This week is national afternoon tea week. This very British tradition was introduced to England by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in the year 1840. The Duchess would become hungry around four o’clock in the afternoon. In those days dinner would have been served fashionably late so the duchess had the inspired idea of filling the afternoon hungry gap. Tea, bread and butter (this was before the Earl of Sandwich had the idea of putting meat in between two slices of bread) and cake was brought to her room during the late afternoon. This became a habit of hers and she began inviting friends to join her. Nowadays the Duchess’s ritual is popular throughout the UK and Ireland and enjoyed right across the social spectrum.
When I was growing up afternoon tea in our house was reserved for very important visitors. The good china was dusted, crusts were removed from the cucumber sandwiches and dainty scones and a Dundee cake graced the table. Fast forward 40 years and the scene is completely different. Afternoon tea has become a lavish affair with mountains of cake, scones, sandwiches, macaroons and all manner of fancies.
My niece, Rachel, is a skilled baker. Over the years the whole family and wider circle have been treated to her increasingly spectacular cakes. To return the favour I took her to London last week to have afternoon tea in Fortnum and Mason as a special treat for her 17th birthday. We made our way to the opulent Jubilee Room on the 5th floor in a walnut, wood panelled lift. The room is decorated in gold and turquoise with waiters in tuxedoes and ties to match the surroundings. Ironically neither of us drink tea but it didn’t stop us from embracing the occasion fully. A tier of plates with sandwiches and scones was topped with small cakes that were patisserie works of art. They gave us cake and jam in a beautiful box to take home and relive the experience and sweeten the next credit card bill.
Hotels and restaurants here have completely embraced the resurgence in popularity of afternoon tea. Many offer champagne or gin instead of tea. Savoury afternoon tea has also become very trendy. Cakes are replaced with savoury pastries and one restaurant accompanies it with local beers instead of tea. There’s no sign of the boom abating and it will probably take on many more different forms before it does.
If you’re serving afternoon tea at home there are ways to make it easy on yourself. Sandwiches, scones and one cake is more than sufficient. If you have friends who demand an illustrious array of crustless sandwiches, cakes and fancies – then change them! This week I’ve included Rachel’s recipe for chocolate buttermilk cake. It’s deliciously light and she covers it with a vanilla buttercream. Or you could just dollop it with cream and some fresh berries for equal effect. Cherry season is in full swing and I’ve added my recipe for fresh cherry scones with a whipped orange and maple butter. Fresh cherries completely transform a scone and are so much nicer than a glace cherry that comes in a plastic container. More often than not in cafes, scones can be cold and dry so there’s nothing more comforting and delicious than homemade, straight from the oven, cut in two, with butter melting and tumbling over the top.
The writer Henry James summed up the ceremony of taking tea succinctly in his book “ The Portrait of a Lady” -
“Under certain circumstances there are few hours more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” Who could possibly disagree?