The woman’s house was destroyed in an air raid and the kind policeman steered her towards a salvaged chair, made her sit and uttered the magic words “You stay here. I will make you a cup of tea”. The scene is from my current flavor of the month British TV show, “Foyle’s War”, but it does sum the oft mocked British attitude towards life that a cup of tea is a panacea for life’s ills.
At the cost of being branded an Anglophile, I am inclined to agree. Coffee jumpstarts my brain but, at the end of a long day, it’s a hot cup of tea I crave . When it’s getting dark outside and I need to welcome the evening, feet propped on the coffee table. Or when my fingers are tired of typing and I need a mental break, it’s the kettle and my favourite blue mug I reach for.
It was indeed England that introduced me to this elegant pleasure, as I hail from a country where a cup of tea is synonymous with a bag of Lipton and lukewarm water. After years of methodical experimentations with blends, lemon, sugar and milk, I finally settled on Lapsang Souchong as my afternoon tea of choice – black, smoky and astringent – while only Japanese green tea will do for a mid-morning break. That tea comes with anti-oxidants and cancer fighting properties it’s a bonus I discovered along the way, but not the reason why I drink it. If coffee urges you into action, tea invites you to unwind, to press the pause button – it could even be that it leads to introspection and meditation. Maybe the English have it right?
If the idea of afternoon tea (or high tea as it’s sometimes called in the States, when it’s served with all the trimmings) makes you think of stuffy tea rooms, tea cozies and old lace, you probably haven’t kept up with the (tea) times. In London, even if Brown’s still makes the flakiest scones and the Ritz still serves afternoon tea in silver pots, it’s easier to come across trendy and sleek tea rooms, with sometimes inventive takes on sausage rolls and cucumber sandwiches.
I am no stranger to tea rooms. In my former job, I was tasked to introduce a tea service that would reflect the Mediterranean menu the restaurant normally serves. No easy task, as tea is as far from the Mediterranean culture as sushi. But the project provided a good excuse to visit plenty of tea rooms here in Los Angeles, from the stodgy British ones with scones made from a mix to the swanky Beverly Hills ones, that have married tea and glitz. And I love organizing afternoon teas at my house, as an excuse to get girlfriends together for a good chat.
Here are my simple guidelines to an afternoon of tea, cakes and merriment, without having to channel Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey
Tea – Try and serve a few different blends, even if black tea is what normally gets served in the afternoon. While staying away from straight green tea that doesn’t merry well with sweets, you can create flavor profiles ranging from a mild white tea through a pleasant black like Darjeeling or Early Grey, ending with something strong like my Lapsang Souchong. This requires more than one tea-pot and this is where girlfriends come to the rescue. Always warm your teapot prior to brewing by sloshing some boiling water around it.
Food – No need to purchase a tea tower just yet! I usually serve one savoury item and two sweets. For the savoury, I like the idea of tiny sandwiches, bread crust removed, filled with either lox, smoked mackerel or cucumber and cream cheese but I have experimented with prosciutto and fig jam and other unorthodox offerings. English Scones (pronunciation rhymes with “gone” in the British Isles) are non negotiable. They are different from their US cousins and more akin to what we consider biscuits: barely sweet, lightly dotted with currants, they are served warm, cut in half and smothered with jam and clotted cream. (Here is a reliable scone recipe). As clotted cream is practically impossible to come by on these shores, I make my own approximation by whipping 2 parts mascarpone cheese to 1 part heavy cream. You can lightly sweeten it with sugar but it’s not necessary.
Finally, there will be a simple cake.
China – If you inherited a tea set from your grandma, this is the time to take it out and have fun with it. If not, just mix and match pretty dessert plates and mugs. No need to set a proper table. I like for my tea parties to be buffet style but make sure there is plenty of space around the seating area where guests can set their cups and plates. Not a fan of paper napkins – cotton ones, even mismatched, sit more nicely on your guests’ laps.
Even when not all the guests know each other, an afternoon tea helps usher in an atmosphere of conviviality that might be harder to reach around a dinner table. And, right about now, even in sunny LA, I can’t think of a better way of spending a Sunday afternoon.