Afternoon tea is a British constitution, it’s as much a part of our fabric & culture as baked beans & the Queen. Dainty little finger sandwiches (of which cucumber is clearly the best), scones with jam & proper clotted cream all followed up by the pièce de résistance, slabs of beautiful cakes & delicate pastries, all accompanied of course by a fine blend of loose leaf tea (never a bag, that’s just sacrilege!). It’s definitely not something to messed with, though many have attempted to modernise this tradition, but if it ain’t broke… (yes hipster coffee shops, I’m looking at you!).
These days taking afternoon tea is a treat, often enjoyed as part of an occasion or celebration at any time during the afternoon (is it even a birthday without one?). However, traditional “Afternoon Tea Time”, should be taken precisely at 4pm, when hunger pangs become prevalent. During the 1840’s it was normal for people to only take two main meals a day, firstly breakfast & then dinner which would be eaten fashionably late at around 8pm.
Not content with only two meals a day or that “sinking feeling” that arrives late in the afternoon, we have the hungry Anna Russel, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, to thank for what we now know as afternoon tea.
Anna grew tired of her hungry afternoons, waiting around for dinner so, in anticipation of her evening meal she used to request that mini meals be brought to her room in the late afternoon, something to tide her over. The meal would usually consist of a pot of tea accompanied by some sweet breads (scones), butter & cake (a woman after my own heart).
This became such a habit of hers that she began to invite her friends to join her at the rooms of Woburn Abbey to enjoy ‘tea & light refreshment’. Soon afternoon tea became a fashionable social event amongst the upper classes. By the 1880’s, what began as a humble snack had now been transformed into a ceremony whereby upper class & society women would change into gowns, gloves & hats to take their afternoon tea between 4 & 5pm.
Usually taken in the drawing room, during the summer months the women wanted to take this ‘time for tea’ ceremony outside into their beautiful gardens. It is when tea was taken outside that encouraged the lords & men of the house to also take part in the pause for tea.
Born in the houses of the rich & fortunate, now, nearly 200 years after Anna & her afternoon hunger, most of us can now enjoy an afternoon or cream tea at our leisure, without worry of proper attire or feeling weak at the thought of hungrily waiting around for dinner (cheers Anna!). Whilst there is still an air of elegance around afternoon tea, with high-end versions in the likes of hotels serving everything from extravagant, expensive sandwich fillings & elaborate, patisserie style cakes, one ever humble staple (& probably my favourite part) will forever be present… scones.
Us Brits certainly love a scone, & with the likes of high-end hotels like Claridge’s serving up more than 210,000 of them a year, it would appear our love for afternoon tea is also still going strong. They’re thought to have originated in Scotland as a round, flat quick bread (a bannock) which was made with oats & cooked on a griddle, before being cut into triangular sections for serving. Nowadays, scones are commonly cut out into rounds & are widely available (though I daren’t compare the supermarket variety with an actual scone). But where there is love, there is also great debate here in the UK….
It’s reported that the Queen is a jam first kind of lady. I however will fight my corner for cream first every time (it just makes more sense!), preferably on a fruited scone.
I’m no stranger to afternoon tea, having eaten a fair few in my 30 years, everything from lavish hotels to quaint little tea rooms & each time, it’s the scones that I look forward to most, what will make or break a good afternoon tea, the one thing that will either earn my respect or break my trust (I take scones seriously). Some of the best scones I’ve ever eaten have been made both by the chefs & bakers at The Langham Hotel in London & at the National Trust run Carnewas Tea Rooms in Cornwall (very different settings but I highly recommend both).
A good scone should be, light, buttery, rich, lightly sweetened, evenly fruited (& most importantly) served fresh, still warm from the oven. Absolutely anyone can make their own scones & you owe it to yourself to master this one simple piece of baking, being so quick & easy to knock together, you’ll always have a sweet treat in your arsenal at short notice. My recipe for scones encapsulates all of the elements that I consider to make a good scone. These are light enough to carry hefty amounts of clotted cream & jam but also sweet & rich enough to be eaten on their own with a cup of tea. If you’re not a fan of fruited scones, then simply omit the sultanas from the recipe. These are best eaten fresh but they can also be frozen for a rainy day, simply defrost for 10 minutes in a low oven & enjoy.
- 450g self-raising flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 115g butter
- 50g caster sugar
- pinch of salt
- 185ml whole milk (plus a little extra for brushing)
- 1 egg
- 85g sultanas
- 1/2 tbsp icing sugar
- Sift together the flour & baking powder into a large bowl
- Cube the butter & add this to the flour
- Using your fingertips, gently rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs
- Stir the caster sugar & salt through the breadcrumb mixture
- If using, add the sultanas to the bowl & stir these through the mixture
- In a jug, quickly whisk together the egg & milk
- Make a well in the centre of the bowl, pour in the wet ingredients & stir though to form a sticky dough (I always use a knife as opposed to a spoon to do this)
- Gently bring the mixture together with your hands & empty onto a lightly floured surface
- Use your hands to flatten the dough to an approximately 3cm thick round
- Using a 7cm fluted pastry cutter cut out the scones, carefully bring together the remaining dough to flatten & cut out more scones until all of the mix has been used
- Brush the tops of the scones with a little splash of whole milk
- Bake in the oven at 200°C for 12 – 15 minutes, until well risen & golden
- Dust the scones with the icing sugar whilst still warm & serve