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Friday, May 2, 2014

English Afternoon Tea

A modern-day English Afternoon Tea
English Tea
by Regency Historical Romance Author, Donna Hatch

As an author of Regency Historical Romances, I often delve into fun customs of those who lived in England in the early 1800's during the time of Jane Austen. I always learn something fun. This newest quest sent me off in search of the customs of afternoon tea.

Tea is a time-honored tradition, and to this American, nothing says British Custom like afternoon tea. While most of us may think of High Tea as an upper class  tradition dating back hundreds of years, I discovered something else entirely.

Tea in the afternoon didn't actually become common until the 1700's. By the Regency Era, the custom had long-since caught on and the upper class had afternoon tea about four o’clock, which was before the fashionable time to promenade in Hyde Park if one was in London. Afternoon tea included, of course, tea served hot. Also served with tea, one would find small finger sandwiches (thin and crustless, thank you), biscuits (which the Americans call cookies), scones with jam and clotted cream, and small cakes—not petite fours, at least, not during Regency but small cakes sometimes called fairly cakes with butter icing, which, from what I’ve been able to tell, were probably not much bigger than mini cupcakes.

Food with tea probably evolved because they ate dinner at the fashionable time of about eight o’clock at night, and since the upper classes weren’t all quite in the habit of eating lunch or luncheon or nuncheon yet, they probably needed that small meal in the middle of the day. Personally, I like a small meal in the afternoon even though I do eat lunch. I would have made a great hobbit with elevensies and lunch and afternoon tea, etc. But I digress.

“High Tea” developed during the Victorian era. Some accounts say that high tea, served later in the day at about five or six o’clock, originated with the lower classes but I don’t understand how they could come home from work for high tea and then return to work for a few hours and then go home again for dinner. *shrug* 

At any rate, high tea is a more filling meal than afternoon tea. High tea usually comes with white and brown bread, meats such as roast pork, fish like salmon, scones, an assortment of sweets such as cake pie, trifle, lemon-cheese tarts, sponge cake, walnut cake, chocolate roll, pound cake, currant teacake, curd tart, macaroons, a variety of cheeses, jellies, as well as butter or clotted cream.

According to Laura Boyl in her article "Tea Time" on the Jane Austen website, the different names are derived from the height of the tables where the meals were served. Low tea is served on a table, which in the United States would be called “coffee tables.” High tea is served on the dinner table.

Because the characters in my Regency romance novels all hail from the upper class, or end up there eventually, I will focus on afternoon tea because that's what they do every day, unless they are fighting pirates or running for their lives or battling villains, of course.

Most sandwiches in the UK are traditionally made with a very thin white bread, generously buttered with potted paste. The potted paste could similar to deviled ham, but also could be a fish paste--salmon, for instance, very thinly spread. I guess they liked their pleasures small, thin, and bite-sized. 

Tea was (and still is) served in a china or silver pot accompanied by slices of lemon or milk. They never put cream in their tea or it would ruin the flavor. According to Regency researcher and author, Kathryn Kane, tea leaves used during the Regency were chopped much more coarsely than those used today. The large size required that the tea be steeped for a longer period, but it also made it easier to strain the used leaves from the tea after it had been steeped. There was a special implement included in many tea services used to clear the strainer at the base of the spout of the tea pot, or to strain the used leaves out of each cup before it was served. You can find more detail at:

However, Regency author Grace Kone, who is British, told me that if it's done correctly, the tea leaves stay on the bottom, with just enough pouring out to make a scattering of leaves for fortune-telling. It sounds very Harry Potter, doesn't it? Grace said she has never in her life strained leaf tea. Other British friends such as author Janis Susan May Patterson use something called a tea ball, which is small metal case into which she places the tea leaves. These are also known as 'tea eggs.' Other friends pour their tea into their cups through a silver tea strainer, like the one in this picture:

Here is a recipe, courtesy Regency author, Miranda Neville, for cucumber sandwiches:

Very thinly sliced white bread (or whole wheat if you insist on being healthy but really, why bother?). I use Pepperidge Farm Very Thin
Good quality unsalted butter
English cucumbers (about† one and a half per loaf of bread)
1. Slice the cucumbers very thin. Put them in a colander mixed up with some† salt, weigh them down with a plate, and leave them in the sink to drain for an hour or two.
2. Wash the salt off and pat dryish with a dish towel.
3. Butter the bread.
4. Put two layers of cucumber slices in each sandwich and press flat with your hand so it all sticks together, preferably without becoming totally squashed.
5. Cut off the crusts (very important). With a big sharp knife cut each sandwich into four – triangles, squares, or strips, your preference.

And from “The Royal Pavilion at Brighton a booklet A Choice Selection of Regency Recipes you can  now make at Home” here is a receipt for macaroons.

Macaroons   Makes about 12
1 large egg white
2 oz ( 55 g) ground almonds
2 oz (55) g caster sugar
a few drops rose water
1-2 drops almond essence
about 12 slivered almonds =-optional. 

Heat the oven to 160C/325F/gas3 

Line as baking sheet with baking parchment paper. 
Whisk egg white until stiff. Using a large  metal spoon, fold in  the ground almonds, sugar, rosewater, and almond essence.  Mix until blended  into a smooth thick paste.

Using a teaspoon, put blobs of  the mixture on the lined baking sheet, leaving space between them to allow for expansion during cooking. Flatten with the back of a spoon. If you like you can top each with a sliver of almond.  Bake for about 20 minutes until light golden brown. Transfer to wire rack and leave to cool. 

Sounds yummy, doesn't it? I think for my next book launch I will have afternoon tea. I’m not a tea drinker, so I may deviate from tradition and have herbal tea in my cup, but the rest of it looks like great fun. Last week, I attended a Jane Austen tea in Salt Lake City, UT with some of my Jane Austen geeky friends such as Sarah M. Eden. We had high tea so we had lots of food including fruit and veggies, and we ate at small dinner tables with chairs. We all dressed up and we even had some period entertainment such as a poetry reading, a soloist, and a flutist. It was so fun! 

Have you ever had afternoon tea?

1 comment:

jaceybedford said...

Catching up with this a little late. You query the working class having 'high tea' followed by 'dinner' a few hours later, but what you call 'high tea' would just have been called 'tea' by the people who had it. It was the early evening meal - usually hot and probably served around 6 p.m. There might be some supper before bedtime - little more than a snack.

There was no 'dinner' to follow high tea. Even as late as the 1950s the working class had breakfast, dinner (midday meal) and tea (evening hot meal) while the higher ups had breakfast, lunch and dinner. The difference in terminology still exists today in some regions, mainly the north.

Depending on the job (i.e. whether you went home for a meal in the middle of the day) the midday meal might be the most substantial and tea might be a lighter hot meal. Mealtimes would have to be flexible once shift working became established. Obviously in some industries, you took your midday meal packed up to eat in the break.

For a Yorkshire miner that packed up meal was called 'snap' and consisted of sandwiches in a 'snap tin' (a tin squared off at the bottom and rounded at the top to accommodate the shape of a slice of bread) and - before the days of thermos flasks - your drink would be a bottle of cold tea (no milk, obviously).

In Cornwall tin miners would take pasties (called oggies) which were baked with savoury filling at one end, sweet filling at the other and thick pastry handles. One of the byproducts of tin mining was cyanide and there were no washing facilities in a tin mine. So the miners held the handles with dirty hands, ate the pasty and then threw the handles away. Cornish pasties today are savoury and there's no need for handles any more.