“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” – Henry James
Afternoon tea … I should start by saying that I have indulged in far too numerous to mention every one but there have been a few which are particularly memorable for one reason or another. I’ve eaten teas that cost £10 for two, and a tea that cost £65 for two and let me tell you, cost is no indicator of either deliciousness or value for money!
Below is a picture of my daughter’s hen party at my house in 2016. Having seen the photographs of a small scale afternoon tea that I had prepared from friends, she suggested that I might like to provide similar for the home-town version of her hen party. (I think she considered that her ‘real’ hen party would be a little too raucous for her mother and other ladies of a certain age)! It was fun to prepare but harder work than I’d anticipated. I made tiny trifles in liqueur glasses and the scones were accompanied by not only the traditional strawberry jam but also blackcurrant which I prefer. It seemed that several others liked it too as the strawberry was barely touched. That’s the nice thing about a DIY version – you get exactly what you like best!
The tradition of taking afternoon tea began in 1840 and reputedly arose from the need of Anna, seventh Duchess of Bedford, to fill the hunger gap before a late dinner. At around 4pm each day she would call for bread & butter, tea & cake. She began inviting friends to join her and afternoon tea became a fashionable event, even attracting its own style of formal attire. The occasion fell out of fashion but the old tradition saw a resurgence around ten years ago and now it seems that every purveyor of tea and cakes, from high spec hotel to local garden centre, offers its version of afternoon tea.
Confusion reigns over what exactly constitutes a cream tea, afternoon tea or high tea and it depends on what one reads as to how they are defined but in general terms, a cream tea provides scones with jam and cream, afternoon tea adds to this sandwiches and cake and high tea is an altogether more substantial and includes hot food.
It is now some years since my first formal afternoon tea. Beatrix Potter’s old home, Lindeth Howe which overlooks Lake Windermere, provided the inspiration for Icing on the cake, a piece I wrote which won me a place in the final of the Press Associations Midland Media Awards. I potsed it in the early days of my blog. Click here for the link if you’d like to read it: The icing on the cake
I’ve been to some beautiful hotels and have fond memories of the teas at Brockencote Hall (in the library – oh so peaceful) and The Chateau Impney in Worcestershire, but my overall favourite tea was enjoyed at Orestone Manor (below) in South Devon. Sitting in warm sunshine on a raised terrace overlooking the wooded gardens which stretch down to Lyme Bay, it is an experience that we’re keen to repeat when we visit the area again this summer. That the large, fresh scones tasted amazing was a bonus!
The Four Teas in Stratford upon Avon is a 1940’s style cafe where Glen Miller provides the background music whilst authentically dressed staff serve customers in surroundings which resemble a war-time sitting room. It’s reasonably priced and the food, thank goodness, is not subject to rationing! But this place is more about the fun experience than the elegance of presentation.
At Marco Pierre White’s restaurant in Birmingham several of us went to celebrate a friend’s ‘big’ birthday. It’s the only afternoon tea where I’ve even found it necessary to request more jam and cream! The tiny pots held enough for no more than the smallest smear of each. No complaints about the taste though. The surroundings are super-smart and the views stretch right across the city.
Bettys of Harrogate: the surroundings were elegant, the pianist excellent and the parlour palms added atmosphere. The tiny cakes were exquisite (see below) but the sandwiches were woeful. I know the by-word for afternoon tea is dainty but they were minuscule and filled with the thinnest of filling imaginable. We had bought some of the famous Bettys ‘Fat Rascals’ (a cross between a rock cake and a scone with a cherry and almond face) to take home with us and felt hungry enough to eat them on the train! This is rare indeed; a carbohydrate-laden afternoon tea usually means that nothing else is required until the following breakfast time. You pay of course for the reputation of Bettys but I didn’t think it warranted £32.50 a head.
A local hotel serves what is probably the best value for money afternoon tea I’ve encountered – £9.99 a head and so much food. It wasn’t the most elegant or dainty but the food was tasty and the portions very generous. Twelve of us went and the staff regularly topped up the tea and coffee and variously asked whether we needed more sandwiches/cream/jam. They even encouraged us to take the leftovers home.
And finally, my daughter-in-law and I took the grandsons to a garden centre which has a soft-play area and decided to have the ‘lunchtime afternoon tea’. Expectation wasn’t enormous but we had a choice of cheese or ham sandwich, a scone with jam and cream and a couple of small cakes with coffee for something ridiculous like £7 for the two of us and do you know what – it was excellent. We shared with the little boys and it made a very reasonably priced lunch for the four of us.
Afternoon tea, it seems, is not necessarily a case of ‘you get what you pay for’.