Jonathan Foreman eschews the world of modern worries and fears, of a quick coffee or hurried after-work drink for the old-fashioned indulgence of teatime, and discovers that this ‘meal’ is for those who truly love and can afford luxury
There is nothing like tea. Not tea the drink but tea the meal – the traditional late afternoon snack taken with real loose-leaf tea, and often featuring cucumber sandwiches, cakes and scones. It is in a way the ultimate in culinary luxury, because its old-fashioned indulgence runs counter to so many modern worries and fears. For one thing, unlike a quick coffee or an after-work drink, a proper sit-down tea takes a lot of time out of the workday. And unlike any other in-between meal or snack, it presents one irresistible high-calorie, high-fat temptation after another. And in a sense that is the whole point: tea is a feast for the unworried, a time-out for the confident, a leisurely meal for members of the leisure class – or for people who want to feel that way for just an hour or two.
This is why afternoon tea, following its Victorian and Edwardian heyday became a speciality of the grandest hotels around the world, and an indulgence for those who patronised them either on vacation or as part of their normal lives.
Here in India and in many countries around the world, not least in the UK, afternoon tea seems to be making a major comeback, indeed to have become highly fashionable. (However, some might argue that in India, thanks to its clubs and five-star culture, the tradition of afternoon tea never went into hibernation as it did in Europe and America.)
It is almost as if people are rebelling against the pressure to rush things, to watch their weight, to spend every minute of the workday behind a desk. The business-person who invites a colleague or client for afternoon tea at the Taj or high tea at The Table is therefore implying that she or he is the master of her time and her figure (or at least her appetites).
But for many people who love or who are rediscovering afternoon tea, its pleasures have more to do with comfort and nostalgia. Both the timing of teatime and the food served at tea can be redolent of the nursery and parties with stuffed animals, or at least of the unhurried pace and endless afternoons of childhood.
For me it brings back afternoons in the English countryside, when, as teenagers on release from boarding school, we would come in from a cold, wet walk and warm up with tea and biscuits and savouries like sausage rolls. It is also reminiscent of university: when I was at Cambridge a couple of decades ago, tea-parties were de rigueur. After all, we undergraduates had long afternoons, no real cooking facilities, an abundance of cake shops, and were living under the influence of Brideshead Revisited and movies that evoked an elegant pre-war past.
Legend has it that the whole ritual of afternoon tea owes its origins to the seventh Duchess of Bedford, Anna Russell, who was a close friend of the young Queen Victoria. While staying at Belvoir Castle in the 1830s she found herself getting hungry between luncheon (then a light midday meal taken around noon) and dinner (then taken as late as 10 p.m.) and started having Darjeeling tea and cakes served to her in her bedroom. Soon her friends started to join her and it began to become fashionable to take tea around 4 p.m.
By the early 20th century, afternoon tea had filtered down to the middle classes and below and was available in department stores and tea shops. It was at tea parties, sometimes accompanied by lectures, that many of the Suffragettes passed on their message of votes for women to female friends and acquaintances. Tea-parties were such a feature of Victorian and Edwardian life that they abound in the literature of the period, both serious and comic. Alice in Wonderland for instance, is inconceivable without the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.
Increasingly these days you hear about people getting together for high tea. This is actually a misnomer for the afternoon meal of cakes and sandwiches. High tea technically refers to another meal entirely: an early dinner. In the 19th and much of the 20th century ‘tea’ was the main evening meal for British working class people, especially in mining and factory towns of the North of England. (Sometimes people called it ‘meat tea’ because it featured dishes like shepherd’s pie or cold cuts.)
The same usage became common in Australia and New Zealand. In both countries even today an invitation to ‘tea’ can really mean an invitation to dinner.
Interestingly high tea was also the main evening meal for upper class children who would then be put to bed before their parents dined. Even today high tea, served around six is the main evening meal in British boarding schools.
It is American hotels that began to mislabel Afternoon Teas as High Tea, and that usage has been brought to the Subcontinent, by NRIs and restaurateurs trained in the US. However, India’s great hotels, like the Taj Mahal in Mumbai still call afternoon tea by its proper name.
The ideal tea meal features sandwiches cut into finger shapes for easy, tidy eating; scones, preferably with clotted cream and real jam and some other form of cake. The tea should be loose leaf, perhaps one of the new Indian high-end organic brands. The Sea Lounge in the Taj offers all this plus Indian snacks like bhel puri, though once you’ve had one of their afternoon teas you will be unlikely to want supper later.
(In the great British and French hotels that kept and continue to keep the tradition of afternoon tea going long after the Victorian Age, the sandwiches and cakes are often served on three-tiered stands.)
For some the appeal of tea is romantic. Even today at Oxford and Cambridge, a first date is often a luxurious afternoon in a tea shop or a fellow student’s rooms. Someone who invites a date to tea is signalling that they want to share unhurried time and indulgent food with them. For others, tea may be about comfort and the echoes of childhood. But for everyone tea is about a meal with no utilitarian purpose other than pleasure. And if traditionally it was reserved for those with the freedom to spend an afternoon chatting and eating cake – or Victorian ladies with time to fill – today it is becoming an option for people who just want to take an afternoon’s holiday.