A great British institution (and I am a sucker for tradition), a comedy of manners, the perfect excuse to press the pause button on your life, and a taste marriage made in heaven; afternoon tea is all of these, and I am an addict. Having said that, it is not something you should indulge in too often, lest the flavours become too familiar. It’s a personal thing of course, but I maintain that there is absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, quite like the sensory seduction that is afternoon teaThe gentle warmth of the afternoon sun filtering through the windows onto your back; the set piece of pretending to choose certain items from the menu, when in truth you know it so well and have rehearsed it so often that you already know exactly what to have; the heady anticipation as the waitress brings over the large tray laden with the accoutrements of afternoon tea; the familiar smoky warm smell of Earl Grey curling out of the tea pot and through the tea strainer and the anticipation of all the sweetness to come.
I’m fairly catholic about afternoon tea. It’s all well and good to make cakes in the shape of Chanel dresses (and I have to admit, the Berkeley Hotel does it supremely well), but I think it’s about the good old fashioned basics; finger sandwiches without crusts, probably salmon, egg mayonnaise, ham and cucumber. The correct ratio of bread to filling, not too much butter (and it must be butter), probably white not brown bread, and no more than two dainty bites per sandwich. There has to be enough of them to satisfy the first pangs of hunger, but not too many to detract from the glory to come.
Then the scones, and I think it must be the scones next. Again, not too large, probably with raisins, cut in half and spread with strawberry jam first, then followed by a generous dollop of clotted cream. The taste explosion of clotted cream and strawberry jam is surely one of the most exciting combinations ever invented. So very hard not to have two or three, but it requires a bit of self control to allow some room to move onto the cakes.But whilst it is on my mind, there’s the difficult question of crumpets. I think the addition of crumpets is unnecessary overkill, and disturbs the delicate balance of ‘bready items’ with pure sweetness. Sandwiches followed by scones followed by crumpets is just too much of a preamble – for my money it’s scones or crumpets but never both.Then the cakes. Again, I feel quite strongly that certain cakes have a place at the afternoon tea table and others simply do not. It’s not that they aren’t good cakes, they just don’t belong at this particular ritual. For me it’s one plain Jane, namely banana bread (fruit cake is too heavy); a meringue for that Barbara Cartland moment; a fruit tart to maintain some semblance of nutrition (I kid myself) ; and a chocolate éclair – all choux pastry and no substance. Oh, and a 5” high Victoria sponge, of course, made with cream and jam, never buttercream. Cake stands are de rigeur, as is pretty cutlery and serving spoons, and seconds simply too rude.
As the tea draws to a close, the clock ticks five, and the tea pot pours empty, there is that slightly melancholy feeling that it’s all over and eaten, but of course, also the delicious anticipation of the next time.