Afternoon Tea

Picture via

Picture via

It is a truth universally accepted that a tea which takes hours to create can disappear in a a matter of minutes.

I speak, of course, not of a hastily compiled plate of snacks in front of the telly. No; I refer to Afternoon Tea, that iconic repast, that halcyon meal taken best on good china with one’s little finger cocked daintily at odds with all the others.

Afternoon tea, whose single redeeming green thing is a thin sliver of cucumber imprisoned between bread slices trimmed within inches of their existence; the meal which graces every decent London hotel at four sharp Β every afternoon; the meal of the tiered cake stand and the doily.

Ah, yes, the doily. Doily was a London draper who invented this small round finely crocheted phenomenon to protect furniture. His work was renowned for the genteel, but these days it has metamorphosed into the strangest thing: a filigree circle of paper on which the cakes and sandwiches sit at tea. Serving no definable purpose whatsoever except, perhaps, to decorate, scones nestle next to shortbread and cram cakes on a paper doily as their predators rest snugly on plush hotel upholstery.

No so, in my afternoon teas. We have no doilies, and no plush upholstery.

In England, Sunday was Mothering Sunday. And it happened, coincidentally, that our great friends were passing through roundabout teatime on Saturday. And to add to this mix, my father, who has been in hospital for a minor operation, was returning home ready for tea on Sunday.

A perfect afternoon tea storm.

Saturday dawned; and work began. Shortbread and Β a Victoria sponge were created, and a loaf put on in the breadmaker. Dinner was proper chunky chicken stew with dumplings but everywhere the signs of tea-to-come stood sentry; the two halves of a sponge in the rack, the shortbread cooling and consolidating its flavours.

After lunch Felix pottered into the kitchen.

“Can I help?” he said.

We washed hands and I set him rubbing butter into flour for the scones; and there he stood, diligently rubbing, watching the yellow cubes of salty butter disappear and blend with the sugar and flour in crumbly contentment.

Our afternoon was spent preventing the cat from accessing cream cake. He has begun to like cake. It is unfortunate, when so much was lying about for the sampling. We covered everything up, for to Bond, out of sight is out of mind.

The sandwiches: an afternoon tea sandwich is a finger of bread, devoid of crusts, filled with something genteel. The dog appreciated from afar; and if the occasional crust found its way to his mouth, no-one is the wiser, though the dog may be a tad wider. The cat mounted assaults on the tuna fish sandwiches.

And then it began: first, a tea with our friends, doily-less, but with plenty of tea and lashings of coca-cola, for ginger beer is outmoded these days. We talked for hours, and sandwiches disappeared and cakes vamoosed, until nearly seven when our friends must leave.

And the next day it began again, though the cream cake and the shortbread did double time. Two teas, one eat-in, one take away, to be driven across town to my mother and father. Each sandwich trim and twee, each finger of shortbread frosted with sugar crystals, each slice of cake cold and creamy, each scone fluffy and refined.

I fell into bed in the evening. Afternoon tea is an assault course for she who dares. There is nothing faint about its challenges.

Yet eating it is the ultimate in effortlessness. If one chose – apart, perhaps, from the cream cake – one might take tea in white kid gloves without disturbing one’s Chanel lipstick one jot.

All I need, to make it complete, is a packet of paper doilies.


35 thoughts on “Afternoon Tea

  1. Charming … We don’t do tea, which seems so relaxing. We do coffee and it’s usually on the run. Usually fruit – gluten allergies. LOL!

    Always enjoy your posts, Kate. The photograph is most appealing.

  2. I found a use for paper doilies.

    If you have made something tad greasy (klittle hot pastry tyoe of thinmgs is the usual culprit) they absorb the extra, while still looking goos around the edges.

    Other use, is like a pub mat – for writing stuff.

      1. I had a lot of them at one stage.

        My ‘bridge grannies’ even put the little ones under the teacups. So I kept buying them.

        Actually I used to think they would make such pretty bridge scorers. far nicer than the printed ones πŸ˜‰

  3. Kate, I loved this – I was passionate about all things English from about 12 years on. Nowadays, the scones have made it here big time, but when I was 12 this was not the case. I’d read so much about English Tea that I was itching to try scones. I stumbled across a recipe – no pictures, mind. The result was a stunning disappointment – much like finding out scotch on the rocks really means over ice…. Or that mouse was heavily whipped chocolate pudding. Ah, but years later, ooohhhh, I had a true scone and hot tea, and maybe a sherry (not sure on the latter) – it was GREAT.

  4. I have only fallen in love with tea late in my life, but it is a love affair that has blossomed. There is no doubt in mind that doilies are not essential to an explosive consummation. Rather like sexy underwear – nice idea but certainly not essential.

    1. …and as life goes on the doily becomes less and less essential, Roger. I completely agree. For me, they are fripperies. I do like tiered cake plates though. I thnk they elevate afternoon tea, literally and metaphorically.

  5. Ooh! That looks so inviting and such pretty china. I must do tea soon. Over Easter perhaps…though sadly I don’t regularly as my OH is diabetic so cakes, biscuits and mid meal snacks of dainty sandwiches are left untouched in favour of a cuppa (he actually prefers coffee!) so the rewards for the effort are not there.

    My parents brought me up on afternoon tea to the delight of many school friends, to whom the concept was unknown and delightful. Raised on a diet of “No biscuits or cake allowed until you have had at least two slices of bread and butter” (with choice of filling). Sadly, the removal of crusts was forbidden and homemade treats were saved for guests and parties but we did run the gamut of good old Mr Kipling and his cake shop before it became “bad for one’s waist”.

    Thanks as ever for a great (yummy) post Kate x

    Now, who can I invite round for tea…?

    1. Good question! It’s a great fund raiser if you’re in for that kind of thing. Scones cost little to make but they look so showy and smell divine, don’t they? But a group of friends on a rainy afternoon in front of a fire: it’s a lovely way to pass the time, munching afternoon tea πŸ™‚

      1. Have often considered a fundraiser just never seem to be able to find the time. Must try harder. Now all I need to complete this delightful picture is one of those fire thingies! Would be mighty useful in these temperatures, I can tell you. Brrrr…

  6. Thank you Kate – for a moment there I was transported back in time.
    LOL – the china teacups always had handles that you would never dream of putting your thumb and forefinger through and I always struggled with them!
    One thing though, although it may have become outmoded, nothing will ever replace lashings and lashings of Ginger Beer!!
    Thanks again πŸ˜€

  7. We don’t do tea in the Colonies, however, I have always made it a part of my daily schedule when ever we cruise the high seas. It started years ago with Cunard, then Princess and more recently, Celebrity. There is something so calming and elegant about sitting at a lovely table with flowers and doillies strategically placed and having a leisure hour or so with friends.

  8. I like an afternoon tea with a sweet or savory at my side and do so whenever I can, dear Kate, and I have had friends over for tea, been to tea, and done a proper tea at the Ritz Carleton with like-minded friends a time or two. Then, there was a time three of us went to the American Girl Store near the “Magnificent Mile” and had tea. (we girls like to have fun)

    Now, I’ve learned something new; that those paper doilies I keep on hand for lining a plate or tin were actually named after a Mr. Doily, a London Draper. I shall use that little tidbit of knowledge next time we have a proper tea.

  9. I had the pleasure recently of partaking in High Tea at the Empress, inclusive of doilies… It all looks wonderful and tastes delicious (especially those little cucumber sandwiches), and I do love drinking from those dainty teacups… but I was very glad not to have to do it all over again the next day. πŸ˜‰

  10. Wonderful post Kate!
    We did very English ‘high’ teas in the tea plantations, a throwback to the pioneer British planters who hacked their way through dense jungle to set up those plantations in the first place. Life there was redolent of the ‘Raj’ and very pretentious πŸ™‚ Seems like a lifetime ago! Miss it sometimes, especially the army of household help.

    1. Ah, yes, I can imagine the help must have been a distinct advantage, Madhu πŸ™‚ Wonderful to hear from someone who experienced afternoon tea in the plantations!

  11. I have several sets of tea linens, embroidered table toppers and matching napkins, inherited from ‘Penelope’, as well as enough white gloves for the two of us. Some cloth doilies, too. If you’re ever in the mood for tea with an American…… πŸ™‚

  12. Alas, I miss tea! But I have doilies. It never dawned on me that there was a Mr. Doily. I’m certain that your tea turned out terrific but don’t give up on the ginger beer!

  13. One of my favorite treats is to go to tea with a good friend. They can be outrageously expensive if we go to one of the better hotels, but it is like being transported to a more gracious time when food wasn’t wolfed down mindlessly. I can guzzle coffee, but I savor tea. And a cucumber sandwich is a fine thing, doilies or not. Your day with friends sounds like an enormously pleasurable experience. I’m so glad Bond behaved! πŸ™‚

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