There is a romanticism to tea, thanks to years of history and countless images and TV shows featuring the rich and powerful of Europe as they sit down to a civilized afternoon tea. But it’s ultimately a practical meal—one meant to keep you from getting too hungry during a busy evening of social activities.
Some of my earliest memories revolve around my London-born grandfather. British to the core, he delighted in sharing a little tea and marmalade toast with his grandchildren, often served on English muffins—the Americanized version of a crumpet.
As a teenager, I made my first trip overseas to see the English relatives, and reveled in the apple sop and scones served to the children at tea, complete with jam and clotted cream.
As an adult, my husband and I found our way to the Empress Hotel on Vancouver Island, where we managed to snag a seat at their renowned tea service—a three-tiered event with finger sandwiches, scones, clotted cream, jams, strawberries, petit fours, tarts, and, of course, a wide selection of teas. It was heavenly, and one of my fondest memories.
I’ve hosted teas for friends, making cream puff shells and filling them with chicken salad, making cucumber sandwiches layered with dill-spiced cream cheese, and creating beautiful truffles and small cakes to round out the event.
More recently, a trip to Australia reminded me of those earlier days, as we found a teashop serving Devonshire clotted cream, scones, and strawberry jam.
That’s why I was delighted when our trend watchers identified afternoon tea as one of the trends for 2014. They cited Downton Abbey as the inspiration, but I know it’s more. I know I’m not the only child to grow up in America with a British grandparent. I know I’m not the only traveler to delight in the delicacies of an “extra” meal in the late afternoon. I know there is a mystique to the food, to even the sound of “crumpets” and tea.
So, we decided to take the trend a step further and create a “low tea” for you in the culinary center of The Food Channel. We searched through our extensive cookbook library for recipes dating back to the 1800s, and tested and adapted them to bring you today’s version of some of our favorite recipes. So, while it’s perfectly fine to serve English muffins at your tea, consider getting a little closer to history and make your own crumpets. And pile on the clotted cream (jam first, please).
Here are ten practical tips for celebrating Afternoon Tea:
- A basic tea service is made up of a teapot and cover, coffee pot and cover, sugar bowl and tongs, tea cups and saucers, coffee cups, milk jug and cover, slop bowl, spoon tray, teapot stand, and tea canisters.
- Keep your tea fresh by storing it in an airtight container.
- Always use fresh water for making tea; soft water makes better tea. Bring water to a fast boil for best flavor.
- Before filling your ceramic teapot from the kettle, warm it first with hot water and rinse it out.
- If using flaked tea, use one heaping teaspoonful per serving, plus “one for the pot,” and about a cup water per teaspoon of tea.
- Allow tea to steep for about five minutes before serving.
- Choose either lemon or milk to add to your hot tea, but not both. Add milk to your tea by putting it in the cup before the tea is poured—it helps to mix it better.
- Nursery tea was a time when the children ate with their nanny presiding over the teapot, without the presence of their parents. Food was seasonal, with a tendency toward toasted bread and crumpets in the winter and sponge cake and jam in the summer.
- Drawing Room teas were for the household owners, and they were elegant affairs with small, crustless sandwiches, individual cakes, and an offering of both China and Indian teas.
- Sandwich fillings could range from simple tomatoes to egg salad or sardines, and breads might be biscuits, crumpets, shortbread or “flats,” or Cornish splits, a small, sweet cake served with cream. There might be seed cake, sponge cake, fruitcake, or pound cake.
Recipes in the Series: