Afternoon tea is one of those genteel British traditions that finds its way to sea. It’s a non-alcoholic way to socialize. Traditional afternoon tea at the Ritz Hotel in London is about 61 GBP. That’s about $ 76/head. At sea, it’s free. You can recreate the experience at home.
Tea Isn’t High
Let’s start with some history. Anna, Duchess of Bedford is credited with creating the idea in the early 1800’s. Served around 4:00 PM, it was a way to have a bite midway between lunch and dinner. This meal, “the elegant one” is called Afternoon Tea. (1) Now, onto “High Tea.” As Americans, we assume “High” must be better. Afternoon Tea was enjoyed by the British aristocracy and leisure class. The working folks who worked in factories and such places, came home later and ate a heartier meal, which we Americans would consider supper or dinner. They happened to call it “tea.” Where does “high” enter the picture? It’s been thought “Afternoon Tea” was enjoyed at lower height tables and comfortable, soft chairs. It’s what we think of as a cocktail table and the surrounding upholstered furniture in homes today. The working man’s tea was served at the kitchen table, people sitting on high backed chairs. (2) That’s where the expression “high” comes from. Bottom line: If you are seeking to impress friends, it’s “Afternoon Tea” not “High Tea.”
How to Serve Afternoon Tea
You think about that price tag at the London Ritz. $ 76.00. That’s a lot more than a couple of coffees at Starbucks, regardless of size. Afternoon tea is a ritual. it’s easy to recreate.
- Furnishings: Your sofa grouping in the living room is fine. So is sitting on your patio in the shade looking at the garden. Forget the height of the chairs.
- White always works. The more linen the better. The tray might have a linen napkin covering it. You might have tiny cocktail napkins, the ones you inherited and never used. You want full sized napkins too.
- China and flatware. You will need cups, saucers, dessert plates, sugar and creamer. Teapot too. Ideally they match. Silver or silver plate cutlery. It should match too. If it’s stainless steel, no big deal.
- Tea. It’s not individual teabags in a cup with a string hanging over the side. Ideally it’s loose tea in the teapot, steeped and poured through a strainer. We’re getting technical. Teabags are OK in the pot, because they are out of sight. Traditionally the British have a second teapot filled with hot water, used to top up the pot with the tea leaves. You can duck into the kitchen, making a fresh pot, no big deal. Try to find an interesting tea. The Chinese and Indians have plenty. Darjeeling. English Breakfast. Earl Grey. Lapsang Souchong is like Guinness in tea form. Very smoky taste.
- Food. Think cakes and sandwiches. Scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream are classics. You can find a scone recipe. Whipped cream will do fine. Pastries fit in here too. Visit a bakery. You want those tiny ones like miniature eclairs you finish in two bites. French macaroons are good too. They might sound expensive, but Trader Joes and Costco should carry them. Sandwiches are “finger sandwiches.” Cucumber sandwiches on white bread with the crusts cut off are the standard you see in movies. You don’t need to be that dainty. Take the break, cut off the crusts, layer with smoked salmon. Slice into 1×3 inch sections. Shrimp salad is good too. Brie works.
- Music. Classical is kind of expected. Very soothing stuff. It’s background music you will talk over.
- Flowers. You should have some. They might come from your garden, the supermarket or the store you bought the macaroons.
- Who pours? This isn’t a free for all. It’s not self-service. Guests transfer a couple of finger sandwiches and a pastry or two to their dessert plate. In the movies, the uniformed butler or maid pours the tea. Realistically, the host or hostess does the honors.
- Timing. Afternoon tea is a pick me up, intending to hold off your hunger until dinner. It’s 30-60 minutes.
Afternoon tea is impressive. It’s also easy to organize. Hopefully social distancing won’t make it logistically impossible!