Institute was formed in 1915 to revitalise rural communities and to encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War. Since then the organisation’s aims have broadened and the WI is now the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the UK. The WI will celebrate its centenary in 2015 and currently has over 210,000 members in around 6,600 WIs. (Plagiarism alert: most of that last paragraph was from the W.I. website, I just haven’t got the brain power to put it into my own words right now.  If you would like to know more about it and look for your local group – I recommend that you do – follow this link)

What you may also not be aware of is that the W.I. is renowned for its bakers.  And for an insistence on good quality.

Now I would say that I’m not too bad at making cakes.  My former boyfriend thought that by making them I was poisoning people with fat and sugar, but I did try pointing out that they didn’t eat the *whole* cake, just a bit of it, but he would not be swayed.  But then he was essentially an arse, so let’s ignore his opinion.

I’ve made some rather tasty, if not always fantastic looking, cakes for things at work – we had semi-regular ‘bake days’ I nearly always baked – but I approached the idea of baking something for the W.I with a fair amount of trepidation.  This party was special to these ladies who had welcomed me so warmly.  They are very much into the Queen and the 30th birthday was a landmark as there were a number of original members still around.  Would I be able to live up to their expectations? I would have two months to decide what to make.  I just had two weeks in a caravan in Germany and France with my ex to get through first…

One of the things that I have cooked that has usually turned out the way I intended and been favourably reviewed and eaten is my chocolate orange brownies.  I love them and end up eating far more than I should, which is one of the contributing factors to me weighing far more than I should.  But they are a crowd pleaser and I thought that it was a pretty safe bet.  I could make them a couple of days before the party and they would just gently mature and get tastier.

I’m afraid I can’t reveal the recipe just yet, I first have to give it to someone who bid for it at a charity auction about 6 months ago and I’ve been too lazy to write it out for her.  But I will.  The plan for this blog is to have a lighthearted look back at food and food memories interspersed with how to make various foods.  So it will be on its way, promise.  And the rum, raspberry, rosemary and chocolate fudge mini cakes.  They are good. Trust me with the rosemary.

On the day of the party I looked through my Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe style wardrobe to find something red, white or blue to wear.  White was out.  I was pasty and just looked daft in white.  The red dress I’d bought for a friend’s wedding might be ok, but perhaps a little cleavage heavy.  We were going to sing Jerusalem after all.  No, it would have to be the fantastic new blue dress with red, white and yellow bird of paradise flowers on it.  Add a red flower clip to the hair and it’s very 1940s.  Very W.I..

I lined a red spotty cake tin that my sister bought me with blue napkins and arranged the chopped up brownie.  I would like to say that they were perfectly square, but they tend to end up a bit more ragged at the edges.  I would also like to be able to say that I kept the arrangement up but soon realised that they wouldn’t all fit in if I did that so it was either eat 20% (tempting) or just squish them in.  I squished them in.  The ladies of Wingrove W.I. wouldn’t mind.  Compared to most of them I was essentially a child so a bit of poor presentation would probably be fine…

I trundled up the hill, walking this time, turned the corner to see the warm glow of lights coming from the hall.   Some of the ladies spotted me coming and bustled me in, asking how my holiday had been, if I had managed to find a teaching job yet, how were things at home?  I was surprised that they remembered as I’d only met with them for an hour and a half two months before and most of that time had been spent stretching elastic to Earth Wind and Fire and Rose Royce.

The hall had been decorated with balloons, the table has crisp white cloths, red white and blue napkins, there were paper chains, flags and everyone had made an effort with their clothes.  Some were busy making tea, others laying out the food.  I gingerly offered my tin to be put with the others, but soon spotted a Mr Kipling packet and breathed a sigh of relief.  At least one of them had cheated and bought cakes!  No problems here.

We sang Jerusalem (I had my sheet music, I like to do singing properly if I can) minutes were read from the last meeting and we tucked into the food.  I was nibbling away on a cocktail sausage when there was a tap on my shoulder.  Someone held up a plate with my brownie on, smiled and shuffled on towards her table.  Whilst hearing a story about a recent coach trip to Bruges (the cobbles really don’t mix well with her husband’s wheelchair  – broken leg, not just old) I heard some comments of ‘Lovely brownies!) from the table behind me.  The group leader started to hand out the birthday presents.  I sat politely listening to the stories of how the group had come about and to my surprise found that they had included me in the presents too.  I had a china mug from the V&A range – William Morris print, very nice – so that I could have tea next time I came along.  I was touched and a little bit proud that I appeared to pass the W.I. baking initiation.  I wrote down the next meeting dates in my diary and tried to work out if I could make the sewing group. Damn, I was working, but hopefully another time I could get some tips for the patchwork quilts I had begun to sew for my nieces.

As the evening drew to a close and we began to pack up I found 3 brownies and some crumbs left.  Not a bad effort really.  I would enjoy coming back to this group and would sign up in September when the next meeting was scheduled.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t to be.  I took a job in Tanzania and so wouldn’t go back to see them.  I wrote them a letter thanking them for their warm welcome and explaining that I was leaving the country and hoped that they would have a good year.

I took a chocolate orange with me to Tanzania when I moved.  Something sweet to get new people on your side always seemed to work.  I find baking, and cooking in general, relaxing and a good way to get talking to people.  I thought it would help getting over any ‘Oh god, I’m moving to a different continent to do a job I trained for over a year ago, what am I doing?’ nerves.

Then things went a bit wrong, my Dad died, (that’s on my main blog I went back to England, I came back to Tanzania, I got a bit depressed.  I started cooking.  A bit like Izzy from Grey’s Anatomy (S03E02).  I started to feel better.  I started experimenting with recipes.  I decided I would write some down.  And perhaps tell a few stories.  I hope you enjoy them.

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