Tea for Two – or More
To celebrate Victoria Day, give a modern twist to tradition and host a tea-tasting party – and tea-infused cocktails, too
It began with a woman and a case of the munchies.
According to tea legend, one afternoon back in the mid-1800s, Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, was in the throes of what she described as a sinking feeling, a gnawing hunger she experienced around four p.m. every day. Knowing that dinner wouldn’t be served until after eight, which was customary at the time, she decided to break the rules and requested that, along with her usual pot of Darjeeling, a wee bit of bread and biscuits be brought to her quarters.
So enthralled was she by the resulting energy boost that she invited friends over to share the experience. Anna’s home soon became a place of gatherings where gal pals would indulge in snippets of gossip and scandal, biscuits, cakes and tea. Queen Victoria was titillated with the idea and so, before long, at-home afternoon tea parties became a trend. On any given day of the week, the streets of London were filled with ladies dressed in their finest daytime wear, flitting about to each other’s sitting rooms, often arriving by horse and carriage. Ladies of the upper class, that is.
“When afternoon tea first became vogue, it was only accessible to the wealthy,” says Karen Hartwick, owner of Tea Leaves in Stratford, Ont., a tea sommelier and graduate of the Specialty Tea Institute in New York. “The working class couldn’t participate because … well, they were working. Thankfully, times changed, and tea parties, which both men and women attended, became more widely accessible.”
Today, in Canada, casual afternoon teas are offered in restaurants and bistros across the nation, but some luxe hotels, such as the Fairmont Empress in Victoria, hold more formal traditional affairs. Surrounded by elegant draperies and furnishings and with a live pianist playing softly in the background, there some 100,000 guests devour half-a-million cups annually.
And yet, says executive chef Morgan Wilson, they don’t come just for a cuppa. “People come here expecting to unplug. They want to slow down, to stop and relax and to enjoy the experience.”
With a mind to unwind, recently, on a Friday afternoon in Toronto, I marched past pubs filled with end-of-the-workweek celebrators to attend afternoon tea at the Omni King Edward Hotel, which, when it opened its doors in 1903 was among the most opulent hotels in North America. Originally, it was supposed to be named the Palace Hotel to honour Queen Victoria, but, following her death in 1901, it was renamed to pay tribute to King Edward VII.
After I chose from a selection of two dozen tea blends, a waiter set a plate of sandwiches and a three-tier plate stand filled with little goodies on my table. As I was about to dig in, executive chef Daniel Schick joined me.
“You start at the bottom and work your way up,” he advised, referring to the tier. “But we ask that you eat the sandwiches first so they don’t dry out, which is why we serve them separately.”
Tea historians say it should be scones on the bottom (with jam and Devonshire cream), then sandwiches, then sweets. And while there is some disagreement in the hospitality industry as to which should be devoured first – sandwiches or scones (while they are still warm!) – all agree on saving the sweets for last. I asked Schick about the other rules of pairing food with tea.
“I don’t want to say the food should be mild or bland, but the flavours must not be overpowering, and they can’t interfere with the tea. Afternoon tea should be an excursion of different tastes that complement each other.”
I noted that although the names of the items on the menu were more of a mouthful than the tiny treats themselves – The King’s Beef Wellington Inspiration, for example, or Caramel Mousse with Cognac Poached Pears – nothing was wildly unfamiliar. “We’re always looking to update the experience, but you have to be careful not to stray too far from what is expected,” Schick explained. “One time we served fish cones, and guests were not pleased. They want tradition.”
With the Victoria Day long weekend upon us, now is a lovely time to host a traditional Victorian afternoon tea-tasting party infused with an update. We’ll invite the gentlemen, of course.
Modernity aside, because a big part of the ambience of afternoon tea lay in the requisite apparel of the times, to set the mood, consider asking guests to dress up Victorian-style.
According to Gemini Award-winner Alex Reda, the chief costume designer for the CBC’s hit Victoria-era drama, Murdoch Mysteries, a costume party will turn the occasion into more of an event. “In Victorian times, people knew what they should look like and what they had to wear and, while it’s great that now we can make choices and not be judged, the costumes of the era will take you back to a simpler, more romantic time.”
Garb also helps folks get into character. “It’s amazing how a bit player or a lead actor will walk in for a fitting and they’re in shorts and a T-shirt, say, and they’re all slouched. But then, just the process of putting on the costume, beginning with the undergarments, changes the way they stand, the way they breath, the way they hold their head.”
Easy ways to pull off a Victorian look without heading to a costume rental store include: for women, a straw hat with ribbon; lacy blouse; ankle-length skirt; wrist-length gloves; granny boots or for those who wish to go all out – or all in, rather – a corset, bum pad and stockings. For men, a linen three-piece striped or light-coloured suit, a bow tie or plaid tie, a straw boater hat or motoring cap and a walking stick.
The actual tasting portion of your party features tea as the star and should be held at the beginning of the party. Hartwick, who hosts public tastings and has lent her expertise into the development of our tea-tasting scorecards, suggests trying five types: black, white, green, oolong and pu-erh. You’ll need five large teapots and one teacup per guest so ask friends to raid their china cabinets and bring along a few heirlooms passed down from their grandmothers or moms. After the tasting, invite guests to grab a cup of their favourite and see how it pairs with the assortment of scones, sandwiches and sweets you’ve set out.
Recipe-wise, here are three to get you started: Empress Scones, contributed by the Empress, and the King Eddy’s Coronation Chicken Salad Sandwich as well as the pudding (what the Brits sometimes call dessert): Lemon Posset with Muddled Bumbleberries. For additional sandwiches, you don’t have to reinvent the pinwheel – classics such as egg salad or cucumber and cream cheese for our go-meatless friends, cut into small rectangles, will do. For additional sweets, whip up a batch of squares and cut them into bite-size pieces. Or, as chef Schick suggests, “Make one or two baked goods yourself and then go buy the rest. Once you put them together on a plate, everyone will think you made them all.”
Music matters. Afternoon tea dances were also a rage, at which, to the sounds of a live orchestra, couples danced the afternoon away. To encourage such behaviour, along with beer serve plenty of sparkling wine as well as cocktails infused with tea. No need for your party to be prim and proper – to Victorians, nothing was more delicious than a scandal.
Next: Recipe for Empress Scones
From the kitchens of Fairmont Empress Victoria
Makes 35 scones
8½ cups flour
1 cup + 2 tsp butter (hard)
1 cup + 2 tsp granulated sugar
4 tbsp baking powder
¾ cup raisins
2 cups whipping cream
Crumb flour, butter, sugar, baking powder and salt. Mix in 5 whole eggs and 1 egg white slowly. Add raisins. Add cream and mix to create a smooth dough. Roll out to ½-inch thickness and cut into desired size and shape. Brush scones with remaining egg yolk and bake in 350 F oven for 25 for 30 minutes or until golden.
Next: Recipes for Lemon Posset with Muddled Bumbleberries
Lemon Posset with Muddled Bumbleberries
From Omni King Edward Hotel
Makes 20 shot-glass servings
3 cups whipping cream
1 cup granulated sugar
⅓ cup fresh lemon juice
Raspberries, blackberries and strawberries
In a pot, combine cream and sugar; bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 6 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice. Let cool slightly. Pour into shot glasses until ⅔ full. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours to set. Muddle (mash) a combination of raspberries, blackberries and strawberries with a bit of lemon juice and sugar and spoon onto
Next: Coronation Chicken Salad
Coronation Chicken Salad
From Omni King Edward Hotel
5 regular sandwiches,
yielding 15 finger sandwiches
diced cooked boneless skinless chicken
½ cup mayonnaise
⅓ cup Greek yogurt
2 tbsp mango chutney
1 tbsp chopped dried apricots
1 tsp curry powder
1 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
1 tbsp fresh lime juice
Salt and pepper
A few dashes Worcestershire sauce
Combine chicken, mayonnaise, yogurt, chutney, apricots, curry, coriander, lime juice, salt and pepper to taste and Worchestershire. Spread onto bread, trim crusts and cut into small rectangles.
TIP: Cover sandwiches with plastic wrap to prevent drying until just before serving.
Next: Tea-Infused Cocktails
From Stratford mixologist
2 oz Kraken Rum
4 oz apple cider
3 oz Earl Grey tea, chilled
3 dashes Dillon’s pear bitters
Mix and serve over ice.
2 oz Pimm’s No.1
5 oz brewed green tea
2 oz cucumber lime syrup
Splash each ginger ale and soda
Fruit for garnish
Mix, garnish with fruit and serve over ice.
What You’ll Need
– 5 different types of loose tea leaves – 50 grams each of black (strong-flavoured blends such as Earl Grey, English Breakfast or Ceylon Orange Pekoe), white (known as Silvery Tip Pekoe or China/Fujian White), green, oolong and pu-erh
– 5 6- to 8- cup teapots
– 5 saucers
– A few three-tier plate stands or serving platters
– Appetizer plates and napkins
– Milk and sugar cubes
– Devonshire cream and jam, plus spreader knives
– 1 pen plus 5 scorecards (one for each tea) per guest (download PDF from www.everythingzoomer.com/tag/tasting-party)
– A large bowl or bucket in which to dump any leftover tea between tastings
Set Up and Ambience
– Use a table or kitchen island for tea tasting, complete with vintage or modern china, anything silver or antique
– Set out finger food on end or coffee tables
– Create a playlist of piano or classical music for tasting; ballroom tunes or dancing music for afterward
– Set out 5 pots of tea with a saucer containing its wet and dry leaves next to each; set a place card listing tea name and a brief description beside each
– Take guests through the proper steps of a tea-tasting, beginning with an analysis of the dry leaf, infusion leaf and the tea liquid “known as tea liquor” (scorecard PDF includes tasting instructions)
– Empty cups thoroughly between tastings
– Ask guests to compare impressions, state their favourite and then declare an overall winner