Tea for the British is not just a beverage: It is, indeed, the very lifeblood of the country,
regardless of whether one resides in Windsor Castle or a council estate. The very word carries a number of slightly differing meanings, and if and when you decide to visit, it is important that you understand what these mean.
If a Brit invites you for coffee, for example, this could mean coffee, or it could mean tea or even hot chocolate. To be invited for coffee simply means you will be sharing a hot beverage together, no matter what time of day. It’s a little like an American asking if you want to get a Coke. It could be Pepsi, Kool-Aid, Iced Tea or anything.
If, however, you are invited for “Tea,” you must be sure to ascertain exactly what may be expected. Over here, we have High Tea and Afternoon Tea, both of which are vastly different. Afternoon Tea, a meal involving a pot of tea and a selection of posh sandwiches and cakes, was historically a social event amongst the upper classes, a bridge between lunch and supper, which may not be eaten until around 8 p.m. Therefore, Afternoon Tea would be traditionally be taken in the mid-afternoon, anywhere between 3 and 5 p.m.
High Tea, on the other hand, was not so much “high” as it was working class. This would be a 6 p.m. meal amongst your common Joes, consisting of a mug of tea, bread, and whatever else could be found to eat. This is probably why many working class English to this day refer to their evening meal as “Tea,” whether or not any actual tea is served.
But when we Yanks consider the quintessential English Tea, we would likely be talking about Afternoon Tea, a tradition which is still very much alive and well. If, when you visit England, you are feeling particularly flush, feel free to book in at The Ritz in London and rub elbows with Bono and DeNiro and any number of royal cousins. It will cost you about $80 a person for a few sandwiches, cakes and the best tea England has to offer.
For the rest of us out here in the real world, however, Afternoon Tea remains more a luxury than a necessity.
A few years back, I was kindly invited to “Afternoon Tea” in a little Victorian tearoom in Texas. The atmosphere was lovely and tea was served on mismatched bits of china, very trendy, and the table was laid beautifully. There were cake stands on surrounding tables and ladies were munching away on little sandwiches and cakes. At first glance, all appeared to be well. However, on closer inspection, I soon realized that much of what comprises Afternoon Tea had been lost in translation.
When I was asked what sort of tea I preferred, I naively requested “ordinary tea.” By which I meant any sort of black tea apart from Lipton, which is a blend for iced tea, and is never to be drunk hot. A proper pot of tea is black, preferably loose, and served with sugar (not sweetener, honey, Agave or anything sandal-wearing new age weird) and cow’s milk (not goat, soy, coconut or almond).
I was offered the choice of Lavender, Chamomile, Raspberry or Peppermint. Seriously. This was a tearoom. Where, in the name of all that is decent, was the TEA? If I was going to bed, had trouble sleeping, appetite issues or a touch of wind, any or all of the above varieties would have been perfectly suitable. All systems, in that moment anyway, were operating normally and hence had no need of herbal tea. With a plate of cake and sandwiches, herbal tea is simply unthinkable.
Nevertheless, I ordered the least offensive of all “teas” on offer and chose Lavender. It was served with a plate of little cucumber sandwiches, and some made of cream cheese mixed with Veg-All. There were cold, un-toasted crumpets, sugar glazed scones, chocolate cookies and macaroons fresh from the packet. There was jam, but no butter.
This was, in my opinion, an unqualified disaster. This was not in any way, shape or form Afternoon Tea in the British sense of the word, but then again, I was in America.
Let us start with the Veg-All: For my British readers, Veg-All is a tin of cubed carrot and potato, corn, beans and peas. All mixed together. And canned. Together. In what universe would tinned “vegetables”* ever be served on a sandwich, I ask you? Or mixed with cream cheese, for that matter?
Just to clear a few things up, tea sandwiches are generally served as crustless triangles or fingers, and all sandwiches are usually spread on both sides with butter, regardless of filling. Possible choices for sandwich fillings might include thinly sliced cucumber, prawn mayonnaise, boiled egg and watercress, smoked salmon, cheese and chutney, or even thinly sliced ham. The list of possibilities is endless, really, and the internet is awash with gorgeous little recipes. But tea sandwiches are meant to be wonderfully light, so, if you fancy hosting an Afternoon Tea with the ladies, make sure you go easy on the fillings. Less, in this case, is definitely more.
Cakes and breads can be any number of things, but cupcakes, muffins, Victoria sponge and Battenburg cake are all excellent choices. They do not have to be homemade, but they must be of good quality. Crumpets are optional, but personally, I would give these a miss at Afternoon Tea.
A brief word on crumpets: The crumpet is what you get when you cross an English muffin with an American pancake. (The British pancake is more or less a French crepe and is served as a dessert with butter, lemon and sugar. Not really my thing, but there you have it.) The crumpet looks like an English muffin, but it is springy like a firm pancake. It is served toasted or grilled with butter and preferably honey, jam or possibly marmalade. They may also be eaten as a savoury with Marmite, egg or even melted cheese.
Having said this, all of us know that the true star of any tea plate is the scone. No Afternoon Tea is complete without one. Better yet, two. (Or even three…)
The skinny on scones: An English scone is basically a vaguely sweet American biscuit, the stodgy variety of biscuit your grandma would have made, not the kind you whop out of a pressurized Pillsbury tube. Though the scone does have some savoury variations involving cheese, your Afternoon Tea scone is not generally adulterated with anything other than dried fruit. Never glaze a scone with sugar. A scone is to be lightly glazed with beaten egg.
For the record, frosting and glazing with sugar are what happen to Donuts, the Scone’s beautiful yet lower-class cousin. Delicious though the Donut may be, always remember that it comes from a whole different branch of the bread family. A scone is the Judi Dench of bread products: Dignified, regal, pleasantly flawed, earthy, and yet a proper class act. Like Dame Judi, the scone does not have to make a fuss over its appearance. It is not a fad – it is an institution.
The Donut, on the other hand, is really more Marilyn than Dame Judi: Sexy, smart, approachable, thoroughly down to earth and fluffy in all the right places. The Marilyn Monroe of bread is only made more luscious with the addition of anything sweet, rich and decadent. Think chocolate or a translucent glaze. Think Boston cream. Think deep, red jam oozing from a sugar-dusted pillow, or a sparkly collar of sprinkles bedded in pink icing..
-Ahem- Moving on.
Scones are fairly heavy in weight, but should never be hard. At Afternoon Tea, one’s scone is served with clotted cream** and jam.
Speaking of cream: When the Brits refer to “Cream Tea,” this does not mean that they actually put cream IN their tea. This would be a huge no-no, though I have seen my share of American TV shows where people are asked if they would like “cream” in their tea. “Cream Tea,” which you will see on many a menu, simply means that one will be served scones and clotted cream** along with their tea.
Cow’s milk and cow’s milk alone goes in tea, cream goes in coffee, and sugar is optional on both counts. (Once a dear Jamaican friend dosed my tea with goat’s milk. You do not want to hear that story. Let us just say for the record that it did not go down well. As in, at all. *shudder*)
While the Brits may not yet have forgiven us Yanks for the gross waste of tea in Boston Harbor all those years ago, one can only hope that we younger cousins can redeem ourselves by ditching the lavender tea, uncooked scones and Veg-All sandwiches. After such wanton destruction of such a glorious commodity, the very least we can do is learn to serve it properly.
* Corn and peas are not real vegetables, the former being a grain and the latter being a fruit seed. Like the potatoes and carrots, these are just additional starches. Vegetables can be found in the fresh vegetable section of your local grocery store.
**Clotted cream is not actually “clotted,” a word which evokes fairly unfortunate images involving the human circulatory system or sewer pipes. Clotted cream is produced when Devonshire or Cornish cream is heated in a water bath and the fat rises to the top to form “clots,” or “clouts.” What results is a beautifully textured, velvety cream with a light crust to be spread thickly on your scone and topped with jam. It is a zillion calories of pure bliss!
Feature photo of Afternoon Tea: Shutterstock
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