Teatime is the most important part of the day in my home. It’s unhurried, relaxing, unfettered by the need to include multiple food groups. The time is not fixed, falling somewhere in the late afternoon hours. Teatime has, in fact, come to stand for a hard stop in the day, not a feeble pause. On offer is something sweet, something savoury and a beverage of choice—usually hot. There’s usually a book to go with it.
We associate afternoon tea with the British, with the pretty china, formal table setting, scones with clotted cream and cucumber or bacon sandwiches. There’s a century-old story of how Anna, the duchess of Bedford, would feel peckish (described as “the sinking feeling”) late afternoons. With dinner (or did they call it supper?) still a while away, she started what has since become the English afternoon tea tradition. And since she was nobility, it was not nutrition or calories that she was missing. So, the accompaniments to the black tea were light nibbles made with expensive foods. Soon, it became something of a social do among the upper classes, with the ladies meeting over tea.
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There are so many stories about how the dishes that have become an afternoon tea fixture came to be. Cucumber sandwiches, for one, was an upper-class dish, with thin slices of bread and thinner slices of cucumber in between. It was light, refreshing. Developments in greenhouse gardening saw the emergence of the “hothouse” cucumber, available all year. The other favourite, scones with clotted cream and jam, was supposedly favoured by the duchess. Smoked salmon, cheeses, egg and cress made their way into sandwiches, becoming standard additions to the afternoon tea party.
My daily teatime is far from this, although I do enjoy an indulgent afternoon tea once a year. The invitation comes early in December from Ms M, our family friend. The date is set for sometime around Christmas. We prepare for it by skipping lunch and wearing nice but not too tight clothes. The door opens to warm light blinking off a beautifully decorated tree and the happy exchange of hellos. The table comes into view, dressed in fine china, serviettes and flowers in a vase. Not a spoon is out of place. The goodies sit on their tiered stand: sandwiches, cakes, chocolate dipped biscuits—and pakoras and puffs, because what’s a tea without them. The tea is always Earl Grey. Conversation flows, old stories—of people, places—come tumbling out, and, at some point, someone plays the piano. There can’t be a better way to close a year.
The Ritz London Book Of Afternoon Tea: The Art & Pleasures Of Taking Tea by Helen Simpson, The Official Downton Abbey Afternoon Tea Cookbook and The National Trust Book Of Afternoon Tea by Laura Mason
Tea Nanny is a fortnightly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.