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 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 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.