Sunday, February 28, 2010

Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: Afternoon Tea in 2010

What do you think when you hear afternoon tea?

Ladies with pinkies extended?
Overstuffed floral couches draped with lacey doilies?
Sitting straight-backed, quiet, restrained, bored?
Outdated and stuffy? Antiquated and old-fashioned? So not 2010?

You'd be wrong.

Afternoon tea is loosely defined as a light meal consumed between three and five o'clock.
To me, it's the antithesis of stuffy; it's warm, comfortable, and delicious. It's one of the best parts of my world, a family tradition to be envied.
a bit of world history

It's debatable when the tradition began of taking tea in the afternoon with light refreshments.
Many Americans identify it as a British custom even though it was Dutch explorers who first brought tea from China and Japan in 1610. In the next two hundred years, the drink became popular across the continent, with the wealthy classes first before trickling down to the masses.
The modern idea of afternoon tea was born in 1840 as a trend started by a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, Anna the Duchess of Bedford. Servants would sneak her a pot of tea and a few slices of bread to combat the "sinking feeling" she would feel in midafternoon.

The practice quickly spread, and tea served with small sandwiches and cakes at four o'clock became part of polite society. Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, published in 1861, was the first instruction manuel on the proper running of a home. It contains over 900 recipes and instructions, among which are the proper service of afternoon tea.

a bit of my history
We just call it 'tea,' an experience enjoyed in hotels and tearooms while on vacation in places like London, Bath, Edinburgh, Paris, New York, and San Francisco. The best provide very hot, well-brewed tea with fresh assortments of sandwiches, scones, and cakes.
But tea is not fashionable in our fast-paced and diet-conscious society, so finding a good one can be tough. You can easily spend $30 or more per person on lukewarm tea, stale sandwiches, and mediocre cake. Many places that did no longer serve it at all.
And they should, they really should.

The best teas I've had are homemade. Full-blown, it's a meal with many components that require some planning and preparation; the rewards are a feast. It began with Mom's memories of her mother serving tea and a snack to my grandfather to curb his hunger before dinner.
Tea provides a much-needed caffeine jolt to get you through the rest of the day. As we grew up, our snack became more adult; we went from drinking milk to 'tea-milk' (mostly milk with a splash of tea), to full cups. When home from school or work on a weekday, it would be a cup of tea with a piece of toast & jam, maybe a piece of chocolate chip banana bread. We'd sit and eat at the table together, pausing for fifteen or twenty minutes to recharge.

Tea has become even more frequent despite the fact that my brothers and I are grown. It's a delicious anchor, an opportunity to visit with each other and keep us close. A Cream tea can always be counted on for birthdays (tea with cake, pie, or other of the birthday person's choice). This afternoon tea is something we do a few times a year when the mood strikes.
Mom and I are preparing this one together for a slightly smaller audience. My brother John is away at college and Ray is in the city with friends, which means a party of five.


The first course sandwiches are the most time consuming because of the variety you want to serve. They are tiny so you can have seconds; today we are making four different kinds, paired with breads to suit the filling.

Egg salad with grainy mustard, light mayo, celery, and chives on pain de mie
Smoked Salmon with homemade dill butter on baguette
Chicken salad with celery and light mayo on walnut raisin bread
Cucumbers with homemade chive butter on pain de mie

Egg and chicken salad can be made early and set aside; you want to assemble the sandwiches just before serving so they are fresh. We've made others such as ham salad and watercress, but my favorites are always egg salad and smoked salmon.
We slice the bread super thin and remove the crusts to keep them as delicate as possible.


The second course: Scones

There are a thousand and one scone recipes, and I've definitely had some crazy fancy ones.
Our favorite are these from Cook's Illustrated's The Best Recipe.

The best scone is barely sweet, a bridge between the savory first course and the sweet third. I love them studded with currants (think itty bitty raisins), tender and flakey but not greasy. They should also be tiny, since there are so many yummy things on the table.

Served warm, they are split in two and adorned with strawberry jam, clotted cream, or both.

We always have dessert at tea (never after dinner), and our sweet third course varies. Sometimes it's a full pie and everyone will enjoy a small slice; cupcakes are also popular, maybe vanilla with chocolate ganache or black bottom cream cheese-filled ones.
Today we have a special treat, going all out with a collection of mini pastries, which are perfect for my family of tasters. Made in advance of course or we'd be scrambling!

Chocolate beignets, chaussons aux pommes (french apple turnovers),

and blueberry tarts.
Inevitably you have to pick and choose a little, there are too many lovely things to try. But who can resist a tasting plate of pastries? Nobody I'm related to!

We set the table with plates, teacups, pitchers of milk and sugar, and the food when it's ready. Two teas are selected-one regular, one decaf- from the wonderful assortment we have available. My favorite is Harney & Sons's Queen Catherine, a China tea blend.

We settle into our seats, pour the tea into two beautiful teapots, and start nibbling through everything piece by piece.
I finish my first round of sandwiches and reach for a second smoked salmon round, my very favorite. Next, I make my scone with strawberry jam and eat 3/4 of it before trying a chocolate beignet. Returning for a last taste is a habit of mine. We're at home, nobody cares that I'm going out of order. My brother Chris likes to take scone and pastry at once. Dad might have everything and go back for a sandwich at the end. Mom will enjoy any scraps left behind on our plates. I planned ahead with a small lunch, so I have room for all this and a blueberry tart before declaring myself full.
We linger long after we're finished eating, sipping tea and discussing everything from the family's new kittens and my brother Matthew's college picks, to Obama's health plan and even The Real Housewives of the OC.
In 2010, afternoon tea at home isn't high on the list of things to do. You might consider it in touristy fashion at a hotel or tea shop, probably around the holidays or for a bridal shower, but never to make yourself.
But there is something really special about this practice and we may still have room for it in our busy lives. For me, the preparation brings as much joy as the eating- if you like to play in the kitchen, you'll be in heaven. It's quality time with Mom as we prep and with the boys at the table, time that I wouldn't trade if you paid me.
It's the ultimate food gathering, a fourth meal added to the regular three. It means happy family, it means connection, it means happy bellies, smiles, and good conversation.

Who doesn't need more of these things in life?
A few public places to find good afternoon tea:
Crown & Crumpet, San Francisco
Sally Lunn's, Bath, England
These places used to serve good tea, but they don't any longer:
Ritz Carlton, San Francisco
Omni Berkshire Hotel, New York City
These places serve tea but I wouldn't recommend them:
Lisa's Tea Treasures, several Bay Area locations
The Fairmont, San Jose, California
For excellent loose or bagged tea:
*A huge thanks to Foodbuzz for the opportunity to share this with you. You can visit and buzz my post on their website here: Afternoon Tea 2010.*


Erica said...

Such a gorgeous treat! I love that everything is mini so you can join a little of everything- so fabulous!

Mardi Michels said...

What a beautiful 24,24,24 event. So classy and civilised - not like some people's (ahem, mine!) where 1970s gelatin-based foods were served. Wonderful job on this - I ama BIG fan of afternoon tea.

Unknown said...

interesting! love the ideas... i should incorporate some of those into my way of eating :)

Simona said...

I LOVE afternoon tea! I love cornish cream on the sweet side and sandwiches on the "salted" one :)
Unfortunately, it is so difficult to find a good tea room in Italy, but I take adavantage every time I go to London (or in Paris, I adore Mariages Freres)

Linn said...

Someone should bring the afternoon tea to the US. Anyone? I'm trying to bring some swedish food here by making an online cooking show: http:/

RhodeyGirl said...

Oh this is a BEAUTIFUL post. Just beautiful. I was brought into your afternoon tea and felt like I was sharing in the memory making.

I want to host an afternoon tea!

Unknown said...

you have an awesome page here =) I'm new at blogging!! will be coming by often!!

i also have a food blog too! check it out when ur free.

Lele said...

I love love love afternoon tea! Another good place (a bit of a stretch, ha!) is the Peninsula hotel... in Bangkok.
Your scones are PERFECT. I can't believe you made them!

Jencrafted said...

Love this post! Brings back memories of the high tea we used to have back in my home country (once a British colony). I'm planning a small get-together for my girlfriends and this might just be the perfect theme for a spring party! Well done!!

Gillian said...

I was going to ask what amazing tea place you went to before realizing this is at home, WOW! I am inspired to have an afternoon tea now!


rachel tsunami said...

I adore preparing a tea. And hope to host one this spring for a dozen ladies or so. I will reference this post for inspiration! Thanks!

Florida Foodie said...

Great idea for 24, 24, 24. Looks really yummy!


Arlene Braun Mobley said...

Beautiful blog post! I love having tea although I don't make all the food. I love a little snack with a nice cup of black tea in a pretty tea cup.

I also enjoy tea parties with my little granddaughter.