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Afternoon Tea is Now Being Served

King David Hotel afternoon tea (Photo: courtesy of the King David Hotel Jerusalem)

It is a truth generally acknowledged that a lady's favorite repast is afternoon tea. Neither is it much disdained by many men. (With apologies to Jane Austen.)

Memories of afternoon tea conjure up warm nostalgia and a plethora of vividly descriptive adjectives redolent with indulgence. However, there is also a general confusion in some quarters as to what precisely it constitutes and how it differs from high tea. So, let's get that cleared up!

By tradition, the idea of tea in the afternoon was started by Anna Maria Stanhope, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, in 1840. Now, the Duchess was rather grand and moved in royal echelons as a Lady in Waiting to Queen Victoria.

High society had taken to a new fashionable time of taking dinner at 8pm. The duchess, feeling a trifle peckish, hit upon the idea of requesting that her staff provide her with some light food and a pot of newly available and rather expensive tea in the mid-afternoon to stave off hunger pangs before dinner.

Soon enough, the Duchess began inviting friends to join her in taking afternoon tea while seated on low parlor chairs at low tables in either her sitting room or the drawing room. In fine weather it could be taken in the pretty gardens of her stately home, Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire.

As a result, the formal name for this newly invented repast was Low Tea which eventually just became known as afternoon tea. To accommodate this new trend, special, almost translucent and very white porcelain known as bone china was fired into delicately hand-painted tea sets in the Staffordshire Potteries area of England. Famous brands included Royal Doulton and Wedgwood. Sets became staple wedding gifts.

Hot tea requires that a little cold milk be poured in prior to the tea so as not to crack the china cups. Before the ladies led the way, the saucer was originally used as a container for cooling off a couple of mouthfuls of a hot beverage.

The afternoon tea fashion soon spread throughout the British Empire and was often upheld there by British ex-pats to great ceremony.

High Tea, on the other hand, was a much more substantial affair being what the manual working classes would fall upon hungrily when arriving home in the early evening. They would generally refer to it as tea, or more latterly, supper. It would be hot and filling and, of course, be served with a good, strong pot of tea.

As it was served on a kitchen or dining table with high backed chairs it was referred to as High Tea. Contrary to popular perception it did not refer to the quality of the meal or the tea drunk.

With that confusion cleared up, let's move on to the constituents of a proper afternoon tea. Well, it really should be an elegant, elaborate and exquisite experience and provide delicate food served with some polite, reserved, and starched formality.

Its most traditional ingredients are delicate triangles of sandwiches, followed by scones (sultanas or raisins optional) with clotted cream and jam, sponge cake and a good pot of tea. The tea was originally the prized Darjeeling and became Ceylon or even the scented Earl Grey. All this would be served on fine bone China, made in the Staffordshire potteries, by staff in starched white aprons or jackets, and preferably white gloves. Waitresses or maids would wear starched caps too.

The grand hotels mimicked the stately homes and set the trends. A smattering of upmarket department stores and cafes also followed the trend as did passenger liners and even trains. Gradually, as 8pm became a more popular time for dinner, afternoon tea became a middle-class home staple too served by wives who tended not to work and would gather for the opportunity to mix and chat.

Seeking some memories of afternoon tea, I asked a few local friends in Zichron Yaakov. One particularly striking example of the ex-pat afternoon tea experience in the twilight of the British Raj in India was related to me by Cecilia Olesh. Cecilia was brought up in Calcutta to Jewish parents of Iraqi and Sephardi descent. She recalls these elegant events from her childhood in the mid-1940s:

"At that time there were still many British Army staff, tea plantation owners and company executives in Calcutta. Once a week, between six and twelve elegantly dressed ladies in hats and gloves would gather at one of their homes between 4pm and 5pm in the afternoon. The family's bearers (waiters) would serve afternoon tea on beautiful British bone china tea sets and silverware.

"The specialty, still known today, was cucumber sandwiches: delicate triangles of thin, crustless, white bread encasing thin slices of cucumber. Other sandwiches would be egg mayonnaise with tomato. Some families would serve chicken breast and mustard, but cheese was not so popular.

"These would be followed by scones with strawberry or apple jam and cream. Instead of the traditional clotted cream, this version was made by boiling fresh milk and skimming the cream off the top as it boiled. Scones would be followed by a light Victoria sponge cake.

"Tea bags were unknown, of course. Tea leaves were 1cm. long and required tea strainers. If anyone wanted a second cup of tea, the cup was not refilled. Instead, a fresh cup would be brought. Not much coffee was served.

"The golf and tennis clubs also served afternoon tea and were very British oriented - catering only to Europeans."After Indian independence, in the1950s, these gatherings would continue, Cecilia told me, but without so much formality and elegance of clothing.

Other friends reminisced too. The ideal afternoon tea for ESRA Five-Towns branch English Tutoring Program coordinator, Ros Jacobs, would include her favorite little smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches (without crust, of course), scones with jam and cream plus Florentines and cheesecake. She has fond memories of afternoon teas at her aunt's place with all the family over when she was young. "We still talk about her teas – especially the cheese cake," said Ros, exclaiming guiltily, "This is really decadent!"

Michele Bernstein, formerly of London has lived in some exotic locations including Japan, Venezuela and the Caribbean. She described to me her favorite afternoon tea. It would consist of cucumber or Scottish smoked salmon sandwiches on wafer-thin white bread. This would be followed by scones with strawberry jam and Devonshire clotted cream, then tiny chocolate éclairs and miniature pastry cases filled with fruit and (English) fresh cream. We agreed it sounded mouth-watering.

Barbara Moont, a London University engineering graduate, recalled an episode when she baked "what seemed like hundreds of scones served with jam and cream" for a Women's Engineering Society afternoon tea in her Finchley garden."About 40 ladies turned up and ate the whole lot (plus cakes etc.)," she laughed.

My own childhood memories of afternoon tea include occasional celebratory jaunts with my late parents, Rose and Solly Levi, aunts and uncles (honorary and real) plus cousins, to the pretty Yorkshire Dales spa town of Harrogate, ten miles north of my home in Leeds.

The classic repast would be taken either in one of the spa's grand hotels or in the much-acclaimed Betty's cafe, served by waitresses in black dresses, starched white caps, frilly aprons, and white gloves.

The much-anticipated over-indulgence would necessitate a leisurely promenade through the town's Valley Gardens, sometimes accompanied by the genteel strains of an orchestra playing on the bandstand, so as to walk it all off.

In Manchester, after my marriage, there would be a weekly Sunday afternoon three-generational gathering hosted by my husband Sidney's late auntie Annie and her late daughter Eunice, the eldest of the cousins. This was quite a crowd as my father-in- law was one of seven siblings. The dining table would be transformed into a sumptuous afternoon tea buffet and looked decidedly splendid, but the pride of place was unanimously awarded by all to Aunty Annie's Ashkenazi Jewish specialty – chopped herring. My mouth waters at the memory. Nevertheless, the pleasure of the repast would often be marred by the murmurings of the requisite minor family squabbles.

Apart from hosting family afternoon teas for birthdays, I started hosting annual interfaith afternoon-teas in our family sukkah after becoming involved in Jewish communal work in Manchester. What better setting for promoting conviviality between Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus than over a traditional afternoon-tea accompanied by a l'chaim and fulfilling the commandment to sit in the "tabernacle of peace" that the sukkah can represent?

Some of the grandchildren would be commandeered into reading a piece about the significance of the sukkah and the festival. The buffet would be set on the dining table, and despite having to run back inside and take shelter whenever the heavens opened, feedback was generally extremely positive.

One particularly pleased Muslim doctor, a governor of a local Islamic college, confessed to me how delighted she was to be able to eat in a local person's house (although avoiding the alcohol).

On settling into our home in Israel, I decided to start inviting friends for an afternoon-tea in our sukkah during Sukkot, the weather being much more conducive to it than in England. The only problem was the scones. Not being much of a baker, I had bought them in England from the local kosher bakery. In Israel, the bakeries did not even know what a scone was.

Google came to the rescue and I tried various recipes. Despite using self-raising flour and adding baking powder the resulting offerings were something of a disappointment each time. This year, not being permitted to invite guests, I was rather excited to note that Rochelle Shalet at Tastes of the World (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) specialized in Anglo favorites such as fresh scones – and I rang her immediately. If sufficient people were interested, she would deliver. Ah well – maybe next year.

So, where can a true afternoon tea be obtained in Israel? Su Newman of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem sent me their menu. It features the aptly described mini sandwiches with either smoked salmon or cream cheese and cucumber or Camembert and onion confiture. The de rigeur scones and jam are included (although I am not sure about the cream unless you count their lemon mascarpone), plus fruit cake and a selection of teas which they rather grandly call "Palais de Thes"- all for NIS120 or NIS130 with sparkling white wine.

This treat is served Sunday to Friday between 4pm and 6pm and accompanied by live music in the hotel's iconic lobby.Just a couple of details are slightly remiss – the finger sandwiches look tasty but a trifle too thick and they label the repast High Tea instead of Afternoon Tea (tut-tut!). I look forward to trying it whenever we get back to some normality.

Jerusalem's Waldorf Astoria also advertises a Traditional Afternoon Tea in its King's Court for NIS255 for two with sparkling wine as an optional extra. Several other top hotels around the country do offer similar options including Tel Aviv's Hilton.

Britain's top hotels and department stores continue to provide this much-loved afternoon treat with London's Claridge's Hotel and Fortnum & Masons store being among the best, but with slightly more eye-watering prices to match of between NIS400 and NIS600 for two. Grand old hotels in some of the former British colonies, such as the Raffles Hotel in Singapore and The Peninsula in Hong Kong, are proud to continue this tradition.

Manchester, Leeds, and Edinburgh in Britain boast the grand old ladies of hotels – The Midland, the Queens Hotel and The Balmoral, respectively - and proudly proffer their own sumptuous versions.

Nowadays, afternoon tea is more of a rare treat, to be relished on a British Sunday afternoon out or a birthday celebration. In an attempt to attract a younger market, some purveyors have corrupted the traditional sandwiches by providing wraps or mini-burgers and, in order to appeal even more to the men – beer. What sacrilege!

Scones ... by Beverly Caplan 

The debate continues to rage: Devonshire Cream Tea Scone with clotted cream beneath the fruit preserves – versus the Cornish variation which places the fruit preserves beneath the cream. Photo Gavin Gross, at The Wolseley, London 


3 cups flour*

2 ½ teaspoons baking powder

¼ cup sugar (to taste) **

Pinch of salt

125 grams butter

½ cup sour (clotted) cream/marscapone/buttermilk/yogurt***

3 eggs + 1 egg for glazing


1.Preheat oven to 200C.

2.Sift and mix together dry ingredients.

3.Add butter in chunks, and process.

4.Add 3 eggs and sour cream (or whatever you're using) and process for just until mixed****.

5.Pat out on floured surface and cut into shapes (makes about 15 scones).

6.Place on baking tray covered with baking paper, and brush with a beaten egg glaze.

7.Bake for 10-12 minutes, until lightly browned.

8.Serve with butter, jam and sour (clotted) cream, marscapone or whipped sweet cream.


I prepare the scones in the food processor.

*Works best with self-raising flour.

**Can be made sugarless.

***Can also use cream or cottage cheese, whatever you may have on hand. Milk works as well but sightly changes the texture.

****Try not to over-handle.



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Monday, 22 July 2024

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