Before I start telling you about my recent culinary demonstration, I must clarify a frequent misnomer about the event which we have come to refer to as ‘High Tea’. It actually isn’t a true ‘High Tea’ at all. In fact, High Tea is something quite different from the regal British tea, properly referred to as ‘Afternoon Tea’.
Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, introduced Afternoon Tea in 1840 in response to her growing hunger while awaiting her 8:00pm dinner. As enjoyed by the Aristocracy, it is typified as a light meal, usually around 4:00pm, that includes tea with sandwiches, scones, and petite cakes served on tiered platters. It’s meant to be that sort of intermezzo to sate their hunger until dinner, which classically doesn’t occur until four hours thereafter.
So you ask, what, then, is ‘High Tea’? Well, the yeomen, husbandmen, cottagers, and laborers alike didn’t have the luxury of being able to take a break from their hard day’s labor to partake in Afternoon Tea, so they created the High Tea, the meal that they would enjoy around 8:00pm. Unlike Afternoon Tea, which was taken in a parlor in comfortable chairs, High Tea was eaten at the table. As their heartier, main meal of the day, it evolved to include meats, particularly ham, possibly a casserole, and a sweet. This is not the “Tea” that we will be talking about today.
Instead, we will be referring to the Afternoon Tea of English Nobility.
Hats are a necessity. Ask your guests to come properly adorned; however, since not everyone will have a hat, have a variety of hats awaiting their arrival at your front door. It’s a hoot to see who picks which hats.
The table should be set with lace placemats, small plates, and tea cups with saucers. Dessert-size silverware would round out your proper Afternoon Tea table setting. Set amongst your place settings would include a bowl of sugar cubes, sliced lemon, and condiments.
There are three teas that epitomize the event’s namesake. Most common are:
• Assam Gold Rain, which is a strong, full-bodied tea from India. (This is my personal favorite to make Chai.);
• Earl Grey, a black tea scented with bergamot (Named after Charles, 2nd Earl of Grey. He was Prime Minister from 1830-1834.); and
• Darjeeling, Aromatic and astringent, thin-bodied, which is from India.
Tea should be served in tea pots and brewed using 1-2 teaspoons loose-leaf tea for every eight ounces of 195-205 degree Fahrenheit water, which is allowed to steep for approximately 3 minutes.
To accompany the tea, your guests will delight in delicacies, both petite savories and sweet confections. Classically, these would include offerings from these categories:
• Sandwiches, such as Cucumber*. tofu no-egg salad, and a ‘Chicken’ salad, cut in fours on the diagonal.
• Scones with toppings, such as clotted cream, lemon curd, and preserves.
• Sweets such as petite cakes and cookies, Lavender Shortbread*.
*Recipes included below
Convivial conversation is as much a part of the Afternoon Tea as is the tea and savory/sweet offerings. Thus remember, no politics, definitely no mention of #45, no religion, nothing to evoke controversy. This Tea is all about decorum, but in our American way, not meant to be stuffy…so be light, engage in a lively conversation. Most importantly, enjoy your afternoon as if you were part of the Aristocracy without a care in the world.