A Woman of Style, Substance & Hedgehog Slice

August 19, 2009

hedgehogI have just heard tonight that Mrs Spain, one of my mother’s dearest friends, died this week. My mum died 15 years ago, and I haven’t kept properly in touch with her friends … so it came as a great shock to hear that Marie, who was without question the most glamorous woman in my parents’  country Catholic family circle, was in her seventies (I realise I have always pictured her as still resolutely, elegantly 47), and had had Alzheimer’s for some time, and in the past week apparently decided her time was up, and refused food and drink, and faded away with her daughters by her side.

Marie Spain was quite a woman, let me tell you.

When were small, our family of seven would turn up to Mass late, every week, with each one of us kids looking as if we’d been torn through a bush backwards – hair fuzzed, clothes misbuttoned, faces unsuccessfully tissue-swabbed, still squirming and tearfully or viciously swatting at one another over some outrage committed in the Kombi on the way to church. Once they got us into the pew, I think our exhausted parents simply closed their eyes with relief at the hour of enforced silence to come (somehow the presence of God, incense and altar boys, combined with an icy parental stare when necessary, momentarily stilled the Beelzebubs within).

But though we were always late, there was invariably one family who arrived later – but oh, so gratifyingly so. Each week, with a regal air I am certain they never knew they had, would enter a procession of Spains, all nine or twelve or sixty of them (they had multitudes of kids, plus various extraneous extended family members of all generations in constant residence, I seem to recall…) and take up their series of pews down near the front.

The differences between my family and the Spains were many and various (mostly to do with sporting prowess and wide smiles and great warmth and good looks on their part, vs wan, lankhaired, spottiness and physical clumsiness on ours) but by far the most enthralling of these differences was that the Spains – all of them, but none more than Marie – always dressed like a million bucks.

I don’t think they had a million bucks,  but Marie was one of those women of our mum’s generation who could sew. I mean really sew, not the apologetic crookedly-pinned, wonkily hemmed A-line skirts we would labour over under Mum’s bored, lacklustre supervision and the Singer threaded too tight. Marie’s stuff was serious art: the kind of French-seamed, gorgeously satiny lined, perfectly fitted stuff we would all pay thousands for these days if we could afford it, which we never will, because that kind of skill and eye for beauty is priceless.

So Marie arriving at Mass was something akin to Audrey Hepburn taking a stroll down the aisle of Our Lady Help of Christians Church, Cooma North, every Sunday. I’m talking elaborate hats, and, when called for, minxy black mantillas. I’m talking gorgeously tailored suits in sumptuous fabrics, gleaming, unscuffed shoes and matching bags, fashionably barbaric jewellery. This was the seventies: Marie wore fur, and tartan pantsuits, and slinky boots, and in one glorious phase the Spains would come to church each week accompanied by a new movie-star mother, in a fabulously funky wig: platinum bouffant one week, redhead flapper the next.

We would gaze along the pews past our mother, past all the other perfectly presentable women like the ones we girls would grow up to be, and who paled (and still do) into the faded green baize carpet in comparison to Marie Spain. If she  happened to be hovering in her grotto on the wall above Marie that week, the boring old Virgin in her chipped blue plaster sack, with her downcast eyes and her lank defeated hair, simply never stood a chance.

Marie and her husband Brian – a tall, strong-boned, confident, handsome tennis champ with warmth to burn – made a dashing couple. Their arrival at Mass was as if a pair of birds of paradise landed on the church steps every week, with a brood of chicks-in-training-plumage  stepping along behind.

I’m told that the priest there now, a young chap, never knew Marie. It’s kind of unthinkable to me, that her funeral might be presided over by someone who never witnessed this Sunday spectacular. Not his fault, obviously. But just in case he happens to read food blogs, this is for him: Marie was a woman of a steady, powerful gaze; slender shoulders; a firm handshake; perfect lipstick (red, I think); excellent Twiggy-style haircuts; bold earrings; immaculate tailoring; a husky, throaty, flirtatious laugh; a complete absence of bullshit; a conception of love and family (and god, I reckon, for that matter) that surpassed all boundaries of blood or duty, to embrace anyone having a moment of loneliness or need; a woman of boundless love, enormous verve, enormous fun.

When our father got sick and died at 53, Marie and Brian were there, instantly and at all times for my mother, and for us. When our mother got sick a few years later, Marie and Brian were there, instantly, by her side, full of love and outrage. When Brian, super-fit and indestructible, suddenly became ill himself and died devastatingly young, my family was shaken to the core for all the lovely Spains. It was impossible that he had gone, and still feels like that. They were a team.

So tonight I feel the same all over again about Marie herself, though I haven’t seen her for decades. I simply cannot get my head around her being old, being gone.

There is one more thing about her.

Every year on my father’s birthday, Marie would show up at our house with a small plateful of her famous chocolate hedgehog slice. This stuff is legendary. And in her typically stylish fashion, Marie’s slice made an entrance – a few perfect squares, artful on a white plate, or wrapped in some elegant paper – and on this day, once a year, the package was always strictly for Dad, and Dad alone. The hedgehog slice would go straight into the fridge, in its special wrapping, until he got home from work. We kids were never allowed to even sniff it, though we stared longingly, with the fridge door held open, and I guess now and again we must have been given enough of a tiniest taste for me to have developed the Pavlovian drool that still starts up whenever I think of it.

I think it took a woman with a hundred kids and every demand under the sun upon her to understand something about the specialness of the biscuit equivalent of A Room of One’s Own – how she managed it every year I don’t know. But the hedgehog cake was Dad’s birthday treat, delivered by Marie every year without fanfare, without fail, and savoured every time.

So Vale Marie: fashion icon, generous soul, deeply  loved woman with exactly the right overabundance of style and substance. I proffer this recipe for hedgehog slice, which cannot possibly measure up to hers, but all the same, I offer it in her honour and memory, with love.

Hedgehog Slice

  • 250g plain sweet biscuits (e.g. milk arrowroot)
  • 3/4 cup chopped hazelnuts
  • 125g butter
  • 125g sugar
  • 2 level tbsp cocoa
  • 2 tbsp coconut
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 beaten egg
  • 200g good quality dark chocolate

Crush biscuits, leaving some lumps, add nuts.

Combine butter, sugar, cocoa, coconut and vanilla in a saucepan and cook for 2 minutes.

Cool slightly and add egg, then add to biscuit & nut mixture.

Melt chocolate and stir thoroughly into mixture.

Refrigerate until set, about an hour. 

Cut into squares, reserving five or six to take on a small plate to your friend on his birthday.

* This recipe, while pretty good, nowhere near approaches Marie Spain’s hedgehog slice. If I ever get my hands on the original recipe, I will most definitely post it here.


  1. This post makes me want to cry, even though it made me smile. Hoping you’re okay, Lady Charlotte. Marie Spain sounds positively divine.

  2. She sounds incredible! It must feel like an honour to have known her. I love the idea of anyone being able to carry off, on the one hand, immaculate Audrey Hepburn-esque tailoring and on the other a changing procession of outrageous wigs!

  3. Beautiful post Charlotte. I’m blown away first by the woman in question, the perfectly named Marie Spain – how could she not be a bird of paradise with that name? – her chic, her French seams and her BIG heart (the annual ritual of the presentation of precious famous hedgehog slice). But more, I’m so captivated by your VIVID portrait of Mrs Spain – by your astonishing writing of her – that not only am I feeling deeply moved by her loss, your loss, but I want more. More of your writing. Will be hanging out for your sibling short story collection and forthcoming Meanjin essay.

  4. Agree – what an appealing woman, so beautifully evoked, Charlotte. How lucky were you to have this family for mass-staring? Those week after week people get burnt into your retinas.

    (A respectful pause before hedgehog comment.)

    They are great made with chocolate ripples for a double choc hit, though it takes away the characteristic variegation.

  5. So glad you all get the idea – she was a winner indeed.

    Jane GW, you madwoman, I blush! Veddy nice of you to say, I must say … and I am intrigued as to YOUR next project, when will that be revealed to the public, hmmm?

    Fiona, I would check out the chocolate ripples but I would feel unfaithful to the memory of Ms Above. That said, it does sound rather good. And yes, you are right about the retina effects of Mass. I remember sooo many details of that church, and other folks. Boredom will do that to a child, which is why I think church attendance should be compulsory for all children. Being bored rigid once a week for an hour or more is very good for the imagination.

  6. Charlotte,
    Thanks for the kind words and for tweeking my memory. She was a rare one.
    It’s also nice to have an outsiders perspective.

  7. Hi Charlotte
    I was great reading about my mum and dad and family through your eyes.Mum always was larger than life. Especially now I am a mother of only 2, I am amazed at how she managed it all. Truly amazing.
    The hedgehog cake, which is one of my favourites, and now my children’s too, was always in the fridge at our house. Mum used to know it off by heart and make it without a recipe. We used to help her mixing the ingredients into the chocolate sauce and still didn’t really know how to make it. The ritual of helping mum meant that you could lick the spoon and the saucepan at the end. A sprinkling of coconut went on the top of the Hedgehog cake and a little in the saucepan. I was good. I do have her recipe even though of course every mix was slightly different as mum never used measuring cups or spoons.
    Mums mother used to make it for her to take with her to boarding school when she was young. Broken biscuits were cheap to get from the corner shop and the loaf tin was an easy way to transport it in the train. It lasted well. (Mum was disciplined enough to make it last).
    Here is the recipe she gave me
    Hedgehog Cake
    125g butter
    1/4 cup sugar
    1 Tsp cocoa
    1 tsp vanilla
    all in saucepan and stir till dissolved and bubbling. Allow to cool before adding
    1 egg
    mix well and heat again (this is not in my written recipe but I have had discussions with mum about it).
    not chocolate sauce mix
    Crushed biscuits (Marie biscuits is what we use)
    1 cup/ handful walnuts
    1 cup/handful sultanas
    Push into a loaf tin and top with coconut and refrigerate.

    Thanks again Charlotte
    Kate Spain

    • Kate and Tony, thankyou so much for reading; it is probably weird reading about a once-removed version of your mum, and obviously she was more complex than I’ve made her sound. But it was lovely to remember her as we saw her, so I hope it’s not too presumptuous. And Kate, thankyou of course for THE recipe, although it’s now clear Marie had it all up there … I hope you know how much everyone in my family has been thinking of yours, and we send lots and lots of love to you all.

  8. Hello Charlotte
    Just come home from Marie’s funeral and wake, and just had to read your comments. Yes we had hedgehog cake for afternoon tes today,and those of us there who remembered couldn’t have a piece quick enough. would love to get in touch with you sometime.
    Kaye Anderson

  9. What a lovely memory for an obviously fabulous women. Kate Spain is my friend and since first meeting her I knew she was my kind of fashionista with such style and also a very kind and generous women. Your message for her Mum was terrific and will be a wonderful keepsake for Linden and Alex. May even attempt to make the slice as it sounds so yummy. Wendy Dashwood

  10. Thanks Kaye & Wendy – lovely to know the hedgehog lives on. And we were sorry not to be able to get to Marie’s funeral, but were there in spirit.

  11. Charlotte,
    Like Tony & Kate I too was touched to read your words about Mum. We are on our way back home from the funeral and although it was obviously a sad occasion it was great to have the opportunity to get the family together a reminisce about old times.
    Once again we were filling the front pews of the church. This time with extra numbers including partners and grandchildren. Mum was a special person indeed.
    Thanks for your memories and kind words.

    Richard Spain

  12. Charlotte,
    Mum advised me of your writings on Mrs Spain and reading through it i could picture the Spain family and all the other families (large mostly) who used to attend church and we all had our own pews the same each week. Yes she was a woman of style and boy did we love all those hats she used to wear.
    My sympathies go out to all the Spain family on this sad occasion but they should know what a wonderful family they all belonged too.

    Say Hi to Bernadette for me. I would love to know where she is now.

  13. Hi Richard & Leonie, thanks for reading – she certainly was exceptional. I’ll definitely pass your greetings to Bern, Leonie, and Richard I love the image of a few more pews filled with Spains!

  14. Hi Charlotte,
    I am working on a tribute to Marie for the Cooma-Monaro Express and was wondering if you wouldn’t mind if I used some of your recollections. I particularly like the Audry Hepburn metaphore and the description of Marie’s wigs and clothing …

  15. […] Heaven chocolate crunch made by Miss Jane; this is a lusciously dastardly version of the old fave hedgehog cake, updated into an utterly irresistible  death-by-chocolate […]

  16. What a wonderful remembrance of this special person.

    The Hedghog Slice sounds remarkably like a recipe that was given to my grandmother during WWII. My mother, until recent years, made “Norwegian Chocolate Cake” every Christmas and Christmas isn’t Christmas without it. My sister has started making it, now. This year she told me that she made one but it was destined for a bake sale.

    I guess she could tell I was pretty disappointed so she called me the other evening that she was making another just for me (well… not JUST for me… but because it meant so much to me).

    If you check my blog, I have the recipe and how it came to my grandmother.


  17. Great post, Charlotte, I really enjoyed it. Somehow I missed it first time round, but Mudhooks comment today alerted me to it. It immediately reminded me of the woman everyone in our family called Granny, who was my brother’s mother-in-law, yet someone I’ve known for at least 40 years. She had her signature “slice” too, and she died around the same time as the remarkable Mrs Spain. My final, very fond memory of 85-year-old Granny’s funeral is that they played Love Me Tender, by Elvis. She really liked Elvis.
    I plan to try your/Mrs Spain’s slice. I’ve never made slices, but I always enjoy eating them. A nice thing to take to work every now and then, I suspect.

    • A late reply to your reply. It turns out that the “Norwegian Chocolate Cake” recipe is a rather well-known recipe in Britain (though called something else). Apparently, Prince William had his grandmother’s (the Queen Mother) version of it at the wedding breakfast for his and Kate’s wedding.

      It was printed on a biscuit product. My mother refuses to believe it wasn’t a time-honoured traditional Christmas treat in Norway.

      Just thought you would like to know. If I can find the reference to the Queen Mum’s recipe I will post it, too.


  18. Mudpuddle, thanks for dropping by – and your Norwegian cake recipe is now in my files. Looks irresistable. Thanks Jamie too. Nice to know this post – and Mrs Spain – is still getting some airtime. Your Elvis-loving in-law Granny sounds like she belongs in the Marie Spain Club for Groovy Girls. Hope they had a nice Christmas wherever they are – at least you can guarantee they have good slices there (and I bet the fashion is pretty spesh too).

  19. Hi Charlotte,
    Thanks for such a vivid and accurate description of my late husband’s cousin by marriage!! Brian (Bubsy)Spain was John Pyne’s cousin. Both of them went to Rostrevor College here in Adelaide way back before my time.
    For a time we lived in Loxton, in the Riverland and I recall Spains dropping in on us on their way back to Cooma from one of their visits back to South Australia. How they crammed all the family – 9 of them plus Brian’s father!! into the their station wagon is nothing short of a miracle! – and that they arrived safely at the end of their journey (with the lack of seatbelts) is even more of a miracle.
    When our two children were about 6 and 4 we went off on a visit to Cooma and had the pleasure of staying with Spains – some of the offspring had fled the nest but still came home for visits. We helped swelled the numbers in the church on that visit and Brian took some time off work to be our tour guide (and trout fishing expert) around the Snowy power stations.
    I swapped stories with Marie over our latest sewing projects as we stood together in her tiny kitchen doing a million chores at once so the meal was on the table on time.
    Charlotte – your pen picture of Marie was spot on!
    I’d love a contact address for any one of the family please.
    Ainslie Pyne.

  20. Hi Charlotte and Spains,

    This was great reading this. Mum had not told me about this post and I just happened to stumble upon it. It bought back a lot of memories for me of the Spains and of your family Charlotte. My family always sat on the opposite side of the church and watched the arrival of the Spains. I think the reason we sat on that side was so we could sneak in the side door when we were late, because Mum wouldn’t like to be seen coming in late. Hard when it is a family of 7 as you know. As you know the family is much larger now and takes a few more than 1 pew in the church. I enjoyed a lot of my childhood with both of these families. They are all good people. Hope all is well.

  21. HI Dianne, nice of you to pop by, and thanks for your memories. So potent, isn’t it, all that time sitting bored to tears in Mass as a child. I think all kids should be forced to endure it – makes for great visual recall down the track. Best to your family from ours …

  22. Dear Charlotte Today I heard you on ABC Radio National Food Program on Marie Spain’s hedgehog slice (amongst other things),her style,her extraordinary family and Our Lady Help of Christians (OLHC).
    My parents worked for the Snowy Mountains Scheme arriving in Cooma late 1949. They played tennis with Spains. We (my mum Joy Judd and the kids- products of a”mixed marraige”) were Catholics,went to school and mass at OLHC–the church also doubled as classrooms during the week. Your description of those Sundays getting there, being there in enforced silence is picture perfect. Marie did cut a figure but so did Mrs Taffa, Aileen Walsh, Betty Mattner,Clare Nowland and of course my own Joy Judd.(I am sure there a lots of others if I concentrate).We also lived down the road from the Spains in Cooma North.I have my mothers Recipe Book from Cooma with 30 years of records of friends,names duly noted in the headers, sharing their favourites, their new food ideas. A couple of those recipes come from Mrs Marie Spain. So your tribute is especially poignant.Thank you.

    • Hi Craig – how lovely to hear from you. I am just back from a few days away with my sisters Bernie & Alice, and Bernie in particular remembers your family well, as do I – and you brought back all those names for us, of all those glamorous women! THank you so much for jogging our memories, and we’re so glad you have your mum’s recipe book with that beautiful bit of family and community history. Thanks for getting in touch. xc

  23. Dear Charlotte, Came across this (and your blog) and as one who also remembers the Spain entourage’s arrival – the younger fils with their easy loping gaits, Marie seemingly gliding the length of the aisle to slow and stop at the front pew as through, rather than walking, she’d actually been curling-stone-like propelled down that lino-covered central runway by Brian from the back door and then Brian himself, striding confidently to the front as simultaneously the Priest emerged from the sacristy – I thought your description as accurate as it was evocative. I particularly liked your allusion to boring old Virgin in her chipped blue plaster sack and lank hair averting her eyes in defeat. In my minds eye I can see that statue now – and I think you’re right.

    • Oh fantastic description Steve – so sorry I missed this comment till now, but am thrilled you liked it. xc

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