I am a tea lover. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I am a tea totaler, because I love booze like Brick Tamland* loves lamp. But I do prefer tea over coffee, and I do drink it every morning like a ritual. And I do love to find an occasion to have tea in the afternoon.
I’m not talking about iced tea here. I am talking about a good, hot cup of English tea, complete with sugar and milk. To me, that’s REAL tea.
We have been cleaning out the basement at our house and finally unpacked a few boxes of items donated by Mark’s grandparents. One of the boxes that we unpacked contained some treasures that Maddy and I had fallen in love with and packed away for ourselves. One of these treasures is a floral tea pot, circa the late 1950’s. It inspired me to rebuild my collection of vintage tea cups that I lost in a house fire many years ago.
Then it occurred to me: I have never hosted an afternoon tea party! That will be coming up next.
The actual taking of tea in the afternoon developed into a social event sometime in the late 1830’s and early 1840’s. It was Anne, Duchess of Bedford, one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting, who is credited for first “inventing” Afternoon Tea, but actually it had been a gradual evolution. The gap between lunch and supper was widening, so Anne started asking for tea and small cakes to be brought to her private quarters. I am sure she quickly realized that a lot of gossip could be shared if she invited other ladies to her quarters to share her cakes.
Queen Victoria herself was encouraged to start hosting her own parties as a way of re-entering society after the passing of her beloved husband, Albert. Legend has it that this was when a cake was named Victoria Sponge and served at her tea parties, which became large affairs. Other women picked up on the idea and it spread like wildfire. Thus, the ritual of afternoon tea began. Women do know how to get things done.
When I moved to London, aside from loving pints and crisps** every day, I was having an amazing cup of tea pretty much anywhere I went. Not only that, but I was offered tea everywhere, all the time, all over the place. It was awesome! I celebrated the British loo*** heavily while peeing my brains out constantly.
Finally, after being there for several weeks, I decided I was going to do Afternoon Tea. And I mean do it right. And I did, a lot! The plan was to drink an entire pot of tea and eat every weird little sandwich and sweet treat offered.
I heard that the Ritz did Afternoon Tea really well and very traditionally. They host tea in the Palm Court, which is just stunning. And, they still have a dress code! Yesssss! My dream had come true! (Think Downton Abbey)
Since I didn’t really know anyone in London yet, I went by myself, which was fine, since I wouldn’t have to share any of my treats with anyone. I decided to go with the Traditional Afternoon Tea. And let me tell you, it’s not cheap. So, this was a rare treat; but it was so worth it!
Traditionally, women wore opera length gloves, long gowns, and hats. Afternoon Tea is a snazzy affair. I skipped the gloves, chose a nice, fancy summer dress and an appropriate hat. This was one occasion where I was not overdressed; perhaps I was even slightly underdressed, which almost never happens to me.
Before my time in England, I had done Afternoon Tea in the States with my grandmother. We would go to the Russian Tea Room in NYC yearly, as a treat. And while I was living in San Francisco, I had Afternoon Tea at the Fairmont. Both were lovely, but none could stand up to my experience in London. It’s possible that just being in London made the difference.
Some say that London’s delicious, vintage water makes British Tea very British, sort of like the lovely scent of the Thames wafting through the air like a soft summer breeze. Whatever it was, (not the Thames) the experience was amazing.
In the end, I didn’t eat all of my treats; it was impossible. But I did take a bite out of everything, save the coronation chicken, which I couldn’t eat, because I am a vegetarian and it would have been very improper to barf all over the lovely Palm Court. Go America!
I felt that the traditional tea menu was brilliant, designed to hold you over in between lunch at noon and dinner at eight. The light, tiny sandwiches and sugary treats, along with the caffeine in the tea, definitely perk you up and prepare you for being fabulous for the rest of the day.
So, now to prepare my own Afternoon Tea Party, dreams of clotted cream are dancing in my head. Expect your invitation soon!
*Brick Tamland is a very intelligent and important Weatherman in San Diego. He is so impressive that he was invited to be part of the cast of the movie Anchorman.
**In England, crisps are potato chips, and chips are french fries; who are you people? Don’t you watch any British TV?
***The loo is the bathroom, silly.