Sitting indoors and watching the rain, reminds me of that cold cheerless land where I grew up, namely England, where on days like this, especially if it was Sunday, we would trip down to Sussex to visit aunt Barbara and uncle Brian for tea. Though staunch post war socialists, and great crusaders in the war to transform Britain into a classless and more cosmopolitan society, Barbara and Brain were, nevertheless, thoroughly British. Afternoon tea was a necessary part of their lives, a time to unravel their anxieties and look back nostalgically.
This wasn’t just a cup of dull brown unremarkable looking liquid, but afternoon tea – a different kettle of fish by “several hundred” calories, and something in which, Barbara excelled. Tea would always be served in bone china and would be brought in on a silver tray which was lined with a beautiful white lace doily. On the two trays, which followed would be what we drove two hours down from London for an elaborate pageant of snacks and cakes. Three cheers for the invention of the savory morsel pressed inside two slices of bread, popularized by the Earl of Sandwich that has changed the eating habits of the world. Barbara’s sandwiches were dainty, with the crust shaven off and filled with razor sharp cucumber slices (her budget didn’t obviously run into smoked salmon, but this is another great British sandwich filler). Then trooped in her homemade scones, warm from the oven, which you are supposed to slice open and stuff with double cream and unctuous, thick strawberry jam. The secret of the perfectly light scone Barbara made was to rub the flour and the fat (shortening or suet, not margarine or butter) gently between the finger tips to form a sand like consistency before kneading. On such occasions, Barbara also produced from her stock in the larder, a wonderfully tangy ginger and pumpkin preserve, which she made once a year. This would be followed by coffee or chocolate cake, more tea, and Britain’s memorable stories about his time spent in India as a soldier and Barbara’s war time experiences as a WREN.
Although afternoon tea was started by Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, who decided to meet the need, commonly suffered by people of high breeding and low purpose, for an injection of fuel during the horse latitudes of the afternoon, it is today probably the only thing that has percolated to every class of British society. Tea is drunk in the same murky form at the Henley Regatta and at horse trials — places where the royal, rich, and those who aspire to be one or both roam: at football matches, out of thermos flasks and in roadside transport cafes accompanied by tined baked beans , greasy chips and doorstop- sized bacon sandwiches.
No voyage to England is complete without experiencing the institution of afternoon tea. If you do not have an aunt Barbara or cannot borrow someone else’s, tea-rooms dot the English countryside and even towns. The clink of tea cups in the British countryside has as much claim on the fragile euphoria of the British summer, as the crack of a leather ball on a willow bat, either which sounds can cause the Brits to kick off their shoes on the lawn -an action as socially significant in the Home Counties as hot tubing is in California. If the British `summer’ turns to downpour, tea-rooms always lurk in famous British institutions, like stately homes (ones which are open to the public), manor houses and `pick your own` farms. The latter may not have history or glamour, but they are often the best places for tea, as everything served is usually homemade.
If your visit to England is short and restricted to the capital, fear not. London’s famous museums and art galleries (the Royal Academy is a fine example) house some of the best little tearooms in town, as do the large department stores. Fortnum and Mason, the light green store on Piccalilli, although famous for its food hall and its own blends of tea, has a comfortable but awfully British tearoom on the mezzanine, overlooking the said food department. Liberty on Regent Street, looking like a Tudor mansion from outside, serves some of the best pastries in its usually crowded tea room. And of course Harrods Georgian Restaurant, a long and elegant room with chandeliers, is a welcome relief from the green and gold madhouse that is the Harrods.
The finest places, however, to take afternoon tea in London are undoubtedly in the city’s best hotels. Viewed from an average Indian home, where tea is brewed strong, spicy and dark, the British tea ceremony sounds confusing, irrelevant and barely worth the effort. Seen from a Louis XIV chair at the Ritz in Picadilly, while the waiters in black tie and tails unravel the mystery in front of you, you wonder very briefly if there is anything more sublime. However preposterous the price, afternoon at the Ritz is worth it.
Tea as a brew may not be drunk in the most sophisticated way in Britain anymore but you can’t beat the British for bakery and preserves and marmalades