A Room with a Brew - Afternoon Tea
PUBLISHED: 17:03 20 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:44 20 February 2013
There are few things more quintessentially English than the traditional afternoon tea. Sarah Hart spends an unhurried hour or two lingering over the dainty treats at one of Shropshire's celebrated tearooms
There are few things more quintessentially English than the traditional afternoon tea. Sarah Hartspends an unhurried hour or two lingering over the dainty treats at one of Shropshires celebrated tearooms and gives you the lowdown on where to go for a special afternoon treat.
Ah, the delights of afternoon tea. Relaxed, lingering, unhurried. Reminiscent of freshly-cut lawns on long summer days. A well-mannered ritual of dainty sandwiches, dolls-house size cakes, delicate china and a refreshing pot of tea.
There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea, concurred the Victorian novelist Henry James.
Happily, afternoon tea is enjoying a resurgence. No longer largely confined to grand hotels, or something that our parents or grandparents used to do, the revival of the traditional tearoom is helping to bring it back into vogue.
One of the latest such tearooms is at Attingham Park, Shrewsbury, where the National Trust has opened a 1920s-style tearoom at the top of the 18th century mansion house. Complete with waiting staff, known as tweenies, in traditional black uniforms and starched, little, white aprons and hats, it specialises only in proper afternoon tea - a three-tiered confection of delicate finger sandwiches, baby scones and mouth-watering cakes.
Guests have been lavishing praise since it opened in April.
One couple had been for afternoon tea at The Ritz and thought ours was better, enthuses Attinghams general manager Mark Agnew.
Three months ago The Boathouse Restaurant, in Ellesmere, also introduced afternoon tea for the first time.
We wanted something to bridge the gap between lunch time and supper and afternoon tea was perfect, explains restaurant manager Kate Taylor who was inspired by her own nostalgic memories of going to the old, famous J Lyons tea shops with her grandmother for tea.
I think theres something so elegant about going out for afternoon tea, taking time over it, enjoying it and spending time with friends and family. Its such a sunshine thing to do.
The Boathouse is an ideal spot where people can sit beside the lapping waters of The Mere, relax and watch the lakes graceful swans while tucking into dainty sandwiches and Kates own delicious scones and cakes.
A lot of people are confused about what afternoon tea is, she says.
Its a generational thing, but hopefully, a new generation will come to learn about it and love it.
Afternoon tea, also known as Low Tea, has its origins in English upper class society. Its said that in the mid 19th century the Duchess of Bedford complained to her butler at Woburn Abbey of having that sinking feeling during the late afternoon. The solution was a pot of tea and light snack taken privately in her boudoir.
Traditionally, afternoon tea, served between 3pm and 5pm, consisted of a selection of delicate sandwiches, originally cucumber, watercress, ham, smoked salmon or fish paste, followed by fruit and homemade cake and pastries. Scones served with strawberry preserve and cream were a later addition.
By contrast high tea or tea was an early evening meal consisting of cold meats, eggs or fish, savouries, cakes and sandwiches, sometimes dinner dishes, such as shepherds or steak and kidney pie. The terms low and high referred to the height of the tables from which each meal was eaten. Low tea being served in a sitting room on low tables, like a coffee table, high tea served on a dining table.
Afternoon tea caught on with the English middle classes wanting to emulate their betters. Even today its difficult to partake of afternoon tea without feeling like you should be sitting with a ramrod straight back and a dainty little finger protruding while sipping from the cup. It all seems part of the ritual of a bite that, with its tiny sandwiches and elegant cakes, is very feminine and dignified.
Attinghams version is called Lady Berwicks Afternoon Tea, taken in rooms that once formed part of the late Lady Berwicks private suite on the third storey of the house. From here house visitors can enjoy tea alongside panoramic views of Attinghams magnificent, Humphry Repton designed, landscaped grounds.
The tearoom is furnished in 1920s Art Deco style, with smart cream and duck-egg blue leather bucket seats, marking the decade when Teresa Hulton, the 8th Lady Berwick, arrived at Attingham. Glamorous photographs of her line the walls dazzling like a Hollywood starlet in evening dress, taking tea with friends at the mansion house or dreamily gazing out of a window.
Weve taken quite a brave step for an historic house to have an eating room within the main body of the mansion. Were one of the first National Trust properties to do so, explains Catherine Turnbull, Attinghams conservation manager.
Until last Autumn the rooms were lived in by a member of staff. They have such fantastic views of the grounds. We looked at the space and thought it would make a wonderful place for tea.
Attinghams afternoon tea is immaculate, served on spotless white china by attentive staff in neatly pressed uniforms. The delectable cakes and sandwich fillings have been specially created for the tearoom by Attingham chef Andrew Turner. Theyre traditional but with a modern twist, so there are surprising flavours that work wonderfully well, such as cucumber and cream cheese, where the cucumber has been soaked in white wine vinegar, a vanilla and coffee Battenberg or a pineapple fruit cake. Theres always a fresh fruit tartlet made with fruit from Attinghams walled garden, and the tea is the real, more flavoursome loose-leaf variety.
With such food, service and comfort as this you cant help feeling that Lady Berwick, who so loved to entertain guests at Attingham, might well be looking on approvingly.
Our doyen of etiquette, Howard Franklin, recalls the important role and traditions of taking afternoon tea.
Every day, Her Majesty the Queen takes tea at 5pm, thus rigidly observing a tradition going back two centuries or more.
My own paternal grandmother entertained friends daily at teatime at our family home. She would change clothes after luncheon into what was referred to as an afternoon frock, put on her pearls and tuck a fine gauze handkerchief scented with lavender water into the strap of her gold wrist-watch.
Guests would arrive just before 5pm, the ladies in hats and carrying gloves and handbags. Sometimes the Rector or family physician would attend.
My grandmother would preside over an ornate filigree silver spirit kettle, which was placed on a stand with a burner beneath. This avoided the maid Mary having to return to the kitchens to refresh the hot water.
Afternoon tea should more correctly be called low tea because it was always taken in the drawing room, when tiny low tables would be placed near the sofas and chairs on which guests could place their tea-plates, cups and saucers.
Mary the maid would circulate the room carrying a three tiered silver curate stand, which had to be arranged precisely; scones on the top tier, with savouries and dainty finger sandwiches, of salmon and watercress, egg and cress and cucumber on the second tier; while tartlettes and rich fruit cake, served with a tiny slice of Wensleydale cheese on top, were on the bottom tier. Scones were always on the top tier because they were freshly baked by the cook Mrs Frazer and had to be covered with a silver dome to keep them warm.
The name curate stand comes from minor clergy or curates being invited to grand houses at teatime to be vetted by the ladies as to their suitability. To give them something to do they were given the silver three tiered stands to hand around, thus assisting the maid who could pass the teacups and replenish the food on another silver stand.
A small knife and pastry fork were used, and cotton lawn napkins were handed to each guest, and for tea had to be 12 inches square. Incidentally, scones should never be cut with a knife; pieces are broken in the same way as you would a dinner roll, then fruit preserve added to the small piece with the tiny knife. Sandwiches should only be finger shaped, and never cut into triangles that shape is reserved for mass catering functions like funerals.
Suitable tea to be served would be Earl Grey, with its distinctive taste of oil of bergamot and citrus fruit, never with milk, although Darjeeling, English Breakfast and blended Ceylon and Indian teas are acceptable with milk. It is, though, bad form to add sugar.
Afternoon Tea - the pick of the bunch
â€ Lady Berwicks Afternoon Tea, the mansion house, Attingham Park, Shrewsbury. Serving 1.30 4.30pm. Full and half teas available from 8.95 to 13.85 per person. House visitors only.
â€ The Boathouse Restaurant, Mereside, Ellesmere.
Lakeside setting. Finger sandwich selection, including vegetarian option, two scones, clotted cream and jam, slice of homemade cake, pot of tea or coffee, 9.95.
â€ Rocke Cottage Tearoom, Clungunford, near Craven Arms.
Winner of the UK Tea Guilds Top Tea Place 2011. A 1930s style tearoom where Miss Marple wouldnt look out of place. A wide selection of quality loose-leaf teas, homemade scones and cakes. Polly Put the Kettle on Afternoon Tea includes finger sandwiches, scones, homemade preserve and clotted cream, crumpets and cake, 14.50. Must be booked in advance. Tel: 01588 660631. Open 10-5 Weds to Sun and bank hols.
â€ Ludlow Castle Tearooms, Ludlow.
A member of the prestigious Tea Guild serving loose-leaf teas in vintage style surroundings. Afternoon tea from 2pm. A selection of sandwiches, scones, preserve, clotted cream, choice of cake, 12.95. A champagne tea also available.
â€ Goldstone Hall Country House Hotel, near Market Drayton.
White or wholemeal sandwiches, fruit scone, berry jam, clotted cream, choice of cake, rhubarb and custard tart, 10. Locally sourced produce.
â€ Fishmore Hall Hotel, Fishmore Road, Ludlow.
Full and half afternoon teas. Finger, sandwiches, homemade scones and biscuits, a choice of cakes, tarts or meringues, 16.50. Also a champagne version.
Albrighton Hall Hotel, Albrighton, Shrewsbury.
A selection of sandwiches, scone, cream, local preserves, strawberries and cakes served on vintage china in the terrace bar or oak drawing room, 12.
â€ De Greys Tearoom, Broad Street, Ludlow.
Afternoon tea from 2.30pm: Finger sandwiches, homemade scone, jam, clotted cream, cake and pot of loose-leaf tea, 11.50.
â€ Camelias Tearooms, Butcher Row, Shrewsbury.
Serves a three-tier afternoon tea of finger sandwiches, fruit scone and cake, 9.95.
TEAROOMS RECOMMENDED FOR AN AFTERNOON CAKE OR CREAM TEA.
â– The Green Caf, Mill on The Green, Ludlow.
Listed in the Good Food Guide 2011. Serves quality teas, homemade scones and cakes. Highlights includes carrot cake, made with organic carrots, pecan nuts and pineapple, and served with a frosting of Neals Yard goats curd cheese on the side, gluten-free lemon polenta cake served with vanilla and lemon yogurt and buttermilk and lemon scones claimed, by some customers, to be the best theyve ever tasted. Open Tues to Sun 10 to 4.30.
â– Berrys Coffee House, High Street, Church Stretton.
A welcoming national award-winning tea and coffee house serving lunches, cream teas, cakes and dinners prepared from locally sourced ingredients. Set in a Queen Anne town house packed with period features.
â– Copper Kettle, Much Wenlock.
A traditional-style tearoom in Medieval surroundings. Scones fresh from the oven throughout the day. Choice of traditional sponge and fruit cakes.
â– Walford Court Tearooms, Leintwardine, near Ludlow.
Aga-baked cakes, savoury and sweet scones including gluten-free. Listed in Margaret Thornbys Guide to Tea Rooms of Britain. Open Thurs to Sat 11.30 to 3.30, Sun 12.30 to 3.30pm.
â– The Ivy House Caf, Montgomery
A traditional style tearoom serving a range of teas, including herbal. Owner Sue Grimes makes all her own scones and cakes, including gluten-free. Her coconut and lemon cake is a favourite. Scones include blueberry, strawberry and orange varieties.
â– Blue, Market Place, Shifnal
A cheerful, bijou, retro-style tearoom inside an art gallery and florist shop. Teas, cakes and sandwiches served in colourful vintage crockery.
â– The Shropshire Poacher Coffee Shop, Upper Church Street, Oswestry.
Set on the ground floor of a former Medieval school. Serves a Welsh cream tea of homemade scone and bara brith.