Food For Thought: Afternoon Tea

The very hungry Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, is rumoured to have started the late afternoon indulgence of cake and tea in the early 1840s. The lull of energy and the hunger pains that creep up on us all became too much for Anna and she began to take a cup of tea, bread and butter, and a small cake in her room. With hunger kept at bay, the only thing lacking was company, so she began to share her afternoon ritual with others.

By the 1880s the art of taking afternoon tea had turned into a grand affair for all concerned. Etiquette on how to dress, set the table and even the invention of fine bone china came from the growing demands of the upper-class and their afternoon tea sessions.

Once guests were at the table, and suitably dressed for the occasion, the most iconic afternoon tea dish would grace the table: the very humble cucumber sandwich. It was the humbleness of this sandwich that proved just how much of an extravagant event afternoon tea was. While a nation was starving, and every meal was considered to be of importance, the upperclass were enjoying frivolous sandwiches that had little to no nutritional benefit. The cucumber sandwich would make legendary status and was even referenced in the first act of The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.

Once sandwiches had been eaten, only then would a selection of small, but very elegant, cakes be brought to the table. Victorian classics – fruit cake, sponge cake and brandy snap baskets – kept people eating well into the evening. But foreign influences would eventually make their way to the table and are now considered mandatory inclusions at afternoon tea.

Madeleines, traditionally baked in the shape of scallop shells, are the perfect addition to the afternoon tea line-up. Originally from the northeast of France, these cakes have the perfect crumb for soaking up hot cups of tea.

Although many of us reference high tea, it was in fact afternoon tea that was the more grand and lavish affair. High tea was traditionally a more robust event and enjoyed in a much more relaxed way. High tea was also served much later in the day but more importantly was the meal directly after finishing a long day’s work. It is suggested that this is where the term ‘tea time’ originated.

Whether it is afternoon tea, high tea or even a snack and a cup of tea, most of us indulge in this ritual daily, thanks to Anna and her hunger pains!

Madeleines Recipe

This cake batter is traditionally baked in shell-moulded tins but if you don’t have one, they bake perfectly in muffin tins.

Ingredients

• 4 eggs
• 150g caster sugar
• 3 teaspoons vanilla extract
• Zest of two oranges
• 150g unsalted butter
• Extra butter for greasing the tins
• 200g plain flur
• Pinch of salt
• 1 teaspoon bicarbonate soda

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 210 degrees. 2. Whisk the eggs and sugar for four to five minutes or until pale and double in volume.
3. Add the orange zest and vanilla. Whisk for a further minute to combine.
4. Melt the butter until slightly nut brown; set aside to cool.
5. Using a pastry brush, lightly grease the tins with room temperature butter (if not using a non-stick pan, lightly dust the buttered tin with flour. Tap upside down to remove any excess flour and leave to set in the fridge for 15 minutes).
6. Sift the flour, bicarb soda and pinch of salt onto the egg mixture.
7. Lightly fold the mixture.
8. Add the melted butter when nearly all of the flour has been incorporated, ensuring to fold the mixture gently to ensure a light batter.
9. Spoon the mixture into the moulds, filling them around three quarters of the way to the top.
10. Bake for 10 minutes or until just set in the centre and golden on the underside.
11. Serve warm from the oven.

@annabelleats