There is nothing, nothing, more English than afternoon tea. I say “English” very deliberately here, because it is the beating heart of an England that never was. Or maybe never could be – a time between the wars, or maybe before, a time where the afternoon sun shone over a table generously spread with treats which call to your deepest parts, the simple and the sinful, and where china glitters like jewels. The ideas of Englishness and afternoon tea feel born for one another, nestled together in the shade of an Oak tree on the village green of your imagined England.
Myths vs Reality
Of course, it never really existed, did it? This moment in your childhood never happened, never was. Between the hurried mugs over the kitchen table, the wodge of thinly-iced bun scarfed on the walk home after school, the orange squash from blue plastic cups in the dormitory, these were your real life, and it never seemed to match the fantasy moment. It all seemed a bit more suburban, more mundane and disappointing. Nothing came close to the magnificence alluded to in the books you read under the covers with a torch. The aching joys of Enid Blyton, the Mitfords, the biographies of your childhood heroes – oh, how I longed to be Dora Carrington, surrounded by the finest minds in the whole of the wide world and carving thick slices off giant cakes in the garden of a Georgian town house (I was an irritatingly pretentious teen and idolised the Bloombury set in a time before I realised that I was not only most unsingular, but also horribly untalented in a way the real Bloomsberries would have rather scorned, for they were terrible snobs).
But the myth of the English tea has persisted strongly, largely because our authors had a particular skill for describing it. Consider Agnes Jekyll (1922), writing of tea in the inter-war years:
“..the true spiritual home of the tea-pot is surely in a softly-lighted room, between a deep armchair and a sofa cushioned with Asiatic charm, two cups only, and these of thinnest china, awaiting their fragrant infusion, whilst the clock points nearer to six than to five, and a wood fire flickers sympathetically on the hearth”*
Or the rather fine Florence White (1932):
“”…long trestle tables literally weighed down with cups and saucers and good thing for tea out of doors for the consolation or encouragement of rival cricket teams; or between sets of tennis. Or in farmhouses where one knows a good tea will be spread if one calls in the at the right time. Or – perhaps best of all? – schoolrooms in town or country where the best toast is to be had, and a cut-and-come-again cake of which one never wearies…”
It’s all rather faded glories now, and glimpsed only in particular places. A tea-room (Betty’s of Harrogate is a rather special place), an afternoon at Claridges, or a special occasion. Places where the real world recedes and you create a little space of plenty and goodness, where you pretend for a while that you simply don’t have anywhere else to be and nothing else to do, and you simply want to eat treats with friends in a quiet place.
Of course, for my first party in Hamburg, where I wanted to meet the neighbours as party of an open-house afternoon, nothing else would do, would it?
Given that the myth of the afternoon tea is greater than the rather crushing reality – on the basis that Brits can’t possibly spend two hours a day nibbling cakes in between lunch and dinner on the regular – one must consider the occasion for a tea and what it’s for.
Afternoon tea is for nattering, for gossiping, for resting the feet and exercising the tastebuds. Nothing must be too big, or sloppy (risking a most unseemly spill), or require anything more than a tiny fork. It must be able to be left on the side awaiting a break in conversation. The focus is the companions around you, so music should be at a minimum. You should all have somewhere to sit (heaven forfend you stand! Where will you balance your tea while you eat the cake?).
That said, I’m not one of those people who insists on matching cups and saucers and the like. For a start, who has that kind of thing these days? I have a hodgepodge ragbag of cups, plates and saucers variously rescued, gifted and stolen from all sorts of places, and while I’d love to be that person who pulls out the “good china” for guests, it’s currently in storage in the UK and is a rather hard-to-love seventies brown and orange Noritake set which only I appear to like. So don’t beat yourself up about the hardware – the overall ambience is far more important.
My task was a meet-the neighbours occasion, so I wanted to showcase some classic English treats alongside some family favourites. I also wanted to try some recipes I’d been itching to make for ages but hadn’t *quite* found the right place for.
Devising a menu
Particular thought should go into the food. It must be delicious enough to pique the interest but not BECOME the focus of the conversation. The food should be able to be served quickly and without fuss, and so that guests can help themselves as required. Above all, it should be homely. You don’t need a towering pile of profiteroles, you need comfort and temptation in equal measure.
Savoury and sweet should be balanced and in these modern times a few gluten-free options considered. Personally, I don’t get constrained by the need for there to be a totally “ENGLISH FOOD” approach. In our family we always serve Malaysian curry puffs for parties and I see no reason to stop, and given they look like little Cornish pasties anyhow I consider them a MOST excellent afternoon tea food.
By the same token, while dips aren’t really an English teatime regular, they’re pretty useful to have on hand to bulk out a spread, and are also bloody tasty, so by all means throw em in there.
My menu for a September afternoon tea
The below is a combination of inspiration and adaptation based on what’s available in Hamburg, based on making enough for 12 – 16 people:
- Cheese and Chive Scones
- Devon Scones with strawberry jam and marscapone cream***
- Curry Puffs – beef and vegetarian
- Oat & Honey pumpkin-seed bread with hummus and spinach-artichoke dip
- Chocolate Olive-oil cake with ricotta buttercream
- Banana Bread
- Chocolate and walnut cardamom cookies
Treats and fancies – some recipes to tickle the fancy
Chocolate and Olive-Oil Cake
makes 1 large bundt
This is a recipe from the much-missed Lucky Peach magazine, adapted for volume. I love this cake – it’s not at all crumbly and is rich and deliciously decadent, like a grown-up brownie. The olive oil makes it beautifully rich and unctuous, without adding too much heaviness. I’m not so sure if it’s meant to be as rich as this – but the recipe is so simple it’s honestly hard to get it too wrong. I reckon if it was underbaked you could easily style it out as a pudding.
1 cup water
90 g cocoa powder
240g plain flour
400g caster sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1.5 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup EVOO
- Preheat the oven to 160C and prepare a large bundt tin with a butter-flour preparation (or a spray if that’s how you roll).
- Combine the cocoa and water in a saucepan over a medium heat, stirring constantly to avoid scorching. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then remove from the heat. It should be thickish and smell extraordinarily good. Leave to cool as much as you can.
- Whisk all of the dry ingredients together in a large bowl, ensuring there are no clumps. In a jug, combine the wet ingredients, including the oil, then pour into the dry, stirring gently to combine.
- Stir in the cocoa, then pour into the prepared pan. Tap to extrude any air bubbles then place in the middle of the oven for 45 min-1 hour. The cake is ready when a skewer poked into it comes out clean. Watch the testing, though. The deepness of a bundt tin can easily fool you into thinking that the cake is cooked through when it isn’t quite done yet.
- Leave the cake to cool in the tin, then turn out. This is ready to be eaten as is, but can be iced if you like.
- To ice, combine 120g softened unsalted butter and 50g powdered sugar with a pinch of salt in a mixer, until creamy and pale. Add a 300g pack of ricotta and beat until thickened and creamy. This icing can be piped on, but it’s rather elegant simply swirled over the surface of the cake.
makes 1 medium dish
So this is not at all English. It’s American, in fact. And it’s not really even a dip – this recipe turns out as more of a spread. But you know what? Its delicious. On the oat-honey bread it’s a revelation. It’s great on cheese scones. It makes a marvellous sandwich. And it can even be stuffed into a cannelloni if required. It’s stupid, and fatty, and probably terrible for you. So of course, I love it. Its presence on the tea table shows generosity, a taste for the delicious and – very importantly – the recognition that teatime isn’t bound by rules. It’s a little bit of what you fancy.
200g cream cheese
1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated
1/2 cup provolone cheese, grated
1/2 cup cheap “pizza mozzarella,” grated
2 tbsp soured cream
300g artichoke hearts, chopped finely (you can buy tinned artichoke hearts and I think these are the best for this dip – they’re not too expensive)
1 cup frozen spinach leaves, thawed and pressed to remove as much water as you can
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Handful shredded “soft” herbs – basil, parsley, chives or savoury. It doesn’t really matter which!
1/2 tsp crushed hot red pepper
- First, mix the cheese. Reserve around a handful for topping.
- Then, mix everything together and pile into a baking dish, topping with your reserved cheese. Bake at 180C for around 25 minutes or until bubbling and golden. Serve while hot – but remember that it’s great cold.
*Pg 89, Kitchen Essays, Persephone 
**p280, Good Things in England, Johnathan Cape Ltd 
***You can’t get clotted cream for love nor money in Hamburg. I considered subbing in some Kaymak from the local Turkish shop but couldn’t get the opportunity to try this before the party day. I opted for a 50-50 mix of whipped schlag sahne and marscapone with a touch of icing sugar, chilled to help it maintain a thick spoonable texture. It’s lighter than clotted cream, and a little sweet, but has the same “drop” consistency onto the scone which is very important