#Afternoon_Tea & Friends
“I believe it is customary in good society to take some slight refreshment at five o’clock.” (Algernon from Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”.)
We set up the date for tea, weeks ago. It was a condolence call of sorts. A dear friend, Gia, who lives in #London lost her aged mother in November. Jim and I were back in the States at the time and couldn’t make the trip to Italy to attend the funeral. But our friend is very special and the occasion too important not to acknowledge in some fashion. We proposed #afternoon_tea, the most sensible and civilized of all English traditions. Gia was keen on the idea.
But where to go? Five years ago, the three of us opted for a low-key, informal tea.
That simply would not do in this case. Condolences demanded top tier—-the Savoy, Ritz, Dorchester, Claridges, #Brown’s. London is, if you’ll pardon the expression, awash with afternoon teas. Seems in the two centuries since the tradition was born, afternoon tea is more popular than ever.
We tried the Savoy–“Comfier chairs,” said Gia.”And the food,” she added with a sigh, “it never stops.” But savvy Londoners and visitors alike must know about the plush chairs. Despite the 50 pound ($76.50) per person cost plus a 12.5% ‘discretionary’ service charge, the first open Saturday was three months in the future. Apparently those with idle hours in the middle of the day don’t care that a packet of Twinings—-enough Earl Grey for a fortnight—-could be theirs at Sainsbury’s for under 4 pounds. Tushes must be cushioned and palates pleased at any price.
But afternoon tea isn’t about the cost, the venue or even the eponymous liquid from which it takes its name. An afternoon away from angry work tussles and monotonous routines is special—-rejuvenation without massage, refreshment without alcohol, relaxation without sleep. But tea-totallers are not alone to squeeze into low tables and uncomfortable chairs–champagne is also offered.
With the Savoy, Claridges and Dorchester unavailable on our designated date, I suggested Brown’s Hotel, recently voted the most quintessential of English teas–located in #Mayfair, mere blocks from the Ritz and Berkeley Square.
Gia, another friend, David and I had tea there in October of 1991, a mini-reunion of sorts. The three of us met in 1986 at London Business School. Never mind that David got deathly ill after that earlier tea and spent the night running to the toilet, blame placed on smoked salmon sandwiches. David could be with us in spirit. Tea is about tradition after all. We raised our cups to our friend and his delicate constitution.
We arrived promptly at 4:30. An email warned that the table was ours for ninety minutes. Perhaps it’s the English way to politely limit the intake of tea and nibbles–Old Country Buffet take note. We crouched onto the low chairs and sofa. Tiny chairs and tables reminiscent of a child’s party are part of the tradition.
One chooses tea preference from a long list of blends: black, green, herbal and fusion. We made it simple, all opting for darjeeling. Two shiny silver pots quickly arrived steeping with aromatic leaves—-never, never, never bags. A third pot provided a reservoir of hot water to replenish the brown liquid. Does one add milk to the cup before or after tea is poured?
Then the feast begins, genteel grazing of course with tiny plates, forks and napkins. A caddy with two plates of savories topped by a third of colorful tea cakes, a gentle reminder to leave room for dessert.
Five sandwich varieties are offered, crustless, dainty and of course…traditional. Smoked salmon, cucumber, ham & cheese, egg mayonnaise and chicken. Our delightful server offered to replenish the sandwiches as often as we liked. (NOTE: One should consider skipping lunch and dinner when taking afternoon tea.)
The next course draws squeals from all—-warm scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream—-a sticky mess of delectable goo.
How could something so delicious and innocent be embroiled in controversy? It’s not the scones themselves, but the cream and jam, or more precisely, the order in which one applies the ambrosia that causes strife. #Cornwall and #Devon, two English counties that each lay claim to cream teas, are at the center of the spat. Cream first and jam second or vice versa? As bitter a battle as whether ketchup or mustard makes a true #Chicago hotdog.
To quote a former US Secretary of State—“At this point, what difference does it make?” Is there no room for compromise, a modest proposal? How about the swirl technique? Mix both toppings on a plate, dolloping them onto the scone in the spirit of equality.
No doubt, good Lords, Ladies, and Downton devotees would toss their crumpets at the thought with cries of, Colonial rubbish!
After scones, fighting urges to lick your plate, knife and any other surface coated with clotted cream, it’s time for sweets or as some hungry Hobbits call it, second dessert.
At last, time to dig into the petite tea cakes that have stared you in the face–creamy mousses and delicate flavors evoking an English garden– rose, violet and strawberry.
But wait! There’s more!
A choice of hefty slices of red-velvet cake or Victoria Sponge.
How could one resist?
Okay, now it’s time for those dainty tea cakes….. (At last you decide to cancel your dinner reservation)
So, that’s a traditional English tea—-never, never, never high tea.
But just as Lewis Carroll’s mad tea party wasn’t about tea, our afternoon wasn’t really about cucumber sandwiches, scones and clotted cream, sweet cakes or even tea either. Much of life plays out below the surface in subtext, shorthand and rich, unspoken passages. Our lovely Saturday at Brown’s Hotel did the same. Conversation glided over a thirty-year landscape—-shared experiences, personal joys, triumphs, tragedy and loss. Discussion piloted toward the horizon—-hopes, worries, dreams…
…friendships nurtured over time by admiration, respect, concern, and yes…tea!
But Wait! There’s More!
If I haven’t overstayed my allotted time in your life, and you’d like to linger a bit longer at afternoon tea, might I suggest you lift yourself off your tiny tea chairs and meander to the cloak closet digesting this morsel from Lewis Carroll. Everyone’s favorite tea party:
Chapter 7, A Mad Tea Party (Lewis Carroll–Alice in Wonderand)
There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it: a Dormouse was sitting between them, fast asleep, and the other two were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it, and the talking over its head. `Very uncomfortable for the Dormouse,’ thought Alice; `only, as it’s asleep, I suppose it doesn’t mind.’
The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: `No room! No room!’ they cried out when they saw Alice coming. `There’s PLENTY of room!’ said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table.
`Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.
Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. `I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.
`There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.
`Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,’ said Alice angrily.
`It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,’ said the March Hare.
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