I realised I’d not posted a Monday Munchies recipe since last year (okay, I know that was only two weeks ago!) and thought I should really get back to baking.
However, the last mince pie has only just left the building and we still have a massive slab of Christmas cake to work our way through. So to add more treats to the temptation list seemed a little unfair to the holiday waistband!
Of course, this didn’t stop me eating cake last week when I met up with my friend and we decided to indulge in Afternoon Tea. This tasty activity, conjuring images of being quintessentially British, is something I have said on more than one occasion is one of my favourite things to do. And it is. Except I’ve only done it in the traditional sense three times, all of which have been within the last twelve months.
I am an Afternoon Tea-taking fraud.
Plenty of times I’ve gone out and consumed a sandwich, followed by a slice of cake, washed down with good cup of Yorkshire Tea (other tea brands do exist!) but the size of the individual portions alone knocks them straight out of the ‘Afternoon Tea’ category.
So instead of baking, today’s Monday Munchies will discuss: What is Afternoon Tea?
Let’s begin with a little history.
Back in the day of real-life period dramas and all things Dickensian or Downton, folk generally only ate two meals a day: Breakfast and an evening meal around 8pm.
For the poor 7th Duchess of Bedford, this was far too long waiting to be fed and she demanded something be done about it. Clearly, her sugar levels were dropping mid-afternoon and as a solution, a pot of tea and a light snack was consumed in her bedchambers. You know, in case she felt the need to lie down after all that heavy sandwich lifting…
After a while, she began to get lonely, so invited friends to join her, suggesting that they also walk off the meal with a stroll in the fields afterwards. Word soon got around and every lady socialite was clamouring to host afternoon tea parties and chat over tiny delicacies.
Once Queen Victoria got in on the act, that was it – it filtered out to the masses and her minions. Even grubby street urchins were seen to partake in nibbling miniature mud cakes and Sweeney Todd’s actual finger sandwiches.
Okay, maybe not that last part…
What my research revealed was a version called ‘High Tea’ – I had heard of this before, thinking it was just a posher way of describing the same thing. Seems not.
In a topsy-turvy turn of events, the traditional afternoon tea of finger sandwiches, scones and a variety of cakes was called ‘low tea’ and was reserved for the upper classes (talk about confusing!)
High Tea was a variant invented by the lower, working classes that allowed them to indulge in the pastime but at a later hour. Like when the coal mines kicked out for the day or the fishing boats came back in. When everyone was famished.
The ‘high’ possibly referred to the height of the table it was served on – a higher, family kitchen table, as opposed to lounging around on your chaise longue, ringing a tiny bell for service.
It also explains why I, and many of my native Yorkshire folk, will utter the words, ‘What ya done fer tea?’ Loosely translated as, ‘What have you lovingly prepared Dearest, to be served for dinner this evening?’
Don’t get me started on why lunch is dinner or dinner is tea and whether supper actually exists outside of Enid Blyton books!
I’m northern. Tea will be served and it could come in a mug or be a full meal on a plate. The context of the situation explains what is meant. Or you could read this fabulous article, it explains it far better than me!
Anyway, I digress.
Perhaps I’m too northern, too working class, to enjoy Afternoon Tea in the manner it was intended. Of the three times I’ve experienced it, it has never been a long, leisurely drawn out affair, more ‘we need to eat, let’s be a bit fancy about it.’
Experience one: Bettys
If you live in the UK, especially the north of Britain, you’ve likely heard of Bettys Tea Room. Having establishments across Yorkshire, it is a massive tourist attraction, with daily queues around the building at the one in York.
We were in York shopping. We were hungry. ‘Let’s go for afternoon tea,’ I said.
‘I’m not queuing, I’d rather get a burger…’ he said.
The queue was surprisingly short, only about ten people in it. So I managed to convince S to stand in the cold, among the tourists taking selfies against a window full of cakes. It still took us about twenty five minutes to gain entry but listening to the woman behind tell anyone who was listening about her frequent visits for tea at The Ritz, passed the time.
Once inside, you are presented with a very traditional, silver service set-up, where the staff wear mop caps and frilly aprons. I think I imagined the mop caps.
We were seated downstairs, in a wood panelled room, that reminded me somewhat of being on the Titanic. I did think we were quite crammed in – trying to navigate the tables on the way to the toilets was a feat in itself.
Presented with the menu, S’ mood sank faster than that boat I thought we were on.
‘Twenty quid EACH, for a few sandwiches and a coffee?’
‘Tea,’ I reminded him.
‘That’s worse. I hate tea!’
I tried to explain we were paying for the experience. S wasn’t buying it. Indeed, at £18.95 a head for their basic afternoon tea package, it did seem a little steep: Finger sandwiches (none of which had fillings that leaped out at me), a scone and some other ‘treats’, plus an extensive array of teas that could rival any wine list.
We opted for a crumpet and a scone, both of which were delightful and came presented on a tiered, silver tray. Although, when we left, we went in search of a burger…
Experience two: Vanessa’s
This artisan delicatessen is very close to us, selling delicious pastries and savoury goodness, with ingredients sourced locally. It also has a very well regarded tea room upstairs – here too, people will happily queue to get in.
S took me for my birthday lunch last year, so we could sample their afternoon tea menu, which at £20 for two, was far more reasonable in our opinion.
Vanessa’s are also proud to be Yorkshire folk and you’ll find no scrimping on portion sizes here: Huge scones, large triangles of traybake cakes and chunky, full-sized sandwiches (of your choice, not theirs). There is not a dainty finger bread in sight.
Nor was there anything dainty about the way we troughed through it in about twenty minutes! Admittedly, we had gone out late, had to queue and it was now a long time since eating breakfast. We were ravenous and it was all so delicious that we couldn’t help ourselves.
Rolling back home, we didn’t eat again that day. Perhaps there’s something to be said for finger snacks.
Experience Three: Patisserie Valerie
This bakery / tea room has just opened near us, although they are a chain and have outlets across the UK.
It was very quiet in the cafe. Our ‘Valerie’ is part of a department store, so I’m sure the little old ladies who were out, snapping up slippers in the sale, thought we were a little over the top with a selection of mini snacks and being fussed over by the staff.
That said, it was all very nice (£25 for two) and although not as filling as Vanessa’s, we couldn’t eat it all and asked the staff to box some cakes up.
The sandwich choices were standard (salmon, cucumber, egg and ham) plus an extremely tasty, chicken and sun-dried tomato version. There were also some mini quiches which I thought were a good addition to the savoury offerings. And thankfully no macaroons – not a fan.
Although we took longer to eat it, we could have had just as lovely a time and catch up with a large slice of carrot cake.
So there we have it. Am I doing it all wrong? What are your experiences? I’d be interested to hear if there are regional or even international variations on the basic menu.
S really doesn’t see what the fuss is about, still. If we were characters in Game of Thrones, afternoon tea is how I feel they eat in Kings’ Landing and Highgarden. Yet S would likely agree we’re more Stark, preferring to chuck a piece of meat on the table that everyone can dig into and tear a piece off.
Still, there’s part of me that channels my inner Sansa and just loves those tiny lemon cakes…
Image Credits: My own, plus giphy.com, afternoontea.co.uk, gameofthroneswiki and Comedy Central (If you’ve not watched Another Period, you should!)