From the dizzying heights of the three-tiered cake stand comes the siren song of pure decadence. Crab + watercress sandwiches without the crusts, mini quiches, scones with clotted cream, macaroons… There’s no doubt about it – High Tea is heaven-in-the-mouth for the mid-afternoon.
Bite-size edibles are my downfall. There’s something so Alice in Wonderland about them. I go weak at the knees for tartlets, baby brûlées and mini choc mousses dusted with fine sugar. Add tea in bone china, the chance to frock up plus the company of friends, and the afternoon is surfing close to perfection for me.
We have the 3pm tummy rumblings of the Duchess of Bedford to thank for the institution of afternoon tea. Queen Vic’s bestie complained of a “sinking feeling” in the endless stretch from lunch til din-dins. (I hear you, Ducky.) High tea is to afternoon tea, what Hermione Granger is to Winnie Cooper. It’s similar, but one of them has magic.
Quintessentially English, this tradition comes with its own set of etiquette. Don’t dunk your bickies. Stir your tea clockwise from 6 o’clock. And put your pinkie down – coy crooking is so last season. But hosting the ultimate High Tea is as simple as painting by numbers. Trust me.
The invitation: Cordially invite your guests to join you for an afternoon of indulgence. Old-school cards add a touch of distinction but even Facey can be classy if you use the right language. Add some ‘kindly’s and ‘in honour of’s and mind your p’s and q’s – think Pride and Prejudice or Downton Abbey for form.
The occasion: High Teas are perfect for marking your milestone events or just whiling away the pm (aka gossiping). From bridal and baby showers to birthdays, retirements and hen’s parties, a smidge of British tradition works a treat. Add in a theme (e.g. Art Deco or Jane Austen) or ask your guests to bring their favourite recipe to help break the ice.
The frock: Whether your style is Phyrne Fisher, Betty Draper or something more contemporary, High Tea offers the perfect excuse to celebrate your femininity. As hostess, channel your inner Stepford wife with Royal Albert and Anna Gare’s ranges of vintage aprons (even if you’re serving someone else’s homemade treats).
The setting: Creating the right tone does half the work for you. High tea and garden parties go hand in hand. It’s the dappled shade and the heady scents of summer. But if you don’t have access to the manor this weekend, don’t despair. A bit of shabby-chic, vintage florals and chintzy prints goes a long way to transforming an apartment or small home.
Go to town with your table setting. Too much is not enough (almost). For the traditionalist, there are linen napkins, sugar cubes and vintage fabric bunting. Plus a sumptuous floral centrepiece adds fragrance and natural accents.
The china: When it comes to tableware, you’re spoilt for choice thanks to the likes of Lord Wedgwood and his mates Royal Albert and Maxwell & Williams. It’s hard not to fall in love with the elegance and old-world charm of those dainty cake plates, coasters and tiny forks. Noritake offers a more contemporary take with its diverse collection in porcelain and fine bone china.
A teapot and matching teacups make a great start (and a great gift). And of course, the all-essential tiered cake stand. Work your way up to a fine bone china tea strainer, sugar and creamer set. Those with a keen eye will do well to pair a few feature pieces with quirky op shop finds for delightful eclectic style.
The goodies: Whether it’s Great Gatsby black tie with all the frills or a 70s revival with upside-down pineapple cake, cream horns and fondant fancies, the treats are pretty much the raison d’être. Traditionally the tiers offer the following (and in this order!):
– Top: scones with clotted cream
– Middle: finger sandwiches and savouries – think exquisite little triangles of taste like salmon and herbed cream
– And finally, petite tartlets and pastries – small in size but large in calories, I mean flavour
But feel free to break the rules. (It drives the Brits mad.)
The tea: Loose leaf is the only way. Tea bags are blasphemy. The order of the day is sugar cubes followed by finely sliced lemon (for black tea only), then piping hot tea. The milk goes in last. But never in the company of lemon. Another sin (!).
For the purist, Earl Grey and Darjeeling are flavours of choice. Or opt for more specialist varieties like Lady Grey, Russian Caravan and green teas. Lord Wedgwood offers a range that reminiscing his adventures about the globe. Or iced tea makes a nice change for the warmer months.
For a superior brew, time as per following:
– Assam, Ceylon, Darjeeling Black Tea : 3-5 minutes
– Chinese, Keemun, Yunnan or Szechwan Black Tea: 3-4 minutes
– Chinese Green Tea (Lung Ching, Pi lo chun): 4 -6 minutes
– Japanese Green Tea (Sencha, Bencha, Gyokuro): 1-3 minutes
– Oolong Tea: 1-7 minutes
Or hang it all and opt for bubbles.
And lastly, the icing on the cake: Cultivate a charming ambience (if you will) with the dulcet tones of Nina Simone or Madeleine Peyroux, or mix it up with a bit of ABBA and Justin Bieber (for the bold).
However you play it, you’re destined to be caught fork in mouth. Just don’t gesture with your cutlery!