By Jean at Delightful Repast
Though the pace of life in the UK these days precludes frequent indulgence in the ritual of afternoon tea, I’ve heard there has been a resurgence of interest. I’m so glad, because it is a tradition that cannot be allowed to die.
The classic British-style afternoon tea is something I enjoy as often as possible and that keeps me in touch with my English heritage. It is usually one’s mother who determines the family’s food traditions, and my mother’s family was English. I was not more than four when I began drinking tea, even in the middle of the night.
I love to throw afternoon tea parties for my friends. I’ve had smaller and larger groups (I once professionally organised a rather grand one for 300 guests), but usually have four to six people indoors or, if the weather is fine, outdoors in the garden in the gazebo. I make two or three different tea sandwiches; scones to be served with clotted cream, lemon curd and jam; shortbread and other sweets. Afterward, I bring out the strawberries and Champagne or Pimm’s Cup.
Yes, giving an afternoon tea is a lot of work. The good thing is, you can get all the “heavy lifting” done in advance and have a bit of a lie-down before your guests arrive. But do rein in your ambitions the first time or two, or you’ll never want to do it again!
If you’re new to giving afternoon teas, keep it simple, perhaps serving just one type of sandwich, scone and sweet treat. Beautiful presentation and a good pot of tea are the key elements.
Indoors, I have guests serve themselves at the tea table and sit round the living room. Outdoors, we sit at the tea table in the gazebo and have a sideboard for the things that won’t fit on the table.
The Guests: Invite your guests to dress for the occasion. It will add immeasurably to the ambience. For the ladies, this means a dress, possibly hosiery and heels, gloves (removed before eating, of course) and even a hat or fascinator. For the gentlemen, the male equivalent (though I usually don’t ask anything more than long trousers and polo shirts of the men!).
The Invitations: Since afternoon tea is such a brief occasion, not allowing time to graciously accommodate latecomers, always include the word “precisely” in front of the time on the invitation (as in, precisely three o’clock ). And, please, do not call it “high tea,” which is the informal main evening meal sometimes called a “meat tea.”
The Tea: Make a proper pot of black tea, no dunking tea bags in cups! Just before a kettle of freshly drawn water comes to the boil, warm the teapot with hot water, empty it, add one teaspoon of tea leaves (more or less for some leaves, so experiment) for every 8 ounces of water (depending on the strength you prefer).
Immediately pour in the freshly boiling water, let it stand for 5 minutes, stir, and then strain into cups. If one prefers to use a tea ball (and I usually do!), be sure it is large enough to allow the tea leaves to unfurl. I won’t even object to quality tea bags. Serve with sugar or sugar cubes, thin slices (not wedges) of lemon and a small pitcher of milk (never cream).
The Sandwiches/Savouries: Make one to three kinds of tiny sandwiches (six to eight total per person), and cover them properly* before refrigerating for a couple of hours until serving time. You might also include savoury tartlets, mini quiches, bite-size meat pies, tiny sausage rolls or pinwheels.
*Arrange the sandwiches in three layers and lay a dry piece of kitchen roll over the platter. Put another piece of kitchen roll under the tap, wring it out thoroughly and place the just damp paper over the dry. Cover tightly with cling film.
The Scones: Scones, another afternoon tea essential, can also be made ahead; simply store airtight and reheat at the last moment (another reason you want guests to arrive precisely on time). Serve with strawberry or raspberry jam, lemon curd and clotted cream.
The Desserts: Here’s where you can save yourself a bit of work. Make perhaps one item and buy the rest. Offer at least three of the following: shortbread or other biscuits, miniature cream puffs, mini cupcakes or cake squares, petits fours, pecan or fruit tartlets. Though not strictly required, strawberries in their season are an elegant addition to the tea table.
© Copyright 2013 Jean | DelightfulRepast.com
Thanks to Jean for this wonderful and useful article. Jean at Delightful Repast is a freelance writer and recipe developer who writes mostly about food, tea, weddings and etiquette for numerous publications. Her blog reflects her English culinary heritage. A lifelong tea aficionado, Jean freely admits to being a tea snob.