CAN YOU TAKE A BREAK TODAY? Good. Because I’d like to invite you to Afternoon Tea. Here are the cucumber sandwiches, the freshly-baked scones with clotted cream and jam, the raspberry tarts, and, of course, the cups of fragrant tea that will refresh our winter-weary spirits at the midway point between lunch and dinner:
I was introduced to Afternoon Tea in the late 1990s. That was when my partner and I made several trips to London. Our dear friend Harold Brown, who, at the time, was Princess Margaret’s butler, often invited us to tea at his fabulously-decorated flat at Kensington Palace. And other tea-excursions were enjoyed at Richoux on Piccadilly Circus, and at the home of author Hugo Vickers and his lovely wife Elizabeth.
All these teas had something in common, regardless of venue. The finger-fare was served on a 3-tiered stand, with cucumber (or watercress or smoked salmon) sandwiches placed on the lower rung; plain scones on the second; and sweet “somethings” on the top rack.
As for the tea itself, it was loose, not bagged. The English — at that time, anyway — were appalled at the thought of cheap, bagged tea. Good for them.
If, on some leisurely Sunday, you’d like to host your own Afternoon Tea, let this tutorial serve as your guide:
Let’s start with the Cucumber Sandwiches. For these you’ll need a loaf of French Sandwich Bread, or Pain de Mie. I make Pain de Mie in a covered “Pullman Pan” in order to achieve a perfectly rectangular loaf (pictured above) that can be sliced very thinly. Here’s the recipe.
If you don’t have a Pullman pan, you can always make the same bread in an ordinary bread pan. Just weigh the top down with a baking sheet and a couple of bricks (or a cast-iron pan), as described here.
Now peel a cucumber, and cut it into paper-thin slices. I use a mandoline (pictured above) for such slicing-jobs. You can pick up a mandoline at any kitchen supply store. It is not an expensive gadget.
Oh, the things I do for you.
But I don’t mind. I value our friendship.
Place a single layer of cucumber on one slice of the buttered bread. You could add more than one layer, but then the cucumbers might fall out when you take a bite. And then you’d lose your air of dignity.
What’s that? You don’t have a 3-tiered stand? Then arrange the sandwiches on your prettiest platter.
And then promise me you’ll buy a 3-tier stand. Believe me, it won’t go the way of your Fondue pot. You’ll use it every time you serve Afternoon Tea. And that should be at least once a week, my dear.
Arrange fresh, homemade scones on the second tier. And by “scones,” I don’t mean the big, clumpy things that contain cranberries, currants or raisins. Traditional English Cream Scones are small, delicious, and plain. I make them this way.
And what to place on the top shelf? Well, something sweet, but tiny. I purchased little jam-filled tarts from my local bakery, and topped each one with a fresh raspberry. Please forgive me for cheating this way. Next time I serve you Afternoon Tea, I’ll make my “sweet somethings” entirely from scratch. And that’s a promise.
You can simply place the tea leaves in your pot, and then add boiling water. But then you’ll need a tea-strainer when it comes time to pour the tea.
Because I could not find my tea-strainer today, I placed the loose tea in an unbleached tea-packet. Such packets are available at gourmet shops, kitchen-supply stores, and some supermarkets. They are handy indeed.
How much tea to use? Well, traditional wisdom says to use one teaspoon per cup, plus one more for the pot. So that is the formula I use. You see, I’m a traditional sort of guy, especially when it comes to hosting a tea party.
Shall we head into the parlor? I’ve just lit a fire there.
Your comfort is very important to me.
As you can see, I’ve placed the 3-tiered stand at the center of the table, and arranged at each place setting a cloth napkin, a cup and saucer, and a small plate. There is a small butter-knife set atop each plate. The knife is for spreading the cream and jam we’ll enjoy on our scones.
Pictured above is the small ramekin of clotted cream. I obtained a jar of this delicious stuff from my local farm store. Why my farm store should sell clotted cream from England, I do not know. But I’m glad they do. You’ll notice that I placed a small knife in the clotted cream. This knife is not for smearing cream on scones. I’ll explain its purpose in a moment.
And here is the sugar for tea. I used raw sugar cubes, because…well, because raw sugar cubes are traditional. I set them in a small, pierced silver basket equipped with a glass liner. I found this little sugar-bowl at Camden Place in London.
I did not set a pitcher of cream on the table, because I can’t bear the taste of cream and tea. Cream and coffee, yes. But not cream and tea. You might have a different opinion.
Anyway, before we dive into our tea and accoutrements, let me offer you some basic facts and tips concerning Afternoon Tea:
Fact #2: Afternoon Tea is not “High Tea.” High Tea is a full meal, at which meat is always served, but tea (I’m not kidding here) is entirely optional. Afternoon Tea, which is what we are enjoying just now, is a light repast, intended to tide us over before dinner is served.
Tip #1: To be polite, never scoop the clotted cream or preserves directly from their serving bowls and onto your scone. Instead, proceed this way:
And speaking of manners, you can forget all about them when you join me for Afternoon Tea. I don’t care how you eat your scones or sip your tea.
I only ask that you never refer to Afternoon Tea as “High Tea.”
Well. I hope you enjoyed our tea party as much as I did. Promise me you’ll visit again, okay?
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