Afternoon tea provides the perfect mix of heritage and tradition

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Northern Ireland’s year of Food and Drink continues and the theme for March is Heritage and Tradition.

When I saw this at first, the thing that came immediately to mind was something that combines the two – taking tea in the afternoon in Northern Ireland.

When I was growing up my mother often had afternoon tea with scones and jam, sandwiches (with the crusts removed), shortcake and a Dundee cake. There was a mountain of food that was relished for days after.

Afternoon tea has never been so popular. Most hotels embrace it and capitalise on a great cultural revenue stream. When you’re served afternoon tea out it’s a spectacular display of sugar and multicolours. Doll house sized sandwiches, shot glasses with pink confections, rainbow coloured macaroons, chocolates, sponges, tartlets amounting to all the required calories for a week. A lot of hotels now, very sensibly, box up what you don’t eat for customers to take away.

While I love the pomp of afternoon tea in a glitzy hotel, there’s something comforting about good old fashioned shortcake, a scone and some fruit cake. It mightn’t have the technicolour and glitter of all the French inspired cakes, but there’s just something reassuringly honest and traditional about it.

Traybakes are part of what defines us in this country. Whenever there’s a gathering whether it be sombre or celebratory or just a get together, it’s always an excuse for tea and something sweet. It’s a bad thing that can’t be solved here when the kettle is on and the fifteens come out.

Part of our culture is that need to feed and nurture. I’m immediately suspicious of anyone who doesn’t offer you tea within five minutes of arriving at the door. The Women’s Institute in UIster are the arbitrators of how to entertain and put on a spread. Their cookbooks are the definitive guide to baking and you’ll never walk away from a WI supper wanting.

I’m blessed to know many fantastic bakers and this week I’m sharing the recipes of three.

The first is for a sublime boiled cake from a friend of my mother’s who wishes to remain anonymous – but she lives in Ballymoney and is a baking legend. The second is from my own personal baking guru, my aunt Doreen in Portstewart.

Her recipe is for the lightest shortcake you’ll ever taste with the addition of rice krispies. She uses margarine, I use butter, it’s your choice.

Noel McMeel is the Head Chef of the Lough Erne resort in Fermanagh, where the afternoon teas are magnificently decadent. His book “Irish Pantry” is a timeless collection of baking recipes, many from his childhood. I’ve included his scone recipe because it produces a light, fluffy version with just the right amount of crust.

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day and the execution of any of these recipes would show how much you care.