The component “courses” of an classic English afternoon tea
For a traditional afternoon English tea there is a world of choice, but the common formula is:
- A selection of dainty finger sandwiches with savoury fillings (2-4 varieties).
- Something from the repertoire of “bready” goods that are themselves not wholly sweet but are typically served with jams or honey: e.g., scones (the most common now), crumpets, toasted bread, toasted tea cakes, or muffins (as in “English muffins”, not sweet American-style cakey muffins).
- And finally, something sweet in the cake line, usually an assortment if you are having tea “out”, sometimes including pâstisserie such as éclairs or lemon tartlets to accompany the traditional English cakes. I would add here special biscuits.
- This is not traditional, and certainly not a separate “course”, but I generally include some salad and fruit garnishes, sometimes a salad of leaves and edible flowers, sometimes a slaw or other raw vegetable preparation (in which case a fork is needed, so not suitable for finger-food-only teas), sometimes crudités or even just a few cherry tomatoes.
Even more than going out for an afternoon tea – where one is presented with the three-tiered tea-stand that invariably comes to the table stacked top-to-bottom with sandwiches, scones/cream/jam, and cakes and pastries – I love the sight of a homely tea table arranged with a whole cake or two (one plain, one fancy), and plates of little sandwiches and scones that people help themselves to, buffet style. That’s the kind of tea party I like to throw, with unashamedly pretty tablecloths and mismatched china. If it’s just a few people, I set another table for seating, with the tea cups at each place setting and a pot for each table. If we are too many for a sit-down affair and go for a stand-up garden party sort of occasion, I set out the tea cups for people to choose, and take turns to do pouring-duty with the pot, “being mother” for my guests.
I also love the ad-hoc charm of the village fête “tea tent”, with volunteered hand-made fairy cakes and flapjacks, lemon drizzles and fruit loaves. I always feel pleasantly cast back in time on such occasions (our own village hall pre-dates the First World War and its crockery was last renewed sometime in the 1950s – things I like about it and wouldn’t change, though I may be in a minority).
And there is no denying that a mug of builder’s tea at one’s desk, with or without a digestive biscuit or custard cream, can be a lifesaver too, no pomp or ceremony required. So plain or simple, party-style or solo, afternoon tea is a pleasant thing when one can manage it.
We clearly don’t honour the tea ritual as we used to, but the ideal endures as a comforting vision of a less-pressured life, one with ample time to bake cakes, trim crusts off thinly sliced bread, cut out floury scones, and meet up with friends at their relaxed best for unrushed, amiable discourse.
Well, there’s no better remedy for wanting than doing — so if you are starved for an hour or two of teatime tranquillity, think about throwing a party for a few good friends and make a fun occasion of it. Carve out a morning for the sandwiches and scones, bake the cake/s the day before, and put the kettle on when everyone arrives.
The elegant teas of costume drama and 19th century literature were accomplished with staff – a whole battery of cooks and servants – so don’t feel you have to do it all! A little of a few good things is a perfect formula. This is an occasion where dainty portions are just right.
The relative proportions of the traditional “three course” formula have less of the savoury, more of the sweet. Afternoon tea is not meant to be “lunch” with “dessert.” My hunch is that the savouries are there in the traditional spreads to make it possible to eat a greedy variety of sweeter things without a total blood-sugar collapse. I do prefer more of a balance, so slightly increase the proportion of savoury to sweet with some greenery or a savoury scone or cheese dish.
In terms of quantity…. For a light afternoon tea, I typically allow:
- roughly four little sandwiches per person (2 or 3 kinds);
- 1 average or 2 small scones: always one with cream and jams/honey; sometimes also one savoury variation.
- 1 or 2 pieces of cake/pastry (if 2, one rich, one simple)
- a few salad and fruit garnishes: lettuce, cherry tomatoes, celery, cucumber, strawberries, etc…
In terms of proportion and balance, this means people have about 3 different savoury tastes, and three sweet ones.
For a more substantial tea, and/or for larger numbers, I would also include one of the following:
- devilled eggs; or
- a quiche or other whole savoury tart, puff pastry feuilleté or frittata that can be made served at room temperature; or
- a hot cauliflower cheese, Welsh rarebit, or other cheesy casserole; or
- a plate of anchovies-on-toast, leeks-on-toast, or mushrooms-on-toast, put under the grill just before everyone is ready to help themselves.
Sandwiches are higher labour than a quiche or casserole and have to be made closer to eating, so I prefer to include a do-ahead dish to increasing the quantity of sandwiches, unless I have help.
Foremost of the classic English cakes designed for afternoon tea is the Victoria sponge: a light two-layer cake with jam and sometimes buttercream or whipped cream filling, sprinkled lightly on top with sugar.
According to Constance Spry, in her wonderfully lavish descriptions of tea time from the perspective of the 1950s, such a freshly baked “sugared” cake would often be accompanied by a “plum” cake – what would now be known as a fruit cake: solid, rich, and long-lasting.
Well, there are no rules to this, and things have changed, but the principle of one “plain”, one “fancy” seems a good guideline to me for a larger group tea party, where more than one cake is needed. On such occasions I am partial to a seed cake or pound cake, along with something more decorated (see Seed cake and story). For a lavish tea I would also have one or two smaller pâtisserie: lemon curd tarts, perhaps, apricot almond madeleines, little éclairs, or profiteroles. But if I’m having just a few people for tea, I would choose one special cake to be the sweet centrepiece without competition from anything else.
Three tea sandwiches
Home-grown cucumber w/ borage flowers & herb butter
Home-cured three-citrus salmon with dill lemon mayonnaise
Rare roast beef sliced very thinly with horseradish cream and watercress
Curried devilled eggs
Lettuce leaves w/ edible flowers, celery, cherry tomatoes
Whole English strawberries
A choice of teas
2. Traditional English afternoon tea for eighteen:
Radish and cucumber on baguette rounds with salted herb butter
Curried chicken and chutney triple-decker fingers
Shaved celery salad with rocket and lemon dressing
Lettuce leaves with edible flowers; cherry tomatoes; spring onions
Scones with cream and raspberry jam, or honey-ginger-apricot conserve
English strawberries with mint
Cornish butter and lavender shortbread
Homemade ham spread with pickle relish in tomato “baskets”
Finger sandwiches of chicken mayonnaise with tarragon and grapes
Cheddar and red pepper sandwich triangles
Sweet corn and bacon mini muffins with chive butter
Green bean salad on lettuce cups
Bread and butter pickles
Elegant Pound Cake with peaches and cream
Caramel pecan “millionaires”
Iced tea with mint and strawberries
4. Scandinavian-inspired tea for eight:
Salad platter with radishes, cucumbers in dill vinaigrette, celery with goat’s cheese
Cherry tomatoes, white asparagus spears, lettuces
Coffee and a choice of teas