According to family tradition, the tea table at Meroogal was not considered complete until it was laden with the family’s ‘signature’ sponge cake, which was baked in a loaf tin and served perfectly plain. The sponge was one of many delicious offerings served by the ‘misses Thorburn’ – sisters Belle (Annabella), Kate (Jessie Catherine), Georgina and Tottie (Kennina) – at their ‘At Home’ tea parties in the early 1900s.
‘At homes’ were easier to manage than a sit-down luncheon or dinner. According to Mrs Beeton’s all about cookery (1902),
‘knowing [that guests] will not all assemble at the same time, a great many may be welcomed …’
There was no formal invitation at Meroogal. The first Monday of every month was set aside to receive friends and relatives who knew it was the appropriate time to call. Guests were ‘properly’ greeted at the front door, rather than at the side door, and then ushered into the drawing room with its Victorian-style bay windows.
To prepare for their guests, the Thorburn sisters would rise early, as per their usual custom, and bake their special scones, biscuits and cakes including the signature sponge. Tottie and Kate would make the cake together, Tottie beating the egg yolks while Kate whisked the whites on a large flat dinner plate with the blade of a dinner knife. This technique for whipping egg whites is now a lost art, but one well known among traditional cooks – you need a steady arm and plenty of patience.
You can watch the sponge cake being made in the kitchen at Meroogal by the house’s last owner, June Wallace, in this video: