Afternoon Tea At Home

Bringing a touch of Downton Abbey to the home is easier than you think. Just keep that pinky down.

It's one of the defining features of British culture, along with crooked teeth, fish & chips (or chicken tikka masala), and surrealist humour. We're talking about tea time.

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It's during the cruel seasonal transition period that is March in Toronto that a comforting cup of black tea with just the right amount of milk and sugar shines. It speaks to quiet times curled on the couch with a book, an afternoon respite during a workday break, and Sundays in front of the telly ... err, Netflix. In some ways, it's the perfect tool for an introverted recharge. But, as a week-long binge of Downtown Abbey and Jane Austen novels can inform you, there's another, more social side to tea: the afternoon tea. There is no better way to simultaneously satisfy your yearning for dainty sandwiches and scandalous gossip.

Thankfully, a posh tea-time setup is just steps away for most Torontonians thanks to the big hotels offering an afternoon service. The Fairmont, Shangri-La, Old Mill, Ritz-Carlton, and Windsor Arms all offer a fine selection of teas, whimsical snacks, and chandeliered ambiance. With the prestige, though, comes a price: between $30 to $60 each person. Unless you do, indeed, have the disposable income of the landed gentry, this option is really a special occasion treat, only.

The more prudent option is to simply host an authentic afternoon tea from the comfort of your own home. Despite the seemingly decadent trappings of the Queen's tea, setting a sumptuous spread for your guests is deceptively easy. This is especially so because there are no prescribed 'recipes' for a high tea; merely guidelines for types of things to eat informed by two centuries of historical roots.

Tea History: In which a Duchess became hangry

The most commonly accepted origin story of the afternoon tea comes from the mid-1800's. The Duchess of Bedford at the time would often complain of a consistent dip in energy at around the three o'clock mark. Rather than wait for the formal dinner setting at eight - which would be most undignified - she instead began requesting for a personal tray of tea and small snacks to be sent to her private chambers. It wasn't long before members of her inner circle of socialites were invited to take tea with her as they discussed the affairs of the day. By the 1880's, afternoon tea became an event inducted into the social calendars of England's aristocratic elite.

As a result, the hardware necessary to experience a truly 'authentic' tea are preposterously unnecessary for modern life. Fine bone china, dainty silver spoons, well-starched napkins, and many-tiered trays were simply what the Duchess put out to impress her other well-to-do friends. In particular, the tray - and what nibbles went into it - bears special attention. There's an order to what is served at a traditional tea that is nearly as rigorous as a kaiseki, or traditional Japanese set menu.

afternoon-tea-tray

The first, and bottom, tier of a tea service always began with finger sandwiches. We can thank the Earl of Sandwich, who just might - might - have brought the popular concept of filling slapped between two pieces of bread to the nobility at the turn of the 19th century. It's here that classics like the cucumber and butter sandwich can be found.

The second tier, and the second 'course' of the tea service, was traditionally scones with plenty of clotted cream and fruit preserves for slathering. By no means should this course be skipped, if anything because of the risk of squandering the opportunity to eat clotted cream. For the uninitiated, clotted cream is akin to butter on steroids; a sumptuous, 55%+ butter fat spread with a rich, slightly nutty taste.

The last, and final, tier for consumption consisted of a spread of sweets and pastries. Any small pastries and tarts will do - but, in my mind, the delicate desserts from classical French restaurants are the most fitting. The Duchess of Bedford's tea time proclivities came well after the Napoleonic war, and French culture - particularly cuisine - would have come back into favour in the gardens of Britain's high society. I'm talking about mille crêpes, pot de crèmes, and profiteroles.

Recipes: In which you impress your friends with tea

It's time that we bring tea time back to one of it's most true forms: late afternoon snacks with friends meant to tide you over to dinner time. There's no need for fancy dress, a dowery's-worth of crockery, and elaborate bites to eat. Just good friends, good tea, and some of the most simple recipes we might publish.

The Setting

afternoon-tea

Let's face it, a fine china tea set can not only be expensive, but incredibly impractical. They're prone to cracks and will likely spend the majority of their lives taking up space in a cabinet. We say skip it. Unless you're living with a Spartan, bachelor setup (and are somehow curious about setting a high tea?), chances are you can make do with whatever cups and plates already at your disposal.

Now the tiered tray, on the other hand, is such an iconic piece that it's worth a second look. There's no need to spring for a high-priced, gilded monstrosity from The Bay or Williams-Sonoma. Ours hailed from Canadian Tire for less than $30, and doubles as a produce rack on our kitchen countertop when we're not pretending to be well-to-do.

The Tea

sloane-earl-grey-tea

Pick your favourite good black tea - even Lipton's Orange Pekoe will do. Why black? It pairs the best with milk, cream, and sugar - your other 'traditional' parts of an afternoon tea. It's also the most forgiving style of tea to prepare: boiling hot water from the kettle, about a four minute steep. No special tea kettles or thermometers are typically needed to coax the right flavours from your tea.

We went with an Earl Grey from one of our favourite local tea blenders in the city: Sloane.

Tier One: The Sandwiches

Think of your stereotypically British cold sandwich, and chances are it can work for your afternoon tea setup. Just use a good sandwich bread and cut the pieces into morsels that can be eaten in two or three bites. Don't sweat it: it's still a sandwich. At our own afternoon tea, we chose to offer a spread of three different types. I won't insult your kitchen skills by providing directions on how to prepare a sandwich.

tea-sandwiches

Cucumber & Butter:

  • English cucumber, sliced thinly on a bias
  • Butter, brought to room temperature
  • Salt to taste

Imperial-Raj Egg Salad:

  • 4 eggs, hard boiled, chopped (serves 6 people)
  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 small shallot, finely diced
  • 6 small cornichons, finely diced
  • 1 tbsp curry powder
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Lox & Cream Cheese

  • Smoked salmon or lox (recipe below)
  • Cream cheese, brought to room temperature

Homemade Salmon Gravlax

Making gravlax at home is surprisingly easy, staggeringly cost effective, and absolutely delicious. The secret weapon we use is a vacuum sealer, though you can make do with some plastic wrap kung-fu. My thanks go out to Serious Eats and The Pete Is On for the inspiration.

Ingredients:

  • 1 lbs (454g) salmon, trout, or other red-fleshed fish fillet.
  • Dill
  • 1:1.5 ratio white sugar to fine salt (a 100g sugar, 150g salt mix is likely enough to coat 4 lbs of fish)
  • Optional: whole caraway, coriander seeds, parsley

The Payoff:

  1. Rinse fillet - or fillets - in cold water, pat dry, and set aside.
  2. In a jar, combine sugar and salt and shake to combine.
  3. Lightly coat both sides of the fillet with sugar and salt mixture, making sure that it is evenly covered.
  4. Place fresh dill and any other aromatics used onto the flesh side of the fillet. If you are using two fillets, now is the time to sandwich the aromatics so that the skin faces outwards.
  5. Tightly wrap fish in parchment paper. This is to keep impressions from forming on the fish.
  6. Vacuum seal the fish. Set in fridge for at least 3 days.
  7. To serve, open bag, pick off herbs, and thinly slice with sharp knife.

Tier Two: The Scones

scones

Crumbly, buttery scones are an absolute must at tea time. The only point of contention is how to pronounce the word; a long or short 'O'? Kim prefers the former (as in 'tone'), while I have always said the latter (as in 'gone'). The Oxford Dictionary says it's either, depending on regional dialect.

Making scones at home is easier than pronouncing them; you can have a batch ready in 45 minutes. I tried two different methods, one with and one without the use of egg. The batch without egg ended up delicious, but closer to a bready biscuit than a crumbly scone. We ended up using a variation of a Jamie Oliver recipe, adapted to allow for mass measurements. It's worth mentioning that if the dough should look far too crumbly for it to logically be dough; go easy on the liquids.

Ingredients:

  • 250g (2 cups) unbleached, all purpose flour
  • 5g (1 tsp) baking powder
  • 5g (1 tsp) sugar
  • 5g (1 tsp) salt
  • 75g cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes (~3cm)
  • 1 large egg
  • 60ml (1/4 cup) whole milk
  • Optional: egg yolk or melted butter, for brushing

The Payoff:

  1. Preheat oven to 400F (200C).
  2. In a mixing bowl, sift together all dry ingredients. Add butter, work into dry ingredients with hands or stand mixer until small, cornflake pieces of butter interspersed throughout mixture.
  3. Make a well in dough, add egg and milk. Mix lightly until clumpy dough starts to form. This should barely hold together. Cover bowl with plastic and set in fridge for 15 minutes.
  4. On a floured surface, roll out dough to desired thickness and punch out. For 'mini' scones, 2cm thickness and a 5cm diameter cookie cutter provides perfect bit-sized scones. Go with 3cm thickness and a 10cm cutter for more traditional scones.
  5. Place on tray lined with Silpat or parchment paper. Brush tops with egg yolk or melted butter. Bake for 15 minutes, or until tops are golden brown. Let cool for 5 minutes.
  6. Serve with lots of clotted cream, butter, and jam.

Tier Three: The Desserts

roselle-desserts

After the rounds of sandwiches and scones, the dessert course of an afternoon tea is nothing but an indulgence. For those who actually want to make it to dinner with an appetite, the dessert tier can absolutely be skipped if you'd like. But who says 'no' to sweets? For our dessert tier, we stopped back at one of our favourite east-side pastry shops, Roselle. Stephanie performs some patisserie magic with Earl Grey tea, making it perfect for our party. Their desserts are also perfectly delicate, something I was not about to teach myself how to do for tea. We picked up a small assortment of cakes, madeleines, and Earl Grey shortbread.

Etiquette: In which you display impeccable manners

18th century etiquette can either be a prudish bore or a fun look into the past, depending on how exactingly they are enforced. In the case of your eventual meeting with the Queen mum, here are some helpful tips to guide you:

  • Contrary to popular belief, the event is known as an afternoon tea, not a high tea. The 'high' refers to the fact that this tea service is taken at the dinner table, instead of on the couch.
  • Tea time was a midday snack amongst the well-heeled. That means one does not simply attack the towering plate of goodies, no matter how hungry.
  • The napkin goes onto the lap crease-side up. This detail seems frivolous other than the fact that, logistically, a well-starched napkin might flop like an upturned umbrella if placed the other way.
  • You're supposed to stir your tea in a back and forth motion without touching the china, like a paddle in a boat. No clinking of silverware. I read this as "don't crack the nice china with the metal spoon".
  • Pinkies down. It looks downright silly, and most etiquette specialists agree.
  • Milk or tea first - the order matters. It's apparently a hotly-debated topic for tea drinking snobs. On one hand, lower-quality tea sets were more susceptible to shattering under high temperature changes - so milk first meant lower class upbringing. On the other hand, extremely fine china is just as delicate - meaning it could signify high-class upbringing. As one of our friends puts it: the two together form a solution. Mix it as you like it.
high-tea

Words by Nick Wong. Photos by Abhishek Dekate