Tea with Miss Marple (1)

British actress Joan Greenwood as seed-cake-loving aristocrat Lady Selina Hazy in the 1987 television production of "Miss Marple: At Bertram's Hotel."

“Is it real seed cake?” With her hallmark opulent enunciation and husky tones, British actress Joan Greenwood delivered that line in the 1987 television adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel At Bertram’s Hotel. Portraying Lady Selina Hazy, she and the mystery’s sleuth, Miss Jane Marple (portrayed by the divine Joan Hickson), are sitting in said London hotel, and the waiter has suggested the childhood friends try one of its old-time specialties—seed cake, a pound-cake-like treat packed with caraway seeds that give it a light licorice-style flavour.

Apparently Lady Selina’s elaborate concern about the hotel’s culinary productions was genuine. Seed cake is a British tradition that has fallen by the wayside, and it apparently was in danger of dying out even in Agatha Christie’s day. British cookery writer Arabella Boxer has described seed cake as “an English phenomenon: enormously popular with some, but anathema to others .… I find it delicious in a somewhat austere way.” American food expert James Beard, for his part, called it “quite addictive.” As far as I am concerned, few things are more delicious in the morning or afternoon than a slice of seed cake accompanied by a hot cup of tea or a glass of port.

Lady Selina’s question has become the latest catchphrase in our house, with my husband, our daughter, and I each trying to mimic Greenwood’s inimitable delivery and attempting to reduce each other into a fit of giggles. Believe it or not, our eight-year-old does the best eyebrow-arched imitation of what director Karel Reisz called Greenwood’s mannered way of delivering lines “as if she dimly suspected some hidden menace in them which she can’t quite identify.”

Given our family’s passion for Agatha Christie dramatizations—seed cake shows up in several of her novels—my husband and I decided to research and make five seed-cake recipes, ranging from the mid 19th century to the 1990s, all slightly but distinctively different. We hope you enjoy them as much as we have and will be posting them all over the next few days.


SOURCE: Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Food (Hodder and Stoughton, 1991). The recipe was adapted from one published in When the Cook is Away by Catherine Ives (Duckworth, 1928)

REVIEW: Bold anise-like flavour, a bit dry yet fabulous at breakfast with a swipe of sweet butter.


6 ounces unsalted butter

4 ounces castor sugar

2 large eggs

8 ounces self-rising flour, sifted

1/2 – 1 tablespoon caraway seeds

Grated rind of 1/2 large orange


Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

Beat the butter to a cream, sift the sugar onto it, and cream both together. [Or blend in the food processor.] Beat in one egg, and a little of the flour, then the second egg and more flour. When all the eggs and flour are in, add the caraway seeds and orange rind. [If making for the first time, try 1/2 tablespoon seeds, but if you are fond of seed cake use 1 tablespoon.] Beat all together for about 10 minutes, lifting the mixture up to make it as light as possible. [Or continue to blend in the processor.] Pour the mixture into a [well-buttered and] paper-lined tin [I used a loaf tin holding 1-1/2 pints]. Bake [for 1 and 1/2 hours].

23 comments on “Tea with Miss Marple (1)

  1. home before dark says:

    Loved the story. Would be improved with audio/visuals of family doing, “Is it real seedcake?” What fun. I love how these odd catch phrases come into our lives and stick around for generations. The cake sounds a bit like biscotti. Yum.

  2. Susan Adler Sobol says:

    I confess — I haven’t attempted a single recipe from “The Aesthete Cooks”. I just wanted to thank you for sharing it all. I feel privileged to be part of the conversation — or perhaps I should say, thank you for allowing me to eavesdrop! I devour each post with gusto! Thank you!

  3. Elizabeth Forshaw says:

    Looking so forward to this post, Aesthete.
    As a junkie of this Miss Marple series, I remember the ‘Bertrams Hotel” episeode only too well, maybe because it really intrigued me to try seedcake!

    I finally got my chance, years later, when we lived in England, where a new schoolmate of my son’s mum made, arguably the best seedcake, from her grandmother’s recipe. That long-awaited for taste was like heaven on Earth! The perfume from the orange peel and juice and the licorice aroma and flavours and little crunch of the caraway are indescribable!

    Not long after trying it, we moved back to Canada and with all the general upheaval of the move, I didn’t think to ask for the recipe (a big regret.) I shall try each of the upcoming recipes, and keep them all in a safe place!

    It’s rich and buttery, not at all like biscotti, like another gentle reader wondered, more like a pound cake or a lemon drizzle cake in texture, like you said.

    Addictive too! Cup of tea?

  4. It was Joan Greenwood with the voice??? Oh my word.. how she must have said “real”!! It would have sent shivers. Lovely recipe and delightful post… I can’t wait to read my way backward on this blog. So pleased to have found you. Thanks to

  5. gregory says:

    The Sensual World lyrics by Kate Bush

    Mmh, yes,
    Then I’d taken the kiss of seedcake back from his mouth
    Going deep South, go down,
    mmh, yes,
    Took six big wheels and rolled our bodies
    Off of Howth Head and into the flesh,
    mmh, yes,
    He said I was a flower of the mountain, yes,
    But now I’ve powers o’er a woman’s body–yes.
    Stepping out of the page into the sensual world.
    Stepping out……………….
    To where the water and the earth caress
    And the down of a peach says
    mmh, yes,

  6. Sally Chamberlain says:

    Bravo, Aesthete, seed cake is absolutely scrumptious at any time of day. My son-in-law’s mother always serves it up when we visit her country house and my daughter and I are HUGE fans of the Agatha Christie series, no matter which of her detectives they feature.

  7. John M says:

    How delightful to find this site. I am an avid fan of Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple, and also of traditional British cookery. I should point out, however, that the actual question mentioned above was asked by Miss Marple. The exchange, if I recall, went like this.

    LADY SELENA: I haven’t had Seed Cake since God knows when!

    MISS MARPLE (to waiter): Is it REAL Seed Cake?

    WAITER: Oh yes, ma’am, the cook’s had the receipt for years.

    MISS MARPLE (after a pause, with a small nod): Please.

    I recall a scene, too, in THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES where tea is served on the lawn, and one of the characters (who turns out later to be a murderess) greedily picks at the Seed Cake before anyone else gets to have a piece.

    (In AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL, another amusing exchange revolved aroud food:)

    LADY SELENA: I was in America last year, and they had muffins on the breakfast menu. But they weren’t! They were just tea cakes with raisins in them.

    MISS MARPLE: Yes, the Americans have a lot to answer for.

    • Bonnie says:

      On the strength of The Aesthete’s description I went looking for Joan Greenwood — amazingly, I recognized her voice immediately, although I could swear I have seen none of the few movies she is mentioned as being in. Anyway, I just watched the end of Part 1 of the 1987 version of At Bertram’s Hotel, and laughed at the muffin exchange. Now I must think about baking a seed cake, although I’m not so fond of caraway seeds, and am still resentful over a “chocolate” cake I tasted as a child that turned out to be made with poppy seeds instead of chocolate.

  8. julian levant says:

    Bertram’s is one of my favorites. Selina also mentions other dishes; such as the one she names when she tells Miss Marple about the French couple, the Cartier’s whom overheard ordering a certain dish at tea time, it sounded like le feu ogle???. I have replayed that segment dozens of times and still can’t understand what she said. (Honestly, I do adore Joan Greenwood’s voice.) I swear I looked through every page of my vintage Larousse Gastronomique for any word combination that resembles what I thought I heard her say. Perhaps you caught the phrase better. Can you please tell me? Thanks, Julian in San Francisco, CA

  9. Geoff Mangum says:

    This is the first delectable I have desired to investigate and attempt. I found this recipe as well:

    A Boke of Gode Cookery Presents

    Seed Cake

    PERIOD: England, 16th & 17th centuries | SOURCE: Book of Cookrye and The English Huswife | CLASS: Authentic

    DESCRIPTION: A sweet seed cake


    This is an original recipe, based on cake receipts from A.W.’s Book of Cookrye (1591) and The English Huswife by Gervase Markham, 1615. These sources are not medieval, but this type of sweet, almost bread-like round cake was very common during the Middle Ages, and this recipe is an approximation of how this delectable may have been prepared during that earlier period. A round cake such as this is described in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where it is compared to the shape of the medieval round shield, the Buckler.


    1 ½ cups unbleached flour
    1 cup cracked wheat flour
    1 pkg. yeast
    1/8 cup warm (100 degrees) ale
    1/8 tsp. salt
    4 oz. (1 stick) sweet butter
    3/4 cup sugar
    2 eggs, beaten
    1 tbs. seed (crushed anise, caraway, coriander, cardamom, etc. – choose something flavorful & pleasant)
    ½ – 1 cup milk
    Sift together the flours and salt; set aside in large bowl. Dissolve yeast in warm ale, along with 1/8 tsp. of the flour mixture. Cream together the butter and sugar. Beat in eggs and seeds. Make a well in the flour and add the dissolved yeast. Fold flour into yeast mixture, then fold in the butter. Slowly beat in enough milk to make a smooth, thick batter. Pour batter into an 8″ round greased cake pan. Bake in middle of oven at 350° F for 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool slightly before turning onto a cake rack.

  10. Dale Slomoff says:

    I’m eager to try this with cardamom, one of my favorites. Thanks

  11. Julian Levant says:

    I love reading all the comments of my friends on AC. So, OK folks, it’s time for Aesthete Cooks to have an annual Ms. Marple/Lady Selina “cam” video competition cook off; featuring presentations of seed cake and other goodies from Bertram’s, including voice imitations, costumes, music and of course, the goodies. The winners get to spend an afternoon having high tea in the lobby and dining room of the real or “imaginary” Bertram’s Hotel. Lady Selina & Ms Marple would approve.

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