Afternoon tea is the great equalizer in British society

September 13, 1995|By Michele Nevard | Michele Nevard,London Bureau of The Sun

London -- Afternoon tea is the meal of the day that draws no class distinction. Nowadays there's no cultural barriers either. In fact, America is home to an increasing number of tea aficionados as tea-drinking shows a rapid rise in popularity similar to the coffee trend that began several years ago.

In England it's the national pastime, bringing together cricket players and bus drivers, landed gentry and factory workers. It can be taken in the rarefied atmosphere of London's Ritz Hotel, a country village tearoom filled with lace tablecloths or a takeout sandwich joint.

But wherever afternoon tea is served up, the mix remains the same: a piping hot pot of tea, crumbly scones, moist cakes and cucumber sandwiches.

The ritual of tea-making may have started with the Chinese back in 2750 B.C. but to the British it feels as though it's been around much longer. But tea-making didn't reach these shores until the mid-17th century. A hundred years later it was England's national beverage.

Originally tea filtered into Britain through the aristocracy and traveling merchants. It was heavily taxed and so popular that people took to smuggling it. In demand and scarce, tea was cut with other substances such as sheep's dung, clay, licorice leaves and molasses. By the 18th century when afternoon tea was introduced, such practices had, thankfully, disappeared.

The habit of taking afternoon tea was reputedly first started by the seventh Duchess of Bedford (1788-1861). In the 18th century, the two main meals of the day were breakfast and dinner with a light luncheon. It seems the duchess wilted from lack of food and introduced an afternoon snack around 4 o'clock. The habit stuck.

Afternoon tea is traditionally taken at 4 p.m. and was originally known as low tea because it was eaten while seated on low armchairs.

Around 6 p.m., high tea was taken sitting at high chairs around a table. This was the meal for the workers arriving home. Unlike low tea, this meal was more substantial but not as filling as dinner. Typically it would consist of something like cold meats and salads, meat pasties, or Welsh rarebit, a form of cheese on toast. Nowadays a meal taken at high tea time would most likely be an early dinner.

Taking afternoon tea is such a delightful pleasure that it makes no difference what the season is. Scones and cakes eaten around a log fire in a cozy English tearoom in winter is just as comforting as sitting outside that same tearoom in the height of summer and watching the village cricket match.

If you're playing cricket, tea is even more of a prerequisite. Traditionally the players' wives -- it's usually the men who play -- bring the cakes and make the sandwiches ready for the onslaught after a well-fought match. There's definitely something English and very civilized about having tea in the afternoon.

However, you don't need to be in England to enjoy this pastime. The best of English teas can be re-created everywhere with the right tea and right recipes.

A traditional English tea must always have scones -- the pastries served with our famous Clotted Cream. Clotted cream is even thicker than double cream and is made here in the counties of Devon, Dorset and Cornwall by heating and skimming thick, creamy milk. A substitute would be whipped double cream. Scones are made country wide and recipes are generally the same.

This recipe is for Suffolk Scones, so-called because the folks of Suffolk County were great scone eaters making sure they always had a supply in the house.

Suffolk Scones

Makes 10 to 12 scones

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 stick butter or margarine

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoon cream of tartar

4 1/2 fluid ounces milk

Heat oven to 425 degrees and grease a baking sheet.

Sift flour and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Rub the fat into the flour until it resembles fine bread crumbs. Next sift in the baking soda and cream of tartar, and mix well. Gradually add the milk to form a soft, slightly sticky dough. Knead the mixture gently until smooth. Roll out the dough onto a floured surface to about 1-inch thickness and cut into rounds using a 2-inch cutter. Reroll and cut until you've used all the mixture.

Place the scones onto the baking sheet and brush the tops with milk or beaten egg. Bake for 7 to 10 minutes until well-risen and golden brown. Cool on a wire rack so the scones are crisp on the outside.

In Suffolk, after they're cooked, the scones would be cut in half and put back into the oven to brown. They would immediately be spread with butter and served. Scones can be served hot or cold depending on preference. Traditionally they are served with clotted cream and strawberry jam. Nowadays butter is also added and the types of preserves vary. The dispute in tearooms these days would be which goes on top first. However you dress them, they won't stay on the plate for long.

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