This past Easter, I produced not one but, ahem, three near-perfect dozens of tufty teatime scones. This boast is made for two reasons. First, no nervous baker can help declaring her rare victory over wheat and fat. Second, these scones became the foundation for an afternoon tea. As memory of that meal remains hot and fresh as once were its thirty-six treats, I am obliged to speak very strongly about afternoon tea.
No. Not the event itself. Far be it from me to propose your menu. This may be formed with any sort of dainty from any sort of cook. We should say, I suppose, that a teapot is a minimum requirement. Otherwise, bring on the brownies, shao mai and vegan pastries all at once. Have a pot noodle encore and wear a cronut as a fancy lady hat. The afternoon tea may be made humbly and chiefly with flour. It may be your most extravagant hour.
The point of the thing is to take a cheeky non-meal of little things when you know you probably shouldn’t.
The point of the afternoon tea is not to observe British traditions, whose terms were likely never set by a British Duchess. The point of the thing is to take a cheeky non-meal of little things when you know you probably shouldn’t.
In my view, the only truly British thing about the afternoon tea is its name. Let’s talk about that. Strongly. So strongly, that the spoon will stand up in the brew of my long-steeping rage.
A high tea is not an afternoon tea. In fact, the term “high tea” designates a particular meal; a meal that does not take place in the afternoon. Ergo in using “high tea” and “afternoon tea” interchangeably, diners might cheat themselves out of an extra meal.
High tea is a thing eaten at 6PM. Some sources define it as the last meal of the day served to children, but a greater number define it as the early evening meal of working people.
And, “high” is never to be understood as a synonym for “posh”. Sure, there are disputes about the thing “high” describes, but no serious scholar of AFTERNOON TEA will tell you that “high” means “genteel” or rather stuffy. One sort of history has it that “high” was a silly old working-class muddle-up of the true “low” tea of nobility, and, no, that makes no sense to me, either. Another sort of history—the less romantic sort—has “high” referring to the high table at which hungry men and women sat the minute they came home exhausted. It’s probably that one.
In using “high tea” and “afternoon tea” interchangeably, diners might cheat themselves out of an extra meal.
Either way, a “high tea” is not the thing you take at two or three and is unlikely to be a relaxing affair. It’s the thing you put in yourself to stay alive.
Afternoon tea. That tea which is taken in the afternoon. You may, if you will, refer to this delicate rite as “tea”; I understand there are those whose love for pinwheel sandwiches is so extreme, they have no mouth space to form a long word like “afternoon”. An invitation to your tea I will accept. Call it Devonshire or call it Cornish cream. Look. Frankly. You can call it “various snacks at my house”. Just. Please. Do not. CALL IT A HIGH TEA.
I understand that this battle for afternoon naming rights can never be won. Not on this continent. I am a little cheered to learn that Melbourne’s The Hotel Windsor is sufficiently stubborn to call the treat by its name, but I still mourn the erasure of “afternoon tea” shortly before the closure of Sydney’s Observatory Hotel. Now, that was an afternoon tea, overseen by a Balinese tea master and long preserved by an old-school English master of hospitality. Still. This afternoon of affordable and utter leisure is gone and soon, the phrase “afternoon tea”.
No! The high tea is a meal that must be eaten and the afternoon tea is one we have because we can.
Make a scone or brew a pot or crack out the preserves/dumplings/labneh. Sit with others for a bit and eat and talk as though this were a holiday. A holiday stolen from the business of work and of everyday life. This is the afternoon tea.
Lead image from Flickr (Robin Zebrowski).
Helen Razer is your frugal food enthusiast, guiding you to the good eats, minus the pretension and price tag in her weekly Friday column, Cheap Tart. Don't miss her next instalment, follow her on Twitter @HelenRazer.
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