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PLEASANT MEALS IN English homes, mentioned recently at SimanaitisSays, remind me of that quintessential English practice of afternoon teas. Here are tidbits on the subject, gleaned from a little book acquired in England some 20 years ago, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.

A Little English Book of Teas, by Rosa Mashiter, illustrated by Milanda Lopez, The Applesauce Press, 1989.

Time for a Cuppa. According to Wikipedia, “Chinese legends attribute the invention of tea to the mythical Shennong [a Chinese diety] in 2737 B.C., although evidence suggests that tea drinking may have been introduced from the southwest of China (Sichuan/Yunnan area).”

The Portuguese brought chá, as it was known, to Europe in the sixteenth century; the British caught on later. “The British Empire,” Wikipedia says, “was instrumental in spreading tea from China to India; British interests controlled tea production on the subcontinent. Tea, which was an upper-class drink in continental Europe, became the infusion of every social class in Great Britain throughout the course of the eighteenth century and has remained so.”

Tea and Social Status. In her book, Rosa Mashiter says, “Although it was only considered as a light refreshment between lunch and dinner, afternoon tea was quite a serious occasion and society ladies, such as Lady Hamilton, were renowned for their prowess at tea-making.”

Illustration from A Little English Book of Teas.

Afternoon Tea versus High Tea. Lady Hamilton’s Afternoon Tea was elegantly and leisurely served on fine china (which got its name from the country of tea’s origin). By contrast, High Tea is of the working class.

The Industrial Revolution changed dining as well as working. Free from the factory in late afternoon, lads craved more than a mere cuppa. High tea, nicknamed “meat-tea,” replaced Afternoon Tea’s dainty little cucumber sandwiches with hot cooked fare. It got its name from workers sitting to table in high-backed chairs, not graciously swanning around at some garden fete.

In time, the upper class commandeered the term High Tea and its more substantial repast. The Spruce Eats describes nuances characterizing the differences today.

Image from Food Republic.

By the way, High Tea has nothing to do with the British term “High Church.” The latter is a practice within the Church of England emphasizing historical Catholic tradition sans Papal authority.

Afternoon Tea at Nunney. Wife Dottie and I fondly recall afternoon teas with Rob and Betty Walker at their Nunney Court home in Somerset. Afternoon teas would be served in Nunney’s Morning Room, rather than the adjoining, more formal Drawing Room.

The Walker’s Afternoon Tea would have a tasty selection of finger sandwiches and fresh-baked scones accompanied by clotted cream.

Classic Recipes. In A Little English Book of Teas, Rosa Mashiter says, “It is believed that it was the Phoenicians, in search of tin, who first brought clotted cream to Cornwall, and thence to Devon…. A bowl of settled cream is put into a pan of hot water before being scalded. The pan is then removed from the heat and let stand for at least 24 hours in a cool place. The crusty cream will have settled on the top of the pan, and can be easily removed with a large slotted spoon.”

Mashiter offers tips as well on cucumber sandwiches: “It is necessary to sweat the cucumber beforehand to avoid ending up with soggy sandwiches. Peel and very thinly slice some cucumber, put the slices into a colander sitting on a deep plate, sprinkle with a little vinegar and some salt all over and leave for 30-40 minutes. Shake the colander to remove any excess liquid and pat the cucumber slices dry with kitchen paper.”

“Lightly butter the bread, arrange an overlapping layer of cucumber on top, cover with another slice of lightly buttered bread and press the two together firmly. Trim off the crusts with a sharp knife and cut into four triangles. Pile neatly onto a plate, covered with a lacy doily, and serve at once.”

Who shall be mum? ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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