Saturday, October 8, 2011

Full English Tea

Today I'm talking about that lovely English custom of taking tea with sandwiches, scones and sweets in the mid-afternoon.  I've been to Merry England several times and whenever I'm there I enjoy this tradition.  I have fond memories of a trip to Windsor where we stayed at the Windsor Court Hotel and took afternoon tea by the River Thames as well as in the hotel's historic library.  I've also visited many of the English tea shops and have read a number of books on the history of tea and its various forms of service.  So before I get on to my experience serving full tea at my home, indulge me while I give you a bit of background.
Kevin Enjoys Tea                       At the Windsor Court
Although the custom of drinking tea dates back to the third millennium BC in China, its reach increased from Asia to Portugal around 1515 and Venice around 1560.  After its introduction to Europe, tea was tremendously popular with the French aristocracy and was first documented in Paris in 1636.  The English King Charles II married Catharine of Braganza who was Portuguese and enjoyed tea. Catharine had grown up drinking tea in Portugal and it is said that when she arrived in England in 1662, she brought with her a casket of tea. She became known as the tea-drinking queen — England’s first.

By 1700, tea was on sale by more than 500 coffee houses in London. Tea drinking became even more popular when Queen Anne (1665–1714) chose tea over ale as her regular breakfast drink.

During the second half of the Victorian Period, known as the Industrial Revolution, it was common in England to have only breakfast and dinner, the latter of which was served quite late in the evening.  As such families would return home around 4-5PM tired and hungry. The table would be set with any manner of meats, bread, butter, pickles, cheese and of course tea. Because it was eaten at a high, dining table rather than the low tea tables, it was termed "high" tea, which has little to do with the fancy affairs on fine china we associate with the term today.

A Victorian Garden Tea by Unknown Artist
The actual taking of tea in the afternoon developed into a new social event sometime in the late 1830’s and early 1840’s. Jane Austen hints of afternoon tea as early as 1804 in an unfinished novel. It is said that the afternoon tea tradition was established by Anne, Duchess of Bedford. She requested that light sandwiches be brought to her in the late afternoon because she had a “sinking feeling” during that time because of the long gap between meals. She began to invite others to join her and thus became the tradition.

The most common terms related to afternoon tea are as follows:
Cream Tea - Tea, scones, jam and clotted cream
Light Tea - Tea, scones and sweets
Full/High Tea - Tea, savory sandwiches, scones, sweets and desserts

When friends were planning a visit to the area they asked if they might visit us mid-afternoon as their schedule was rather full and they needed to get on the road for their drive home to Pennsylvania before it was too late.  As I like to feed my guests a meal, I thought for a few minutes about what I could offer them, when of course a Full Tea came to mind.

As I have my father's set of fine porcelain tea service that was made in Selb (Bavaria) Germany by Franconia/Krautheim, but which  I rarely use, it seemed an English tea party was destined. 

Julian's Full Tea        Click to Enlarge
I trimmed the crusts on the bread and made savory little finger sandwiches.  Half were ham salad spread and the other were cucumber with cream cheese.  I purchased the pastries and then added some delicious pumpkin cakes with centers of cream cheese frosting, to add the fall feeling to the display.  If you can, find a three tiered pastry server, as it seems to provide for the quintessential tea service.  I shopped for clotted cream (sometimes called Devonshire cream) which is a thick lumpy cream, an essential part of a cream tea.  I purchased some lemon curd for spreading.   I carefully laid out my father's fine tea service and offered both tea and coffee to my guests.  (If had been summer and we were enjoying this in the garden, I would have added homemade lemonaid to the menu as well.)

I've posted previously on baking authentic English tea cakes, so I won't review it again here, but if you really want an authentic tea bake up a batch or two for this special event. Just know however, that you can easily pull together a tea without opening the oven door and most people will find it an elegant and fun afternoon affair using only the baked goods from your local baker.

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