‘Afternoon Tea’ just sounds so elegant. Fancy. Elaborate, even. I bet you are envisioning tables covered in white linen. Silver and china serving pieces.
On that table are trays and towers laden with delicate savories, scones and pastries, sitting demurely on white doilies.
In your mental image, do you see ladies dressed in finery? Beautiful dresses, stylish hats and maybe even white gloves? (I bet you can even hear the quiet conversation and a soft laugh or two, right?)
This may have been the setting for a Victorian Queen’s Afternoon Tea, but originally it was a much simpler affair.
In 1840, Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, found herself getting hungry around four in the afternoon. In her day, breakfast was served around 8 in the morning, with the evening meal served twelve hours later. A midday meal wasn’t usually served. It is no wonder she craved sustenance!
Her cure was to enjoy a snack of bread and butter, and a slice of cake served with a cup of tea. It was just enough to hold her over until dinner.
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Afternoon Tea Evolves
Eventually, that simple repast evolved into a social gathering. In the 1880’s, it became a more formal event. (Cue the formal gowns, hats and white gloves.)
You original mental image of Afternoon Tea isn’t far off. The delicacies served at these events included dainty cucumber sandwiches, scones and cakes.
These were all made small enough to be what we now call ‘finger-sized’. You could also find small bowls of the traditional Devonshire cream to spread on those scones.
Afternoon Tea vs High Tea
Although often considered the same thing, Afternoon Tea and High Tea are two different occasions. An Afternoon Tea is usually served around 4 pm. It is designed to tide you over until dinner. The offerings are usually light and simple. It is also considered ‘low’ tea.
High Tea, on the other hand, is heavier, and more in tune with an evening meal. Normally it is served between 5 pm and 7pm.
At a High Tea, you would find hearty dishes such as meats, beans and potatoes. It was far from the genteel event of Afternoon Tea. Think ‘working man’s’ dinner.
Why is it considered ‘high’ or ‘low’ tea? It is all in the height of the table. Afternoon Tea was usually served on low tables. High tea was served at the table where dinner was eaten.
Food & Liquid Refreshments
Originally, Afternoon Tea was simply a slice of bread that was spread with butter. Occasionally a scone with jam and a ‘sweet’, such as cake, might also have been served. And of course, a cup or two of tea.
Today, many hotels serve a ‘High Tea’, but their food offerings are more in line with a traditional Afternoon Tea. Things such as petit fours, scones, tarts and savories are served.
One of the most famous hotels for Afternoon Tea is the Plaza, in New York City. They also offer Tea with Eloise for younger children.
Tea foods fit into four categories:
This would be a bit heavier, such as small quiches, cheese straws, vegetable tartlets and seafood canapes. And of course finger sandwiches filled with bacon, crab and other meats are usually on the menu. Perhaps you will also find chicken and ham salad, as well as cucumbers used as filling as well.
A scone is similar to a biscuit, but often made with sugar. These range from cheese filled with a chutney, to plain or fruit (lemon, cherry, etc.). Scones were often served with a curd, such as lemon or lime, and almost always Devonshire cream was offered.
A true Devonshire cream isn’t always easy to come by here in the states. Devonshire cream is a clotted cream that comes from cows in the Devon area of England. Clotted cream originated in England, and Cornwall claims the right to origin.
But you can still make it yourself. Clotted cream is unpasteurized milk that is poured into a shallow pan. It is heated slowly, then allowed to sit for 12 to 24 hours. During that time, the cream rises to the top and solidifies (or clots). It is then skimmed off and used as ‘clotted cream’.
This list is virtually endless. Cookies, such as tea cakes, snickerdoodles and lemon or gingersnaps are only a few on the list. Sweet bars, such as Brownies, Blondies, and Lemon can also be considered a sweet.
Cake, such as this Glazed Blueberry Lime can be served by the slice or finger-sized, such as petit fours. Cupcakes are also a good choice. (If you or your guests have dietary restrictions, try Rebecca’s Fun-fetti cupcakes that are gluten-free!) Tortes are also an Afternoon Tea favorite, as is cheesecake.
Muffins or fruit breads, such as Banana or Strawberry Nut are perfect to serve at Afternoon Tea. These can be baked in a traditional sized loaf, sliced and served on individual plates. They can also be baked in smaller loaf pans for smaller slices.
If you serve breads, be sure to add a bowl of delicious sweet cream butter to the table. This keeps you well within the tradition of Afternoon Tea!
Tea is, of course, the first beverage you would want to serve at an Afternoon Tea. But which one? It really comes down to personal preference, and often several different types are served. But again, which one?
Most teas get their classification from the way it is processed and the region in which it is grown. All true teas come from Camellia Sinensis. Herbal teas are considered a ‘tisane’, which simply means it does not contain Camellia Sinensis. Instead, it is flowers and herbs which are steeped in hot water.
Black tea is usually dark brown to deep red. It is the strongest and an astringent tea most frequently served with milk and sugar. Green tea is lighter with less caffeine.
Oolong has a wider range of flavors and colors. From light to dark, delicate to crisp, it is all delicious. It is also one of the teas that are healthier, as it is filled with anti-oxidants, and can possibly improve brain and heart health.
Herbal tea is, as stated above, a ‘tisane’. Even so, by choosing the herbs and flowers you prefer can help you customize the flavors you love.
Other Liquid Refreshments
In spite of tradition, you don’t have to serve only tea. You can offer coffee as well. Or, you can branch out and offer other delicious drinks.
Lemonade is an excellent offering, and will pair well with most savory, sweet, bread or scone offering. Another idea is to make a pitcher of homemade Ginger Ale.
If you want to add a special twist, make a Fruit Cordial. This is a way to add a bit of flavor to that Lemonade and homemade Ginger Ale. Serve it in a separate cream pitcher, and let your guests add just a touch (about one teaspoon to one Tablespoon) to their glass.
Cordials can be made from most soft fruits, such as blueberries, cherries, strawberries and blackberries. My friend Kathleen, who shared this recipe with me, likes to make hers from a combination of fruit, including kiwi and pineapple.
Hard fruits, such as apples and pears, don’t work well for cordials. Stick to soft fruits.
This is where you can keep it super simple with a favorite tea cup and an engaging book underneath a shade tree. Or, you can go all out, polish up the silver and iron the white table cloths.
Since many of us don’t have family silver that has been handed down for generations, it is just as easy to use what you have on hand.
I love vintage enamelware, and during one of my junking expeditions, I found a tea pot, complete with a sugar bowl and creamer. At a garage sale, I found a salesman’s sample of a coffee pot. These were smaller versions of the actual product. For me, it is perfect for serving cordial.
But there is no way I have enough enamelware for everything. So instead, mix and match. China and silver serving bowls blend well with enamelware and crystal. Some plastic glasses are ‘fancy’ enough for all three.
And don’t hesitate to use paper cocktail napkins. Some of the designs would work well at tying all of your tableware together.
Tea for Two? Ten? Twenty?
Although we often think of Afternoon Tea as a formal gathering, in reality, that just isn’t the case. One person can indulge in an afternoon repast. Think ‘Anna, Duchess of Bedford’. I know she was hungry, but I also wonder if Afternoon Tea was her way of escaping all the busy-ness of running a castle.
We can also take a page out of Vincent Youmans’ book and have ‘Tea for Two’. His song, by the same name, was made famous in the play ‘No, No, Nanette’.
(Tea, for two, and two, for tea….) Sorry. I couldn’t help it. I love that play, and now that song is going to be playing in my head…..
Tea for two doesn’t necessarily have to come with the full orchestra and knowing how to dance. You can just invite a friend and settle in for a delicious treat. And believe it or not, ‘tea’ is optional!
The truth about the invitation list for an Afternoon Tea is it can be as short or as long as you want it to be. An Afternoon Tea is, at its simplest form, a respite from a busy day.
It may mean finding a quiet place in the garden to enjoy a breather and to dream, or it may mean hosting a tea for twenty, complete with those white table cloths and china. It’s your choice.
The Tea Garden
When I think about a Tea Garden, my mind automatically imagines this elaborate area filled with lush foliage with flowers everywhere. Herbs are creatively planted within expensive hardscapes, ready to be picked to make tea. Pathways are made of stone or brick. Water features, elves, and faeries and toad houses…oh, my!
In reality, a Tea Garden is simply a relaxing space. It can be made up of a chair under a shade tree with a small table at its side. Add a pot or two of flowers or herb, or place the chair beside a flower bed. Voila! A Tea Garden!
The true meaning of a Tea Garden is just a comfortable, inviting space. A place where you can truly relax. Somewhere you can breathe freely. Think, or don’t think; dream, or just be content in this quiet space.
However, if you do want to create a garden that is designed to make wonderful, delicious herbal teas, you can create a space that is as simple as a few containers up to an elaborate garden filled with water features, statuary and anything else your space allows.
How do you take your Tea?
No matter how you decide to ‘take tea’, it can end up being the best part of your day. It may seem like a past luxury we cannot afford to partake in, but it also may be time to change that.
Start today by working in a bit of time in your schedule to have an Afternoon Tea. It doesn’t have to be when the clock chimes 4. Have tea during your office lunch break.
Take your cup out to the garden around 3 and finish the household chores later. If you are running errands all day, put a favorite restaurant or tea room on your list of ‘things to do’. Take a book or Journal with you and relax for a moment.
The purpose of Afternoon Tea is to get a much needed break from a busy day. And this simple ritual can make all the difference in the world by giving you a time to relax, breathe, dream and just ‘be’, if only for a few stolen moments.
Love the idea of Afternoon Tea? Download these FREE Afternoon Tea recipes to help you get started.
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