Afternoon Tea

PUBLISHED: 15:37 27 January 2012 | UPDATED: 20:58 20 February 2013

Afternoon Tea

Afternoon Tea

The elegant feast that bridges the chasm between lunch and dinner is fashionable once again, but only when delivered with aplomb, writes Christopher Archambault

The elegant feast that bridges the chasm between lunch and dinner is fashionable once again, but only when delivered with aplomb, writes Christopher Archambault

England, 1840. Queen Victoria reigns and the Empire is expanding. The foundation stone of Nelsons column is laid, the last Great Auk is killed, David Livingstone leaves for Africa, the Penny Black is first issued and The Province of Canada is created. The First Opium War is in full swing and as history oft dictates, foreign atrocities birth domestic civility.

The Afternoon Tea is born. Anna, Duchess of Bedford invents a new meal opportunity. Cunningly designed to bridge the chasm between lunch and dinner, this fad caught on quick in an age when tea consumption was dramatically on the rise. At the time it was the norm for people to take two meals a day and Her Grace had decided to act upon that sinking feeling that accompanied the late afternoon.

The various classes in England had a divergence in their eating habits. The upper classes typically ate luncheon at about midday and dinner at 8pm or later, whilst the lower classes ate dinner at about 11am and then a light supper at around 7pm. For both groups, afternoon tea filled a gap in the meals.

The custom spread throughout the British Empire and beyond in the decades to follow at varying degrees of extravagance or subtlety depending on your standing. However, changes in social customs and working hours have all but eradicated this custom from modern Britain, bar special occasions or culinary tourism.

Typically served between 2pm and 5pm, this elegant micro-meal is a bane for chefs but a delight in which to partake. Many a bucket list includes a trip to The Ritz for afternoon tea. The big-hitter hotels of London have teams within their brigades churning out delicate fancies for what can be a huge earner when delivered with aplomb in the correct setting.

And so to the frou-frou itself. Firstly, it must, I repeat must, be served on a tiered stand. All else fails in my mind especially naff rectangular plates or faddish slate slabs. Of course, one must have the obligatory finger sandwiches, preferably on the second tier, which they should contain smoked salmon, cucumber, egg and cress, proper sliced boiled or baked ham, and a fish paste of some sort. It was with much sorrow that I discovered Shippams had ceased their bloater paste production late 2010, so I now use Gentlemans Relish and a few choice anchovies.

For me the bottom tier is all about the big cakes. Homemade Battenburg is not as difficult as it looks, a rich fruit cake of some sort is important, sweet scones essential, fairy cakes are all the rage, and something lemony or a chocolate bomb wouldnt go amiss. Keep it varied and colourful, I say.

Top shelf is for your wee fancies, your petits fours if you will. Chocolate truffles, strawberry custard tarts, mini-eclairs: anything tiny, shiny and irresistible.

As for the tea itself, Darjeeling is a favourite but it really is up to individual taste. Loose leaf, of course, brewed just so, sugar and milk or cream optional. These days its very de rigeur to go straight to the Champagne to accompany your tiered fancies, foregoing the tea completely and setting you off on a proper afternoon that could lead to actually staying in The Ritz if you get lucky.

Think of Afternoon Tea as a Devonshire Cream Tea gone mad! Gone right up to the gates of The Palace in a palm court carriage demanding entry in its best finery. It should be an event. A nod to a glorious past served up on best bone China. Jam on top of cream of course, unless youre Cornish. Which my wife is. So I do half the scone one way, half the other. Ever the expat diplomat. Tea for two?

Christopher Archambault is Head Chef of Southernhay House Hotel in Exeter. Afternoon Tea can be had at Southernhay House (with 24hrs prior booking) between 3-6pm. 14pp/23pp with a glass of Champagne.

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