Afternoon Tea, Anyone?

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Anna Maria Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, is said to have started afternoon tea in 1830. She complained about “a sinking feeling” between lunch and dinner and began having tea with bread and butter served mid-afternoon. Teatime became more elaborate as she invited her friends and the dishes increased: crustless sandwiches, pastries, crumpets, and scones with jam. It wasn’t until the price of tea came down that everyone began drinking it and it became part of the working class high tea, or supper, a meal served with eggs and ham around 6 pm.

We associate tea with scones and jam, but Devonshire cream teas may have started centuries before tea was introduced to Britain. As far as we know, scones, jam and clotted cream originated in Tavistock, Devon in the early 11th century. Monks served scones to the labourers who helped them restore the monastery after a Viking raid in 997 AD. Apparently they had no difficulty finding volunteers!

This recipe makes 8 scones (no raisins originally):

225g / 9oz flour

4 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

50g / 2oz butter

25g / 1oz caster (berry) sugar

150ml (1/2 cup) milk

1 medium egg
Preheat oven to 450°F. Grease baking tray.

Sift flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Rub in the butter to breadcrumb texture.

Stir in sugar. Add milk. Mix lightly into a soft dough.

Scoop dough onto a floured board and knead briefly.

Roll dough 1/2 inch thick. Cut into circles. Put on baking tray.

Brush the tops with beaten egg.

Bake for 7-10 minutes or until well-risen and golden brown.

Cool on wire rack.

Tea was drunk only by the wealthy in the 1600s and it was highly taxed. Even in the early 1800s ships could take a year to transport loose tea from China to Europe, making transport expensive. The East India Company had a monopoly on the tea trade in 1832 and began to reduce the journey by building light, fast ships called clippers. We now use the expression “at a good clip,” which comes from the ships. They were streamlined square-riggers and could make 15-22 knots under full sail. The most famous was the Cutty Sark, built in 1868. It made the tea run only eight times (clippers rarely lasted 20 years) and can be seen at Greenwich, London.

We use tea bags without thinking, but they were invented only about 100 years ago. The first tea bags were hand-sewn silk-muslin sample bags. By 1904, Thomas Sullivan of New York was shipping tea bags around the world. A machine was soon invented to replace the hand sewing.

The Empress Hotel, Victoria BC, used to serve tea and crumpets with honey for 35 cents but even that price became too high during the Depression, when many of the Empress residents lost fortunes in the crash. One lady made economies by ordering hot water at teatime because it was free. She then slipped a teabag surreptitiously into the pot while the staff looked the other way.

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