Designed as a stopgap between lunch and dinner, the tradition of Afternoon Tea was taken up with a passion by the Victorian upper classes in the late 1800s, although the occasion itself was marked by an emphasis on decorum, etiquette, planning and elegance. Over a century later, the Victorian tea will appeal to those who hanker for a formal social occasion centered around indulgent treats, both savory and sweet. While it is no longer de rigueur to precede tea with invitations delivered by courier or to finish with parlor games, the dishes offered should be more ambitious than simple everyday snacks.
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Given that all guests will be expected to drink tea, it is worth selecting a gourmet, quality loose-leaf blend. While white tea with milk (and sugar according to taste) is the traditional variety, particularly for strong-flavored teas such as Assam tea, lighter strains such as black and green tea are acceptable. For the best possible tea, select an Indian or Chinese leaf tea, brewed in a silver pot and served in bone china cups. The tradition of pouring tea into the cup before the milk, incidentally, indicates that you are using the finest-quality (unbreakable) bone china.
For maximum elegance and daintiness, the crusts of sandwiches should be removed, a legacy that allegedly hails from the Duchess of Bedford, the figure most commonly credited with popularizing Victorian tea. Sandwiches, usually cut into triangles, should be light and easy to handle rather than over-filled and unwieldy. The quintessential Victorian tea, such as the one hosted by The Ritz in London, includes sandwiches ranging from cucumber, smoked salmon and egg mayonnaise to ham with grain mustard and smoked chicken.
Created in honor of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the Cherries Jubilee cake is a fancy and indulgent layered sponge cake with a cream cheese filling, decorated with cherries and confectioners’ sugar. Otherwise, the sponge cake is a vital feature of the Victorian tea; the “Victoria Cake” incorporates cream and a fruit filling. This main centerpiece might also be accompanied by smaller tea cakes – densely packed with berries and fruit zest -- shortbreads and cupcakes.
With a texture and sweetness similar to biscuits in the Southern U.S., scones are most often associated with clotted cream and strawberry jam, a combination which forms the basis of the less formal Devon cream tea. However, scones do appear in the more refined Victorian tea, but the cream is usually substituted with butter. Break off a piece of scone and apply butter and jam, rather than spreading it like a bun. The Victorians also enjoyed early versions of popular contemporary confectionary; for example, Victorian kisses are a simple baked blend of eggs, sugar and lemon essence, which inspired the Hershey’s version of today.