The Cook's Tour: A Spot of Tea

Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Spot of Tea


I spent the most glorious afternoon yesterday, relaxing. How about that? How often does the chance to just "do nothing" come along? Not too often, I'm afraid. Sure, there were chores and errands I could be doing, but really? On a beautiful, sunny Saturday? Really? I don't think so.

Even though I'm fighting a cold, I forced myself to do a little shopping (always good for what ails ya). Picked up a few books for the adorable little girl that I tutor to help with her summer reading, and purchased a wonderful new book for moi. I think you might find this book rather enjoyable, too. It's titled "Tea & Crumpets," by Margaret Johnson (see Amazon listing to the right). It's a most leisurely stroll through the history, recipes, and rituals of European tearooms and cafes. As I sat on the deck, pool glistening in the sun, iPod tuned to Buddy & Julie Miller's hauntingly beautiful "Written in Chalk," and a large, icy Arnold Palmer (the drink, not the man) standing by, I paged through this book, mentally checking the many fine English and Scottish tearooms I somehow must get to visit in this lifetime.

I totally lost myself in the delicious prose of the author as she described afternoon tea at the Ritz or Claridge's in London. Did you know there was a difference between afternoon tea and high tea? The former began as a small, elegant meal served between a light lunch and late dinner (normally between 3-5pm); and it was mainly a practice of the aristocracy, who enjoyed a leisurely lifestyle. The latter, quite conversely, is a more substantial meal, often including sausages or meat pies, really an early dinner more suited to the middle and lower classes after a long day at work.

Also interesting to know that a proper afternoon tea has three distinct courses -- the first being sandwiches and savories (don't you love that word, savories?), next, crumpets and scones, and finally, sweets. The book has many wonderful sounding recipes for all these courses - my favorites being the second and third courses. Just listen to some of these: Apricot-Walnut Loaf, Raisin-Apple Scones, Banana Bread with Apricot Glaze, Pistachio-Lemon-Vanilla Shortbread, Extreme Biscuit Brownie, Chocolate-Orange Tea Cake, Chocolate and Banana Charlottes, Madeleines, Pierre Herme's Macarons, and last but not least, Chocolate-Hazelnut Pots de Creme. You know, many of these items will turn up in future CT postings!

The author includes a Traveler's Guide to European Tearooms, which will come in very handy for my next jaunt across the pond! Of course, England, Scotland, and Ireland are listed, but believe it or not, the French also have a very rich tea culture. In fact, when I was in Paris several years ago, I made a pilgrimage to Mariage Freres, the famous tearoom founded in 1854 (the oldest in France). It did not disappoint. A beautiful room and an incredible selection of teas, savories, and pastries. A future fantasy trip would surely include afternoon tea at Claridge's, a visit to Twining's Tea Shop (supplier of tea to the royal households since 1837), tea at The Clarence Hotel in Dublin (owned by Bono and The Edge), hopping over to Edinburgh to enjoy an afternoon at the Balmoral Hotel, and finally one or two nights aboard The Royal Scotsman, which journeys through the Scottish countryside, serving an elegant afternoon tea shortly after guests board the train. Oh, what an exquisite few days this would be!

So, my culinary friends, if you find yourself one day soon with a few hours to spend idly, mentally transport yourself to another age and "indulge in the British tradition where a fondness for tea and a penchant for sweets come together most agreeably."

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