Afternoon Tea

There is something so delightful, festive, and refined about taking proper afternoon tea.  It hits all my culinary pleasure points!  Break out the silver, porcelain, fine linens, finger sandwiches, scones and jam, petit gateaux, and on and on.  I’m on a quest to experience as many afternoon teas as I can.  First a little history…

Anna Maria, 7th Duchess of Bedford, originated the practice of taking afternoon tea in 1840.  During the mid 19th century,  breakfast and dinner were the only meals taken each day.  Not sure what time breakfast occurred, but dinner was served at the fashionably late hour of 8:00 pm.  The time between breakfast and dinner could be lengthy and the Duchess experienced “that sinking feeling” we’ve all felt.  She requested a tray of tea, bread, butter, and cake be brought to her room in the late afternoon.   The Duchess began inviting friends to join her and the rest is history.  Today you can go to her home in Bedfordshire to have tea and tour her home Woburn Abbey.   How awesome is that!

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Anna Maria, 7th Duchess of Bedford
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Woburn Abbey, Woburn Park, Bedfordshire
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Drawing Room at Woburn Abbey
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“Afternoon Tea” Alexander Rossi

Tea was usually served at home on low tables in the lady’s parlor or drawing room.   The practice became so popular that tea rooms opened providing a respectable place for women to meet friends without a chaperone.

When my cousin was in town we attended afternoon tea at the Dallas Arboretum.   The service started with carrot and ginger soup, next came finger sandwiches, and finally miniature sweets.  A different tea was served with each course, one floral, one blueberry, and one earl grey.  I’ve been looking for other places in my area that serve afternoon tea.  The Adolphus Hotel is on my list.  One I did find that looks incredibly amazing and contemporary is across the pond…

I hear London calling… namely, Sketch, where afternoon tea is served in the Gallery every day of the week in the most gorgeous environment.   The space by architect/designer India Mahdavi is magical and so very pink!   She was asked to incorporate 239 pieces of artwork by David Shrigley into her design.  Mahdavi grouped the pieces together ingeniously creating a “wallpaper” effect that wraps the room on three sides.  I love the challenge of being asked to incorporate items into an interior.  Here are a few photos from their website.

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The flooring is genius.  The multi-colored tiles and pattern chosen ground the delicate pink of the furnishings and keep the room from being too girly.  Though, there’s nothing wrong with being girly.  You just want to appeal to more people in commercial interiors.  The gold accents warm the space, silver would have worked, but the gold sings.  The chairs evoke the lady fingers on a charlotte dessert.

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Charlotte yum

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Sketch tableware is playful and contemporary bringing 21st c. to afternoon tea.

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Since I couldn’t get there this week, I created my own afternoon tea.  First I looked through my linens, tableware and serving pieces to see if I had anything tea worthy.  I don’t own a traditional, three tier tray or a silver tea service so improvised with what I do own.   Using what you have forces you to be creative and the results are usually successful.  My intention was not to buy anything but the food.

I thought The Complete Book of Table Setting by Amelia Levitt Hill, published in 1949,  would be a fun read to see how times have changed.  The section on teas was enlightening.  One tenant of a tea is that forks and knives are unnecessary.  Everything you serve should be easily picked up by hand.  Mrs. Hill says do not stack cups ever!  Cups will chip and look unattractive stacked on the table.  Necessary items include a teapot, sugar bowl and creamer, tea plates (salad), tea spoons, napkins and a bud vase for decoration.  Other tea time necessities include a sugar tong and tiny dish for thinly sliced lemons.  Mrs. Leavitt recommends occasionally serving lime slices instead of lemon to mix it up.  And she says “another important accessory is a slop bowl, into which you may empty dregs when a guest accepts your invitation for a second cup”, is this really necessary?  Seems unseemly to have on the table.

For simplicity’s sake, and my sanity, I served three different type finger sandwiches rather than the standard six.  Having vegetarian and gluten free options is considerate.  A play on sushi rolls filled with veggies could be a fun gluten free option.  The second course consisted of scones and croissants to be topped with jam, clotted cream, or butter.  For petit desserts, a selection of store bought and homemade cakes (leaning heavily on the store bought side).   If you have a three tier tray the progression is sandwiches on the bottom, scones on the middle, and desserts on the top.  A selection of teas and champagne.   My grandmothers old-fashioned champagne glasses added vintage charm rather than flutes.

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A traditional damask tablecloth mixed with modern, gold rimmed plates, and striped napkins for added color.  Half of the serving pieces belonged to my grandmother.  I was short on small serving dishes so I turned a pair of milk glass candlesticks upside down for jam and lemon curd.

This is a really fun, no pressure way to entertain friends for the afternoon or for a book club gathering if you belong to one.   You can even write up a menu card that looks professional using a proper period font.

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Bon appe tea!

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