English Afternoon Tea is something of a contradiction. On one hand, it’s elegant and refined. It comes with complicated etiquette, from start to finish. On the other hand, you eat with your fingers. Never mind the bountiful utensils surrounding the delicate china on three sides.
But, how fun to gather some friends and do a little time travel back to genteel days when the Victorian world understood the art and pleasure of taking tea.
I just hosted my second English Afternoon Tea for my granddaughter and her best friend. (The first was a baby shower over a decade ago; that boy is in junior high school now.) Saedy and Brooke are high school seniors, the class that will be remembered for all the memories they didn’t get to make: no prom, no Senior Ditch Day, no graduation ceremony. I wanted to give them something special to look back on.
To round out the guest list, I included Saedy’s mother and brother, my daughter and grandson. All together, five of us. Formal invitations were mailed. “RSVP: Regrets Only.” No one “regretted.”
Low Tea or High Tea? Big difference!
First, let’s clear up a misunderstanding right away: It’s not High Tea. Okay, that was MY misunderstanding, because I thought High Tea meant “fancy.” Afternoon Tea, served between 3 to 5 pm, is also called “Low Tea” because it was first served at…well, low tables. Benches or what we now call coffee tables. Think sitting room, in front of a cozy fire, with other gentlewomen.
Afternoon Tea got its start in 1840, when Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, grew restless in late afternoons. Gas lighting had been invented, pushing dinner time until 8-9 pm. Anna decided to fill in a couple of hours with light fare and good company from her aristocratic circle.
By the 1880s, English Afternoon Tea was a thing, complete with a special wardrobe of wispy, lacy dresses, designed with loose waists. Then Josiah Spode invented bone china, which kept tea hot while appearing très chic, and there was no turning back.
“High Tea” is–you guessed it–eaten at a high table, like a counter or table. Its menu is hearty, with meat, eggs, and cheesy casseroles. Crumpets and desserts. Served after 5 pm, it’s meant for workers who are hungry after a day on the job and need food with substance. No fancy lah-dee-dah stuff here.
So basically, Low Tea is a social occasion and High Tea is a meal.
A word about the teas…
This is a serious matter, so there are serious decisions to make about which teas to serve. The website Destination Tea, dedicated to all-things Afternoon Tea, says, “…you should know what teas go well with an afternoon tea menu. Choosing the right cup of tea can lead to an enjoyable and relaxing afternoon with friends.”
You’ll want to serve at least two kinds of tea at your gathering: a black tea and an herbal tea. If you have a third teapot available, go for a trifecta.
Black Teas: More oxidized than green or white tea, the leaves are dark and the flavor is intense and full-bodied. Black tea has more caffeine than other types, but still less than coffee. These are the teas that can handle milk–never cream–if that’s your pleasure.
Earl Grey: Maybe the most famous of all black teas, the distinctive flavor of the essential oil of bergamot appeals to nearly everyone.
Assam: Also known as English or Irish Breakfast, this is a strong tea from India. (Which makes sense, since India was part of the Empire for a long time.)
Herbal: Every gathering should offer at least one type of herbal tea. Delicate flavors and no caffeine offer a counter-balance to the black teas. There are, of course, traditional favorites, but choose what you like.
Chamomile: If there’s a classic herbal tea, this is it. Made from the chamomile flower, it has a comforting aroma and mellow, sweet taste.
Peppermint: Coming in second place, peppermint tea needs no introduction. It soothes, promotes digestion, and tastes like candy canes. Spearmint tea is another good choice.
Other teas that are special: Consider adding one of these to your party!
Oolong: A traditional Chinese tea, it’s also a black tea, but processed differently, so it ends up as its own category. The flavor varies from light to full-bodied, floral to grassy, and sweet to oaky. It’s served without milk or sugar; if sweetening is necessary, use honey.
Darjeeling: Called the “champagne” of tea, it has a sweet, exotic aroma. The tea has fruity and delicate essence, which some compare to champagne. Darjeeling is usually made as a back tea, but can also be processed as green, white, or oolong.
How do we start? With sandwiches!
Afternoon Tea has a strict menu and order, so pay attention.
Sandwiches always come first. With no crusts, and cut into triangles, squares, or strips to make finger sandwiches. White bread and brown, mostly. As Helen Simpson, tea expert tells us, “You are not allowed to move on to cakes and muffins until you have blunted the teeth of your appetite with a sandwich.”
English Afternoon Tea has four classic sandwiches. No matter what kind you decide on, try to make them as close as possible to when they’ll be served.
- The Cucumber Sandwich: It couldn’t be simpler: Use the slicing side of a cheese grater to make paper-thin slices of an English cucumber. Let the slices drain for a good while, at least an hour. Then butter two slices of bread (white, if you’re going to follow tradition) and add two layers of the cucumber. “Apply firm but delicate pressure,” says Helen, “and slice off the crusts. Cut into three rectangles (strips).” If you want to go rogue, here’s a recipe with cream cheese instead of butter.
- Egg Salad Sandwich: It’s more of a deviled egg sandwich; the Brits love devil. Make your favorite egg salad, or deviled egg recipe, chopping up the eggs extra fine. If you didn’t already, add some yellow mustard for a little zing. Got some watercress or arugula? Add a few leaves to each sandwich before removing the crusts and cutting into triangles.
- Chicken Salad Sandwich: It can be tuna salad or ham salad, too. Go wild and have two kinds. The point is to include some kind of protein mixed with mayonnaise. Whether you buy it at your deli or make it, plan on having extras of these. They’re a crowd-pleaser, even among dainty eaters. People seem to inhale them.
- Smoked Salmon Sandwich: Traditionally served as an open-faced sandwich on pumpernickel bread with crème fraîche and dill, you’ll also enjoy it with cream cheese (add some dill!) on just about any kind of bread. Here’s an easy recipe with cream cheese.
- Your Choice of Sandwich: Although there are some staples at English Afternoon Tea, you’re allowed to surprise guests with your own selections. Roast beef or ham, thinly sliced, are good. I think pimiento cheese sandwiches round out the selection nicely. If you need inspiration, here are 50 ideas to go on those crustless slices.
Scones and clotted cream: Heaven!
Scones. Not those rock-hard wannabes that have been sitting out at the grocery store for who-know-how-long. I’m talking freshly-made, fluffy rounds that split open to hold a dollop of clotted cream and a spoonful of preserves. Preferably raspberry, but strawberry preserves or orange marmalade won’t offend the die-hards. Lemon curd is another favorite. Buy it or make it with an easy recipe from Ina Garten.
Before we get to the scones, let us pause and praise clotted cream. For me, it’s the whole reason to go to the trouble of Afternoon Tea. It’s a magical cross between whipped cream and butter. Totally British since the 14th century, it’s worth every single calorie…and there are 80 “fat-astic” calories in a tablespoon. There isn’t an American equivalent, so you’ll have to hunt it down. Upscale markets, like Whole Foods or Wegmans, carry it. Sometimes Trader Joe’s has it. If you’re ambitious–and have about 12 hours–here’s a recipe to make your own clotted cream. Just know that a proper tea requires it. Period.
On to the scones. They’re like biscuits, only better. MUCH better. They need to be fresh, so if you can wait until the day of the tea to make them, all the better. If not, the day before will have to do, but cover them tightly. You can zap them in the microwave for a few seconds before serving.
World’s Best Scones
Makes at least 10, depends on the size of your cutter.
(My grandmother’s small biscuit cutter yielded about 24.)
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
2 cups all-purpose or cake flour
1 tsp. salt
4 tsp. baking powder
2 Tbl. sugar
5 Tbl. cold butter
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 Tbl. water
Optional: 1/4 to 1/3 cup currants, dried raisins, or apricots (diced)
1. Mix the flour, salt, baking powder, and 1 Tbl. sugar together. (Set the other Tbl. of sugar aside.)
2. Cut the cold butter into tiny pieces and pulse in a food processor with the flour until everything is completely blended together. It will look like light yellow flour. Don’t rush this step.
3. Beat 2 of the eggs with the heavy cream. With just a few quick and decisive strokes, add them to the flour-butter mixture. (If you’re adding dried fruit, add it now, again with swift strokes.)
4. Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead it TEN times. Only TEN! If it feels sticky, add a tiny bit of flour. Don’t worry if it sticks to your hands.
5. Press the dough into a 3/4-inch-thick rectangle. Use a biscuit cutter or small glass to cut 2-inch circles. Place them on an ungreased baking sheet. Gently reshape the dough and cut a few more.
6. Beat the remaining egg with 1 Tbl. water and brush the top of each scone. Sprinkle each scone with a little sugar.
7. Bake 7-9 minutes, or until the scones are a gorgeous golden brown.
To eat scones “like a native,” carefully pry them apart with your fingers. Cutting them with a knife is acceptable if yours won’t cooperate. Place a spoonful of clotted cream on the scone, then the preserves or lemon curd.
The grand finale: Desserts!
If you’ve paced yourself, there’s still room for pastries. There’s only one rule here: Serve a variety. The fun of this last course of your English Afternoon Tea is that guests get an opportunity to sample a range of treats and textures.
Here are a few favorites, but look in your own recipe files to find what you love best:
- Something lemony: Lemon bars or lemon cakes have a satisfying tartness to the selection.
- Something chocolate: As if you needed to be told! Try the famous Palmer House brownie, from the place where the brownie was born! Small slices of chocolate cake or a chocolate pudding tart will also do nicely.
- Something cream-filled: Eclairs, profiteroles, Napoleans, Mille-feuilles…anything with a creamy, gooey filling. Unless you’re an accomplished pastry chef, leave these to the professionals.
- Something traditional: Madeleines come to mind. If you have the shell-shaped mold for these light sponge cakes, bake a batch. Iced cookies–or “biscuits” as we’ll call them for this occasion–are standard. Use your Christmas
cookiebiscuit recipes, minus the red and green sparkles.
- Something fruity: Depending on the season, serve something featuring fresh fruit: strawberries, blueberries, apples, or pears. Tiny tarts are perfect…and impressive. Crumbles (crisps, cobblers, or whatever you call them) are nice, too.
Now, a few etiquette tips…
An event as fancy as an English Afternoon Tea comes with a few “guidelines.” To really immerse yourself in the occasion–no fascinator required, but if you have one, go for it–follow these tips:
- The host(ess) pours the first cup of tea for guests. Pass the cup and saucer, keeping the spoon that was resting on the saucer. Tell the host(ess) if you’d like sugar and/or milk. (By the way, the tea is poured first, then the milk.)
- The saucer stays on the table. Unless you’re standing, or have no place to rest the saucer, only lift the cup to drink.
- One hand to hold the cup–and no extended pinkie! It’s not a mug, so don’t wrap your hands around it. Town & Country magazine says: “You should pinch your index and thumb between the loop of the handle and then put your middle finger along the bottom of the handle to support it.”
- The handle of the tea cup stays at the 3 o’clock position. If you’re left-handed, you are kindly permitted to keep the handle at 9 o’clock. My, there are a lot of rules about tea cups, aren’t there?!?!
- Stirring has its own rule, too. No whirlpools–gently guide your spoon (which was resting on the saucer at the 11 o’clock position, in case you didn’t notice) back and forth between the 6 o’clock and 12 o’clock positions.
My English Afternoon Tea was a huge success. The teens had no idea that I had lovely china. They were amazed at the sugar cubes. The menu dazzled them…I thought the cucumber sandwiches would be a hard-sell, but Saedy declared she was going to make them forever. At the end of the tea, I gave the girls the teapots to take home, as a souvenir. “Whenever you make tea from now on, you’ll remember our special day.”
Want to learn more about Afternoon Teas?
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