I’ve been wanting to make a point this week about afternoon tea. The thing is, the minute I write those words I know your mind goes to a certain place, or in a certain direction. I can’t perfectly predict your reference points, but I know you’ll be either thinking ‘quaint’, ‘best china’, ‘quintessentially English, ‘doilies’, and ‘Grandma’ or ‘cream tea’, ‘champagne’, ‘three-tiered silver curate’ and ‘grand hotels’. And I guess when I say afternoon tea my mind is similarly drawn to both of these stereotypes too, but what I want to talk about really is an idealised afternoon tea that is influenced by, but really nothing at all like, either of those things. More like, ‘if St john did afternoon tea’. But at home. At your home. As in, what if you did afternoon tea, as inspired by ‘if St John did afternoon tea’ and you made it your trump card when entertaining?
As meme account @real_housewives_of_clapton is always keen to point out, hipsters have come for almost all of food nowadays, and I want to avoid that sentiment here whilst also borrowing some of its colonising energy. It’s not lost on me that within a one-mile radius of Dalston Junction overground station, anything considered quintessentially British, be it the cafe, bakery, kebab shop, takeaway, corner shop or pub has been reimagined and conceptualised into a heavily branded un-branded simplified, stripped-back yet trussed up version of itself. Often the resulting cafe, bakery, kebab shop, takeaway, corner shop or pub is very pleasing indeed, and this is by no means an attempt to knock or denigrate these businesses, it is more to say the one bastion of quintessential British output that has thus far escaped the hipster's claws is the tea room, and I do hope it stays that way, although in the same breath, I want you to use the stereotypes I’ve sullied above to image an afternoon tea in their image. If you get my gist.
I don’t know if it’s a stage-of-life thing, as in, most of my immediate peers have kids now, but between naps and travel time and specific quirks of when people can and cannot meet up, it seems that often we’re trying to shoehorn lunch in at 12 or 3 pm, or having supper at 5 pm or 9 pm in order to facilitate bath time. Which is no skin off my nose, by the way, constraints promote creativity, hence this missive. Although even before this, when we lived in a little flat and only had a kitchen table fit for two people, we used to engineer get-togethers when meals could be eaten standing up, or sat about on the floor, or where food was punctuation to drinks and music and giggling, rather than the main event. So then, as now, we made a joyous spectacle of afternoon tea, the good kind, ‘if St John did afternoon tea’, yeah.
The thing is, day to day, away from entertaining, when just trying to please and sate myself on a whim, I like a Scandi bun as much as the next man, but you know what I often like even more; a scone, or an iced bun, or an Eccles cake or a cream slice, or all of the above. I sometimes want a round of sandwiches too, and often I like a rarebit or a sausage roll riding pillion to boot. I wouldn't dare turn my nose up at all of the above at once. I guess, what I am trying to say is, I really do like afternoon tea.
As I keep writing the words afternoon tea, I keep having images of what it’s conjuring for you. And I want that to stop. If I write bakery, I know most of you go to piles of sourdough, perfectly laminated croissants and clever swirls and buns all covered in cinnamon sugar or laced with cardamom, as opposed to high street bakeries where an old timer in an apron and hat serves sliced white bloomers and iced buns and gingerbread men with smarties for buttons. There’s joy in both images, but your Pavlovian conditioning brings up images of trendy bakeries before traditional bakeries, and as such I know I can make the reference and elicit the intended response. I don’t have that confidence with afternoon tea yet.
There are corners of London where my idealised afternoon tea can be secured. If you ever go to, or get taken to, Kew Gardens, then outside of its walls and on the road that runs up towards Brentford, sits The Maids of Honour. This storied tea house, named after its famous tart, leans towards the ‘doilies’ end of the spectrum, but as I have written about before, it’s pies and sausage rolls and good scones and loose-leaf tea in simple silver pots, and its Maids of Honour tarts mean you can construct a very good afternoon tea in the style of ‘if St John did afternoon tea’ better than anywhere else in London.
At the other end of the spectrum, The Wolelsey is the acceptable face of those posh spangly afternoon teas that require the three-tiered silver curates to hold your perfect sandwiches and too-clever-for-their-own-good cakes that wind up being far too sweet and complex a foil for pleasing sandwiches, good tea and your scones. The Wolseley has a glitz and glamour to it. Of course it does, but it’s perfunctory and slightly mercenary and very well-oiled too, and I mean those things in a good way, in a slick and professional and a lots-of-small-things-done-to-perfection way rather than a fireworks and gold-leaf and thick pile carpet and drapes sort of way. Anyway, The Wolseley has a menu that is ripe for afternoon tea. A rarebit or a sausage roll can be procured alongside a round of sandwiches, a couple of scones and a pot of good loose-leaf tea. Hell, you can order chips if you want, and a diet coke to boot, if it tickles you, (just don’t order a glass of champagne or you’ve ruined it.)
I feel we’re almost on the same page now. Which means we can discuss afternoon tea at home. One that sits between lunch and supper and is robust enough that, when approached with enough gusto, can replace either meal in a way that brunch tries to do in the morning but can’t quite pull off. Say people arrive between 2 and 3 pm. You can have a round or two of sandwiches primed for the peckish. I lean towards egg and cress, cucumber, smoked salmon, and (controversially) smoked mackerel pate. All on sliced white or wholemeal bread, often with the crusts off, not a doily in sight though. As people settle with a cold drink, next comes a plate or two of very fine sausage rolls replete with mustard for dipping, or a plate of Welsh rarebit, or both. It’s nearly 4 pm by now. So a pot of tea goes on and the tray of scones gets glazed and popped in the oven. Sometimes there will also be an Eccles cake, an eclair or a cream slice for good measure, often it will just be plain scones, cream and jam. There will be a pot of Darjeeling and a pot of Keemun, milk or cream for those that need it, and maybe another round of sandwiches just in case. By the time the pots of tea have been replenished and the last of the sausage rolls and rarebits polished off, it’s nearly 7 and things can go one of two ways; skulk off home feeling sated, or transition into a Guinness with the last of the rarebit and ease into a bit of a giggly night feeling full of the good stuff.
And so rests my case for afternoon tea. I expect I won’t have convinced many. And those that are nodding along are the proverbial choir to which I’m preaching. But I promise you it’s a very fun way to spend an afternoon if nothing more, and a solution to more meal times than you initially might imagine. I’ve detailed my tried and true recipes for my regular afternoon tea below, but do go and create your own at The Maids of Honour or The Wolseley if you fancy it, I certainly do.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to No Cartouche to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.