The English do love their hot beverages! (Not everyone does, I’m sure, but there does seem to be a widespread ritual of drinking tea, coffee, or cocoa on a daily basis.) And since I love tea, too, we tend to be in agreement. There are few restaurants in England where you can’t get a little pot of tea anytime you want it, and the tea ritual for a traveler could be anything from popping into a cafe for a morning cup, to a welcoming brew prepared by your B&B hosts, to a small or large afternoon tea in just about any location you can imagine. I’ve had all of the above, and then some.
But I want to talk about the “traditional afternoon tea,” because it’s really a different plate of scones altogether, and so delicious. At the fancier tea salons, you’ll be confronted with choices immediately – do you want a “cream tea,” which tends to be just a pot of tea and a scone or two (boiling the experience down to its most essential elements, in my opinion), an “afternoon tea,” in which the tea comes with a three-tiered plate of goodness (sandwiches on the bottom, scones in the middle, pastries on top, and you eat your way up), or a “champagne tea,” which is the afternoon tea with a glass of champagne added to increase the decadence by a factor of ten? Personally, I like to stop for a cuppa on most days of my trip, so I’ll usually go for the simple cream tea – no need to get over-full. But at least once or twice, I want the full-on afternoon tea experience, and at 5:00 p.m. it can easily stand in for dinner. (Try to eat afternoon tea and then go to a restaurant at 7:30. Go on, I dare ya.)
So let’s imagine that you’ve walked into one of the fancier tea establishments – the Orangery in London, for instance (or the Ritz or Savoy or Harrods), or the Pump Room in Bath, perhaps.
You decide to go for the full-on afternoon tea, and here’s what comes to your table:
Think you can eat all of that?
My first “afternoon tea” was in Keswick in 2008. It wasn’t our first stop on our northern England road trip – that was York, but we were too jet-lagged and busy seeing the town to really focus on tea. So once we got to the Lake District, we made it a point to have an afternoon tea. We popped into a little bakery on Keswick’s main drag, with a tearoom upstairs. I was looking forward to the tea sandwiches, and the pastries, and obviously the tea itself, but not to the scones. The only scones I’d had were the doorstops that Americans tend to bake and then try to pass off as fluffy biscuits (c’mon, fellow Yanks – admit it; we’re not fooling anybody with those bricks). So I had the entirely reasonable idea that I hated scones. However, because we were in England, I told myself I was going to be a good, open-minded traveler and try scones in their native habitat. I couldn’t have been more shocked – they were nothing like I was used to at home. Warm, soft, and buttery, studded with currants – those scones were divine. I piled my bites with clotted cream and sweet jam, and scones became my second-favorite part of an afternoon tea (the tea itself must always come first, of course).
So yes, let’s talk about the parts of an English afternoon tea. First, there’s the tea. In most establishments, it will come in a pot, brewed loose-leaf style, with a little strainer for you to pour through. (Try not to drip on the table. Then, if you figure out some magic method for pouring tea through a strainer without dripping on the table, please tell me what it is.) You’ll get a little pot of sugar (bonus points if it comes in cubes) and a small pitcher of milk (generally not cream; cream is for coffee). Fix yourself a cup however you like it. When at home, I usually take my tea black, because I like to actually taste the flavors of the brew… but in an English afternoon tea, I treat myself to cream and one lump of sugar, because why not? (Sometimes I’ll start off black and add sugar later as the brew becomes stronger from sitting in the pot.)
Once you have your tea fixed and have fortified yourself with a sip or two, turn your attention to the tower of treats in front of you. Start on the bottom with the tea sandwiches (and note – usually at least one of the sandwiches will be some form of meat; if you’re vegetarian simply let your server know when you order and they will gladly fix all veggie sandwiches for you). Once you’ve gotten through the sandwiches, it’s time for the fun part: SCONES! Everyone has their own way of eating. Some slice them like mini loaves of bread. I personally like to pull off tiny bites and save the top crust for the last part. You finish with the pastries – if you have room, that is. (This is where a big guy comes in handy to bring as your date. You can usually convince him to do the heavy lifting on the pastries and just beg a bite or two.) Have you finished eating? Do you have room for dinner? (HA!)
Roll on back to your hotel and reflect on the fabulous treat you just had. No one does afternoon tea like the English do. Cheers!