Domain over tea as a beverage was taken by the British when the empire slid eastward across Asia. The aristocratic society flaunted their wealth with afternoon teas – social gatherings of rich, upper-class ladies featuring dainty morsels to accompany tea, an imported delicacy of the time.
Today, afternoon tea is simply a quick cup with a couple of biscuits or scones. The old-fashioned, classy affair is restricted to hotels and tea rooms or special occasions. Afternoon tea is often confused with high tea. It is, in fact, ‘low tea’ – more of a snack session with a variety of teas served on a low table surrounded by chatter and talk. High tea is a working-class meal served at the ‘higher’ dining table with more filling food. To this day, many residents of the UK refer to dinner as tea.
This hasn’t stopped afternoon tea from turning out to be a rather luxurious affair. Where it began initially as a cup of tea accompanied by just bread and butter, it comprises today an elaborate selection of sandwiches, scones, biscuits, cakes and desserts.
So what goes into an authentic afternoon tea?
For the most authentic ambience, the venue for afternoon tea should be homely – comfortable seating that’s also intimate to invite conversation. It’s also an excellent idea to host afternoon tea outdoors in a well-manicured garden with umbrellas for shade.
Use three-tiered stands – with savouries and sandwiches on the bottom, scones in the middle and sweets on the top – along with beautiful vintage teapots, cups and saucers.
The most basic afternoon teas will have sandwiches, scones and a selection of small cakes. All of these are usually dainty, easy to finish in a couple of bites.
Finger sandwiches generally have one main filling and one spread – cured ham with mustard, smoked salmon with lemon butter, cucumber and mint cream cheese, etc. The crusts are cut off, served at room temperature and are usually divided into thirds for the perfect size.
Scones are an afternoon tea staple. These are rather rich, buttery biscuits with a sturdy but crumbly pastry. Traditionally, it is served with clotted cream and fresh jam. No afternoon tea is worth an indulgence without small cakes and pastries. Popular options include financiers, madeleines, Victoria sponge and mini gateaux.
To make it more decadent, bite-sized warm savouries may be added, a large cake to be shared, macarons and cupcakes. The more modern afternoon tea might even feature champagne or cocktails.
The winning element of this service is a well-thought-out selection of great teas. Earl Grey is among the most popular and pairs perfectly with sweet treats. The same goes for Assam tea when served with milk and sugar, Darjeeling Second Flush, Rose Congou and Lapsang Souchong. Assam black tea without milk or sugar is the ideal accompaniment for savoury foods, as are the Darjeeling First Flush and Russian Caravan. Ceylon teas are also a favourite at this time of day.
For guests who prefer non-caffeinated beverages, herbal infusions such as chamomile, mint and lavender are outstanding choices.