Afternoon tea can lift spirits, calm stress Jolly good: The Victorians had a wonderful idea for breaking up a busy day. Now tea time is catching on again.

March 06, 1996|By Cathy Thomas | Cathy Thomas,ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER Sun intern Tom Collins contributed to this article.

A Victorian-style afternoon tea is appealing to both palate and spirit. More than just an aromatic pot of tea and delectable finger food, afternoon tea is a vacation from our hectic lives -- a chance to talk and relax in a romantic setting.

No wonder afternoon teas are trendy.

Bertha's in Fells Point has offered afternoon teas for more than 20 years. Originally, just a Wednesday event, the teas were so popular owner Laura Norris started having them Monday through Saturday 10 years ago. Bertha's is still a popular spot for &L afternoon teas. Patrons may indulge in pastries, Scottish breads, six kinds of tarts and, of course, scones, which can be accompanied by butter, jam or whipped cream.

"My mother had always been making these things and it never occurred to us that it might be interesting to other people, too," she says.

Now, it's interesting to a lot of people. Businessmen meet with clients at Bertha's teas. Mothers and daughters, some dressed in Victorian dresses, hats and gloves, come to teas together.

Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, owner of the Old Waverly Exchange & Tea Room, which has been holding afternoon teas for seven years, thinks the relaxing atmosphere is what keeps people coming back. At a normal lunch, you sit with a group of people and talk is obligatory. At afternoon teas, Ms. Shapiro says, she often sees people come alone, just to spend time by themselves.

Restaurants aren't the only venues for afternoon tea.

Gail Kaplan, co-owner of the Classic Catering People, says that the number of teas that her business has catered has increased during the past three or four years.

"We've done a lot of them that are very theme-oriented," she says.

Bridal showers and retirement parties are two of the top occasions for having teas catered, Ms. Kaplan says.

An afternoon tea, Ms. Kaplan thinks, offers an alternative to those who would rather not have alcohol at their celebration.

She adds that in the budget-conscious 1990s, teas are economical.

Settings and tea-party themes vary with holidays, seasons and events: a Valentine tea for two, a summer garden tea, a Christmas Eve family tea, a Sunday family tea, or an Easter brunch-style tea. Or a bridal shower tea where each guest takes a cup and saucer for the bride. Even a tea for one.

To make things easy, serve buffet style: Set everything out and relax.

Here are some essentials for an afternoon tea: sugar, lemon, milk, scones, clotted cream and toppings -- and tea.

* Tea: For parties of 15 or more, you may want to rent an electric urn to provide a constant supply of boiling water to fill the teapots.

TC Consider serving three different teas: traditional tea, flavored tea and tisane (or "herb tea," a tealike drink made by steeping various herbs, flowers and spices in boiling water). In cold weather, an Indian Ceylon or Darjeeling would be a good choice, or a plum with cinnamon and a Ceylon with chocolate.

In warm weather, try an Indian Ceylon or Darjeeling, a fruit tea with peaches (brew tea and add pieces of mint and fresh peaches) and an iced vanilla tea.

* Sugar: Provide cubes, granulated or crystal sugar. You can flavor granulated sugar by combining it with either several lavender blossoms or a vanilla bean and storing in an airtight container for several weeks.

Colored sugar crystals are available at some tea shops and cake-decorating stores.

* Lemon: Offer a bowl of lemon slices to follow a Russian tradition introduced to England by one of Queen Victoria's daughters.

* Milk: Milk is a tradition that started in England in the 18th century when delicate china cups became fashionable and tea drinkers were afraid the hot tea would crack the cups. English tea drinkers started using milk to cool the tea. Most feel cream is too heavy for tea; it doesn't mix well with the tannin in the tea.

* Scones: Scones were originally a triangle-shaped Scottish quick bread made of oats and griddle-baked. Today's versions are flour-based and baked in the oven. I cut them with a 2-inch round cutter. They're small enough to handle easily, but big enough to hold clotted cream and jam.

* Clotted cream: This specialty of Devonshire, England, is traditionally served with jam on scones. It is made by gently heating rich, unpasteurized milk until a semi-solid layer of cream forms on the surface. After cooling, the thickened cream is removed. Although I have tried several recipes, I have never been happy with the results. I like to substitute a mixture of creme fraiche (either bought commercially or homemade with cream and buttermilk) mixed with a little powdered sugar. You can also use sour cream mixed with a little brown sugar or unsweetened whipped cream.

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