I’ve been fiddling about in the basement office – well, I say office, but at this time of year it’s a store for garden furniture, kindling and unwashed fleeces – and I came across a book from the 1980s, Jane Pettigrew’s Tea Time.
A little idle flicking through brought instant nostalgia – for the habit of afternoon tea, not for the scary big hair in the author photograph: 1986 may have been a good year for teashops, but it was evidently a fantastic year for anyone selling hairspray.
A brief read of the intro was enough to make me realise that a great gulf of time had suddenly opened up, however. And some of the recipes – Downton, pure fantasy Downton. Admittedly they were self-consciously nostalgic even in the 1980s, but kidney paté on toast? Did anyone really make that? Devilled sardines?
All of this made me think seriously about the role afternoon tea has played in my life. It’s barely conscious, but it is a constant. And it’s quintessentially British, too – not English, oh no, it’s got a fine place in Scotland and Wales, and in Ireland. Especially at funerals, but that’s a specialist sub-set of the afternoon tea. And of course it’s present in literature – the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, for instance.
It’s been a constant for me for as long as I can remember (though dormice in teapots have been remarkable by their absence).
Constant right from being a child, when we regularly had afternoon tea at my grandparents, all fine china and salmon and something slithery my step-grandma called ‘shape’, or when we went on celebratory trips, all dressed up, to Betty’s of York. Then it persisted, in a bastard but equally enjoyable form, though college – Fitzbillies cakes and crumpets cooked by being slapped onto the bars of a gas fire – and my first years down in London, where I indulged at Fortnum and Mason; I know, I know, but I worked almost next door. It was a marked feature of holidays in Ireland and of holidays in Yorkshire.
(An Irish friend developed a Yorkshire–English phrase dictionary. This included such phrases as ‘let’s just stop for a cup of tea’, which was translated as ‘let’s just stop for a few buckets of tea, a sandwich, an unfeasibly large scone and a ginormous piece of chocolate cake’. I can’t think what she was going on about, really… it’s not unique to North Yorkshire. And nor were the arguments about who was paying, either. Think about Mrs Doyle and Mrs Dineen slugging it out over afternoon tea payment in Father Ted. and you’ve got about the right image – er, apart from our appearance, that is. We were both goddesses and neither of us wore a hat.)
But it’s not a constant now – or not in the classic sense. We seem to have lost the habit of afternoon tea. Or perhaps it’s just changed (and got infintely, unbelievably expensive if you will have it at the Ritz). No more devilled kidneys, no more sitting down over cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, no more smoked salmon pinwheels. When did you last see a three-tier stand with sandwiches on one layer, little scones in the middle and elegant small cakes on the final one? Rather than one filled with lurid cupcakes or, more latterly, equally lurid macarons?
But there’s a lot more ‘meeting up for a coffee and a cake’ going on (and notice the pattern on the oilcloth – referencing afternoon tea):
Perhaps we’ve turned Viennese, with our kaffee und kuchen instead. I’m not decrying that; I love it, it’s really enjoyable and damn near perfect when you’ve got good places to go like the Llew Glas Deli In Harlech and T H Cafe in Dolgellau (though there can be a downside, which I’ve moaned about elsewhere).
There’s no doubt that there’s a baking revival underway, with the Great British Bake Off, things like the Clandestine Cake Club and the popularity of cupcakes (they’re not popular with me, though: I detest the oversweet, sticky, tasting-of-damn-all-except-sugar, squishy little sugar transporters – and no apologies for repeating ‘sugar’, either). And there’s been an increased interest in good tea, too. But it seems to me that the interest in afternoon tea as such is more style than substance. So far.
Maybe it is time for a 1980s-style revival of the 1930s interpretation of the nineteenth-century tradition of afternoon tea. Maybe we need to be hunting out those china three-tier cake stands in junk shops and using them as they were intended to be used, and laundering damask tablecloths. Maybe we need to revisit parts of the 1980s – not the hair or the politics, please – and go full throttle for reinventing the British tradition of afternoon tea. It’s ideal, sometimes. If you’re going out in the evening, why rush over eating a meal which then leaves you doubled-up with indigestion in the theatre? Why not have a good afternoon tea instead? Oh, I know, work. It gets in the way of so much. But perhaps we could introduce proper afternoon tea breaks? Just a thought. No more polystyrene, get out the bone china. Yo!
(I’m sorry about this. I found it on Pinterest, sans credit, and couldn’t resist…
Those animals are stuffed, and possibly the child too.)