Afternoon Tea

    I have the fondest memories of my childhood growing up in England. As a girl who is half English from my father’s side and half Chinese from my mother’s side, my family lived mainly in Hong Kong and I was schooled there under the British school system. My life was all about HK. To ensure that my siblings and I did not lose our English heritage, my father would send my sister and I back to England each summer for two months. I believe to this day that it was one of the best things my father did for his children. Each summer my younger sister and I were packed off to stay with my grandmother or, as we affectionately called her, Nana. Nana’s house was a small but warm and cozy house in Wirral, Merseyside. Yes, Liverpool, Merseyside of the Beatles fame. It was here, over the course of my childhood that I became familiar with the English customs and traditions that were practiced by relatives and friends in the UK at the time. Many of these customs and traditions have existed for a long time and it varies from county to county and village to village, but, it is safe to say, that most of the more obvious customs remain today. [photo:1349587508690] I remember fondly running around the hills and dales with the neighbourhood kids. Roughing it up in fields with cows, falling into cow pats, playing in the cemetery – not on the actual graves! We were well behaved children, after all. Walking to the ‘shops’ as they were known back then to buy my nana’s newspapers and her Benson and Hedges cigarettes. Mr. Weir from the shops always remembered my name, “Oh aye Deb! Back for the holidays, are ya? How’s Nellie?” referring to my Nana. Mr Weir had the best memory and perfect manners. He always slipped my sister and I some extra sweets from the many jars of multicoloured sweets that lined his shelves. Oh, what a treat! There were Gobstoppers that really lived up to its name. Put one in your mouth and you are unable to speak due to the size of the round candy! Gob is an English slang for mouth. I used to love eating black liquorice dipping sticks that you had along with a packet of sherbet. There were other favourites, Dolly Mixture, what a great name, were small pastel coloured candies and Liquorice All-Sorts which are still available today. Everyone knows that the English are famous for their fish and chip shops. All the neighbourhood children and indeed, many of the neighbours would be seen coming out of the chippie at one time or another. A visit to the local chippie was a favourite hangout for my sister, all the neighbourhood kids and I. You could have just regular fish and chips or chips with gravy. You could even have chips with curry sauce! My favourite is the regular chips plain and hot with plenty of vinegar. Heaven in a folded up newspaper! [photo:1349587787414]Back at my Nana’s house, she always served us a full on breakfast of bacon, eggs and toast. Lunch, however, would be a simple affair of sliced bananas coated with a fine layer of castor sugar on white bread. Believe me, for a young child, it was heavenly. At night before bedtime, nana would always have a glass of hot chocolate or hot tea sitting on the bedside table along with a chocolate biscuit or two. We were most definitely not deprived. However, being children from a cosmopolitan city of Hong Kong, there were a few things we had to learn about our English friends and relatives. I will never forget the time one of the neighbourhood kids asked my sister I whether we were going to go home for our tea. This befuddled us. We drank tea all the time in my Nana’s house. For breakfast, lunch, dinner and wherever else she could fit it in. So, to make a trip back home from our rollicking in the fields for a cup of tea was just strange. But, nonetheless, all the children dutifully trotted back home to have tea at about five o’clock. My sister and I told our nana how we were abandoned by our friends who felt the need to go home for a cup of tea. My nana laughed uproariously when she heard and explained to us that ‘going home for tea’ really meant going home to have dinner. My nana had to explain to her citified grandchildren that in many parts of rural England meal times were divided into breakfast, dinner and tea. This, in turn, made my sister and I laugh, whoever thought of having dinner for lunch? Apparently, dinner means the biggest meal of the day and many people had their biggest meal at lunch followed by a light supper at night. If you think about it, it does make sense. Who wants to go to bed on a full stomach? To this day, there is no correct term. It all depends on where you are from, but for many of the middle classes it was breakfast, dinner and tea. Tea was a whole other matter. Not only could it mean a light dinner. It could also mean afternoon tea, cream tea or high tea. Many people mix up afternoon tea with high tea. Afternoon tea is usually taken between three and five PM whereas, High Tea is taken between five and seven PM and is a much bigger meal taking the place of dinner. The working middle classes had a high tea served on tables and chairs, while the upper classes enjoyed Afternoon Tea sitting down at the sofa and on small serving tables. High tea had nothing to do with being in high society or being fancy as many people have come to believe. I loved afternoon teas with my nana. We would have simple cream teas which consisted of tea, scones, cream and jam. There were always cream teas to be found in many of the villages and pubs. Cream teas were nothing fancy, just a nice hot cuppa and a plate of scones with jam and thick clotted cream. Every once in awhile, my nana would take us children to a beautiful garden or a park and there we would go to the restaurant and partake of the fancy Afternoon Tea. Now, this is the more elaborate affair with the three tiers consisting of savouries, sweets, tea sandwiches and scones. My nana who secretly treated my sister and I as dolls loved to dress up in matching outfits and comb our hair to within an inch of its life. Nana, herself would be dressed in her lovely floral frock which is another word for dress. Nana never left the house without her pearls and her lipstick. In the eyes of two little girls, she was the perfect lady taking us out on an adventure to a fancy restaurant for a cup of tea! The beautiful garden setting, the elegant three tier display of delicious food and a time to just sit and have a cup of tea. Such a pleasurable experience! It’s not a wonder the rest of the word have taken to this lovely English tradition of Afternoon Tea. It is this tradition that I love and remember most and fall back on in my adult life. These days Afternoon Tea can be found in many of the finer hotels and establishments. There are many small tea shops in the lower mainland and recently I was able to sample no less than four different afternoon teas. There was the chocolate afternoon tea service offering a special Aztec hot chocolate! It was an all you can drink hot chocolate. Who can resist? It lived up to its name; it really was hot and spicy. I was also able to enjoy a French afternoon tea offering fine teas from France. The fragrant tea leaves arranged in little bowls for the customers to pick and smell before selecting their favourite. At another establishment, I was able to enjoy a traditional English tea with all the sweets and savouries and the famous English Scone which is not actually English, but, of Scottish origin. These days restaurants and tea shops are very creative with the presentation of the tea service. Most of them will place the chocolates and dainty cakes on the top tier. However, traditionally, only the scones were placed on the top with a little cover to keep the scones warm. The chocolates and sweets were on the lowest tier and the dainty finger sandwiches were placed on the middle tier. The proper way to enjoy afternoon tea is to start with the savouries and sandwiches, followed by the scones, jam and cream. The little chocolates and sweets come last. Most restaurants will have split the scone in half for convenience and it is customary to spread each half with jam and thick cream. Die-hard etiquette and afternoon tea experts will beg to differ and prefer the scones to be eaten like bread, in bite size pieces. Although, for many, the focus of Afternoon Tea is on the food, the actual drinking of tea is also a major part of the experience. It often amuses me to hear people debate the proper way of holding a teacup. It is definitely considered affected to have your pinky up while holding your cup! Another often asked question, is whether it is tea first or milk first. In the olden days, when teacups were very delicate and prone to breaking, it was milk first. These days the cups are sturdier and it is tea first followed by the desired amount of milk. As for the tea, my nana taught me, one teaspoon of tea for each person followed by ‘one for the pot’ before brewing! For those seeking a more authentic experience, there are many famous tea shops and restaurants in England. Most require ‘proper attire’ before entry as well as a reservation. Some of the more popular places have several sittings and at the finer hotels Afternoon Tea will be accompanied by piano music. In fact, there is even a Tea Guild that rates the best Afternoon Teas in London. Definitely worth checking out if you intend to head across the pond.