In the first part of our Tea Series, our English Gentleman describes the consummate English tradition of Afternoon Tea.
‘The mere chink of cups and saucers tunes the mind to happy repose.’ George Gissing (The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft)
The time for afternoon tea is 4 o’clock. Never earlier, but possibly later if it morphs into a high-tea, which is afternoon tea supplemented with heartier fare (a small, hot dish may be served) and may be used as a replacement for supper. Served at 4 o’clock, afternoon tea fills that potentially hungry gap between lunch and dinner and is a perfect way to fill any late afternoon.
Tea is made in a teapot, perhaps silver (plate) or pottery-ware. The teapot is the centre piece and is augmented by cups and saucers each with a tea spoon (regardless of whether the recipient is thought to take sugar or not); a milk jug (not too big) and a sugar bowl and sugar tongs (for sugar cubes, white) or its own spoon (for granulated sugar, white); a bowl of lemon slices (optional); plates and serviettes for the scones and sandwiches; sandwich knives; a second vessel akin to the teapot but holding hot water lest some members of the party like a weaker brew than that from the pot. Do not worry if you lack a matching tea service since having everything mismatched is perfectly acceptable, and rather English.
Naturally the tea itself is of utmost importance; I have two preferences, namely Earl Grey and Darjeeling. To make the tea boil freshly drawn water, warm the pot, add one spoon of tea per person and one for the (warmed) pot, and add the freshly boiled water. Allow to steep for 3 to 5 minutes – the exact time depends on the size of the leaf (larger requiring a little longer). These delicate teas are (in my opinion) best taken with a touch of milk, but substitute lemon if preferred. Do not add both milk and lemon.
The tea is poured by ‘mother’ – noting that ‘mother’ may be any of the participants around the table, including men; the approach is for someone to say ‘shall I be mother?’, alluding no doubt to the somewhat stereotypical role of the mother as dispenser of the household in times of yore. The tea is poured through a little strainer into each cup. Note to mother: hold the teapot by its handle whilst pouring and simultaneously touch the lid with a finger from your other hand. This avoids the error of the lid falling off the pot and smashing the (possibly expensive bone china) tea cup lying under the strainer. The strainer resides on a little strainer bowl to avoid drips when not in use. Sugar is introduced using the sugar tongs or dedicated sugar spoon. But it is a distinct faux pas if either is used to stir the tea.
Afternoon tea requires scones and sandwiches. Scones should be warm out of the oven and served with clotted cream (I prefer Devonshire) and strawberry jam, but not butter. The sandwiches should be petite.
Peel and thinly slice an English cucumber; butter (not margarine) thinly sliced white bread and add two layers of the cucumber slices; sprinkle with ground sea salt and add the top layer of bread and slice diagonally into fours; remove and discard edges.
Mix together 10 oz self-raising flour, 1 oz sugar and a pinch of salt, and rub in 2 oz butter; add enough milk to make a soft (not sticky) dough; knead lightly on a floured table top and break off pieces which are big enough to roll into a ball which can be pressed by the palm of your hand to be about 2 inches across; place scones on a tray lined with parchment (silicone) paper; brush scone tops with milk; bake for 12 to 14 minutes at 430 ºF / gas mark 7; serve on a large plate or perhaps in a wicker basket.
So there you have it – afternoon tea. Quintessentially English. Enjoy!