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Taking an afternoon break to enjoy a soothing cup of hot tea has long been a part of my workday. But my recent trip to England and a visit to Highclere Castle have renewed my appreciation for serving and enjoying that most satisfying and civilized of snacking rituals, A Proper English Tea.
(Grammar snobs: please don’t write to me about the incorrect usage of capital letters here. I’m just trying to indicate that a truly proper tea is something of an occasion. I’m also trying to be funny. Thank you.)
Even if you’re the only guest, and perhaps especially then, hosting and enjoying a proper tea is a wonderful way to add touch of elegance and tranquility to your life. It’s also a lot easier to accomplish than you might suppose.
Yes, a proper tea may involve multiple courses and a full-blown decorating scheme with accompanying floral arrangements but simpler variations on the theme can be just as proper and just as enjoyable. The point of a proper tea is to make space in your day to nourish your body, renew your energy, and refresh your spirit.
But before we go into all that let’s talk about what constitutes “tea”, beyond the beverage.
As it turns out, there are several different types of teas and Americans frequently muddle the definitions.
AFTERNOON TEA VS. HIGH TEA
Americans frequently speak of “high tea” when they actually mean “afternoon tea”. Let’s clear up the difference, once and for all.
Afternoon tea consists of a pot of tea (as I learned on my recent trip to Highclere Castle, champagne makes a wonderful substitute) as well as three courses: finger sandwiches, scones served with clotted cream or jam, and a selection of miniature desserts. Though afternoon tea is frequently presented on a pretty cake stand and served on the best crockery or china, it was originally meant to be a casually elegant occasion, taken on sofas or chairs rather than a table.
In England, high tea is more of a late afternoon or evening meal, with heartier foods such meat pies and substantial sandwiches, and served on regular plates. The fact that it is served at a dining table, rather than while reclining on a low couch in the drawing room, is what makes it “high”. So if you go to England and order “high tea,” don’t be surprised if someone brings you a pork pie.
And in parts of the UK, including Scotland, what Americans would call dinner or supper is simply referred to as “tea”.
In the UK, a “cream tea” is a truncated version of afternoon tea. Besides the tea itself, a cream tea features scones, served with a clotted cream and jam. Hosting a cream tea can be just as much fun as serving afternoon tea, but considerably less work.
Since returning from my trip, I’ve been creating my own personal cream tea ritual, which involves a lovely pot of properly steeped tea and bread and butter or a cookie to stand-in for the scones. I’ve decided that a proper tea is less about menus and dishes than it is about mind set. It’s a commitment to make space in your day for a few minutes of peace, quiet, and sustenance.
Still, observing a few of the niceties and rituals can add to the pleasure of a proper tea.
SETTING THE STAGE, ON THE TABLE
If you own a tiered cake stand, dust it off and use it for the centerpiece. Additionally, use your best dishes and make it a little more special with feminine touches such as lace doilies, folded napkins, or a bouquet of fresh flowers.
Charity shops or yard sales are a good source for beautiful china to get that authentic look. You’ll need a fancy little teapot as well as teacups and cake plates. It might also be nice to have a cake slicer, as well as a creamer pitcher and sugar bowl. If you’ve been looking for an excuse to break out your grandmother’s sterling silver, this is the perfect time.
SCONES, SANDWICHES AND SWEETS!
There are no end of possibilities when it comes to preparing the repast for a proper tea! I’ve included several recipe links below.
Cucumber dill finger sandwiches are one of the more traditional tea dishes for the British.
Ditto to egg salad sandwiches, a true standard of an afternoon tea.
The lemon blueberry tea cake that I made prior to my trip to channel some of my excitement for the trip is a perfect dish for this kind of party!
Scotch eggs are a classic twist of the deviled egg variety. A little heavier than just a deviled egg, they will add protein and a little more ‘heft’ to your menu.
Chocolate eclairs make for a tasty treat that is finger food only, a traditional requirement of tea party food.
And could there be a sweet treat that sounds any more British than a ‘jammy dodger’ – make them if only for the excuse to teach the phrase ‘jammy dodger’ to all your friends!
And if you’re planning to make proper teas a regular ritual, you might consider getting a cookbook geared toward teatime treats and curating your afternoon tea experience! Both of the two I recommended are loaded with pictures for inspiration and elegantly English recipes.
LET’S TALK ABOUT THE ACTUAL TEA
Like the foods you serve, when it comes to beverages, there are no end of possibilities for your proper tea. My personal preference is for the classics – English Breakfast or Earl Grey – but a bit of variety can be fun too. Peppermint, Chamomile, or Oolong are all wonderful choices. When it comes to tea, what matters most is that it be properly prepared and served.
Always go with loose leaf tea if you can, but since we’re in America people will understand if you are using sachets or tea bags. Tea should be served with milk, sugar, and lemon on the side. When serving yourself or guests, add the milk after the tea.
Be sure that the tea water is piping hot when added to the pot, but not boiling. (You could burn the tea and this would be tragic!). After you pour the water into the teapot, sit back and think lovely thoughts or engage in conversation for at least five minutes. Six would be better, as tea needs ample time to steep.
The Mood For Tea
And, like so many of life’s finer things, tea should be enjoyed at a leisurely pace. This is not a time to rush. In fact, not rushing the entire point of a proper tea.
But, if you feel like gilding the lily a bit, do the following while enjoying your tea:
Extend your pinky finger.
Dunk your biscuits.
Use lots of British words.
Wear an adorable hat.
None of the above is required, or really even proper. But I can tell you from experience that it makes the partaking of a Proper Tea even more fun.
If you would like to read more on this subject: I wrote about my visit to Highclere Castle (home of the taping of the show Downton Abbey) and a recipe for Lemon Blueberry Tea Cakes and on the same European trip I was in Paris and wrote about my textile shopping adventure!
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