I have recently developed a massive thing for afternoon tea. The reason for this, I am sure, is the same reason I love a buffet: the variety. I want all the dainty bits and bobs and plenty of them. The afternoon tea was introduced by the 7th Duchess of Bedford, who got bored of the 4 o’clock slump and decided to do something about it. The practice spread, grew more and more elaborate, and by Edwardian times it was a full on gowns and fine china job. I have a book called ‘Afternoon Tea at The Ritz’ full of lovely titbits (bit like the tea itself) about afternoon tea etiquette, such as that “those who take sugar in their tea are advised to propel the spoon with a minimum of effort and to remove it without fail before raising the cup”. Even now the idea of leaving a spoon in the cup while sipping seems unthinkable, doesn’t it? What are you, some kind of Cup-a-Soup guzzling animal?
Nowadays, some people do afternoon tea as a tourist activity, like having a cream tea in Cornwall, or gumming at a soggy pasty in the rain. There are people who enjoy the ceremony of it, and there are those who just enjoy sitting about in a nice room with a silver teapot, discussing whether or not it really should be Humphrey’s turn to drive to Henley this year. Some people go only for the cakes, while some enjoy the sandwiches just as much. I want the whole package, and I have strong ideas about how said package should be delivered.
The sandwich to cake ratio is usually 1/3 sandwiches, 2/3 cakes. This is not correct, because the sandwiches, to me, are of equal importance. You know I like sandwiches, right? Did I mention anywhere that I like sandwiches? Some places, like Claridge’s, offer unlimited rounds. This is both a blessing and a curse because, well…talk about a red rag to a bull. I ate three rounds and had to take half the cakes home. Some of you will live and learn. I won’t.
The flavours of the sandwiches should be as follows:
1. Cucumber. The classic, and a good test of the measure of a place. The cucumber sandwich, you see, can’t be made too far in advance. I had an afternoon tea recently at a hotel in Scotland, where the kitchen was very much into making stuff in advance. I mean, more than was appropriate. Needless to say, cucumber sandwiches did not feature in their afternoon tea. The bread should be very white and fresh, the butter pure and salty, and the cucumber glistening.
2. Egg mayonnaise, which can come with or without cress, I don’t mind, but do be careful if you’re going to start adding anything else. This is an English egg mayonnaise, not an American egg salad. There definitely should not be any crunch. Some Americans put celery in their egg mayo. CELERY!
3. Smoked salmon, with either cream cheese or butter. If going with the latter, then it will need a squeeze of lemon. Black pepper. Light brown bread.
4. A meat sandwich. The obvious options are ham (with mustard, or I’ve had a rather nice variation with celeriac remoulade; bit Frenchy but I’ll allow it), or beef (preferably with horseradish). Some go for chicken. Few get away with it. Claridge’s did, but then they can get away with pretty much anything.
After that, it’s up to the individual. A few points to bear in mind however:
1. There should be no dipping of knives into chutney jars. Sweet fruit chutney (the kind you find at food markets between the painted plates and olives) is disgusting, but nobody else seems to have realised.
2. Salad leaves should be used with caution, because it’s difficult to make them dainty and the texture isn’t right for a finger sandwich. If watercress is involved, it needs to be chopped so it doesn’t come out in one long piece, pulling half the filling with it, before slapping against your chin.
3. All or almost all of the fillings should be British.
4. A generous amount of seasoning is really important; I’m forever adding salt to afternoon tea sandwiches.
These should always be included and served warm, with strawberry or raspberry jam and clotted cream. I had an afternoon tea recently where the scones came with whipped cream (top photo). Whipped! I ask you. Someone should be sacked for that.
I care not for the argument about whether cream or jam should come first, despite having Cornish ties.
Tricky area, this, as there’s so much room for variation, but here goes.
1. It’s a tad controversial, but I do like to find some sort of dainty cheesecake or moussey arrangement. It needs to be classy, though, with a fruit flavour; no chocolate and no cheese shaped wedges. This isn’t TGI Friday’s.
2. There should be a spongey thing, but again, it needs to meet the visual and size requirements, which can be a challenge because sponge falls more into the WI cakes category.
3. There should be a chocolate number, preferably adorned with spirals and twirls of other chocolate, possibly in different colours. I don’t mind as long as they look like they were really difficult to make.
4. A pastry tart is nice, with a very thin, obscenely buttery casing, filled with custard, topped with fruit and finished with a glaze that makes it shinier than Pierluigi Collina‘s head.
Fruit Tart or Pierluigi Collina?
5. There should be some sort of cake which is the equivalent of the Great British Bake Off showstopper. It should have layers of things made via different, preferably complicated techniques. It should be dusted, decorated, bejewelled, encrusted with diamonds, covered in ambergris, whatever. The point is that it should be impressive.
6. Cupcakes do not belong.
7. I feel a bit funny about macarons. Are they a biscuit? Are they a cake? Are they just annoying? They seem to be the most over rated confection ever. I don’t mind seeing them sitting on the silver stand but they’d better be damn well perfect.
Diddy perfection at Claridge’s
Things in Shot Glasses
If it were up to me, I’d do away with these. Yes, they add some height above the other cakes, and, as they’re often filled with some sort of fruit jelly, I do see their place in lightening the whole tea but, to be honest, I find them tacky. Also, the spoon never fits right to the bottom of the glass, which is just frustrating.
If you know what you’re doing, this should be proper, loose leaf tea. There are astonishing loose leaf teas available nowadays, and because they’re not cooped up in a bag, the leaves have room to unfurl. You can get a few brews from a fat pinch, with different subtleties of flavour each time. It’s called afternoon tea FFS, so the tea bit is very important. Teapots should be silver, or at least pretend to be.
Always. This is the only place that any biscuity-ness should be happening, so you want something that’s spent time on its lees (bits of yeast and whatnot leftover from fermentation). Yeah, that’s right, I’m down with the wine lingo nowadays. Something like Roederer non vintage should do nicely.
So, does anyone else have any strong views on the AT? Does the order of jam and cream still matter if it’s not a cream tea? Are macarons really the most exciting confection since the Beefeater’s Horn of Plenty?