Good Food Blog
Time for teaPosted at 12:02PM, 13 October 2008 by Carol Wilson - Food writer
Afternoon tea is becoming popular once again, with a growing number of people visiting tea rooms as a better value alternative to expensive coffee chains and restaurant meals. Members of the prestigious Tea Guild (membership is by invitation only) have reported a significant upsurge in demand and some famous London hotels have a long waiting list. Chic New York and Washington hostesses also entertain their friends to English afternoon tea.
It was Catherine, the wife of Charles II, who encouraged newly fashionable tea drinking, with wealthy women eagerly copying the custom of serving tea to their friends. The high cost of tea added an extra cachet to their social standing. Thomas Twining (of the now famous tea company) is thought to have opened the first teashop for ladies in 1717 in London. Its success led to the opening of many similar establishments and 'tea gardens' in other towns.
Quintessentially English, for me, afternoon tea evokes images of dainty sandwiches; splendidly squashy cakes bursting with cream and jam; sugar-frosted fairy cakes; a dark rich fruit cake, perhaps, or a slab of sticky, moist gingerbread; a fruit pie or a jewel-coloured jam tart latticed with pastry; crisp buttery shortbread; impossibly thin bread and butter; and feather-light scones, accompanied by dishes of home-made jams (or at least very good jams) and thick yellow clotted cream. And, of course, a china teapot of properly made tea, made from leaves, never tea bags. All laid out on the best china on a pristine tablecloth.
Those unfortunates who were known to resort to 'shop cakes' were spoken of scornfully by my great aunt
My great aunt was a great believer in a proper Sunday tea and her delicious baking certainly brightened my compulsory childhood visits! She was immensely proud of providing 'a good table' and vied with various other assorted female relatives to provide the best spread. Those unfortunates who were known to resort to 'shop cakes' were spoken of scornfully by my great aunt, who was well versed in the intricacies of home baking and set aside a whole day for the purpose of filling the cake tin for visitors and of course for the Sunday tea table.
I love afternoon tea - it's a great excuse to get baking and try all those cake recipes I've been meaning to make - and it's an ideal way to entertain friends too. It can be as elaborate or as simple as you like. I use my prettiest china and an attractive tablecloth and put posies of fresh flowers on the table. I like to ring the changes by offering different teas such as Lapsang Souchong, Earl Grey or Jasmine , as well as traditional blends like Assam, Darjeeling and Ceylon.