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Host your own afternoon tea

Afternoon tea started as a bridge to keep royals full between lunch and dinner, but today it’s best served casual and with good company

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Ma Belle’s Café on Ochterloney Street in downtown Dartmouth, N.S. carries on a historic tradition. The tiny British-themed café serves afternoon tea, a meal of sandwiches, scones, jams, sweets, and tea, by reservation only.

Owners Danny and Jennifer Deagle bought Ma Belle’s four years ago from the previous owners, who offered tea service since 1988. The couple recently announced plans to sell the café, but hope to find a buyer who will keep its current concept.

‘‘The first time we did it, I saw how people enjoyed it,’’ Danny says. ‘‘It was such a nice, social get-together.’’

Afternoon tea at Ma Belle’s includes dainty sandwiches cut into triangles (crust-free, of course). The café serves sandwiches on house-baked bread filled with classics like cream cheese and cucumber, cucumber with cheddar and mayonnaise, ham and cheese, egg salad, and chicken salad. Alongside it serves raisin scones with jams and assorted sweets like carrot cake and sticky toffee pudding. To set the mood, the spread arrives on tiered plates. ‘‘It’s not like any other brunch or lunch,’’ Danny says. ‘‘It’s a personalized meal with a special feel.’’

Anne Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, started afternoon tea in the mid-1840s, says etiquette and entertaining expert Charles MacPherson. “She had trouble waiting between lunch and dinner.” MacPherson is the founder and president of Toronto-based Charles MacPherson Associates Inc., which offers luxury household services and operates North America’s only registered school for butlers and household managers. You may know him as Charles the Butler, author of The Butler Speaks.

MacPherson says the Duchess wanted a meal that could tide her over between lunch and dinner, which was traditionally served between 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. The Duchess invited her friends to the meal, and started an afternoon social ritual for Britain’s middle and upper classes.

While many use the terms interchangeably, there is a difference between afternoon tea and high tea. MacPherson says high tea was a meal for working-class people like coal miners, and consisted of a tea and a hot meal such as shepherd’s pie. Afternoon tea or low tea was reserved for the middle and upper classes.

Today, afternoon tea service and its offerings continue to evolve. ‘‘It’s now becoming a meal,’’ MacPherson says. ‘‘It’s my favourite meal of the day.’’

Historically, afternoon tea was a casual affair, served on the coffee table with linens draped over it, MacPherson says. The meal itself was simply tea and a dessert like a slice of cake. Modern tea with its tiered trays of sweets and ornate teacups started with hotels and restaurants.

As for the tea, MacPherson suggests serving a light tea, such as Darjeeling. ‘‘You don’t want the tea to overpower the rest of the food,’’ he says.

Tea should last about two hours, starting around 3:30 p.m. or 4 p.m. While afternoon tea conjures up images of holding dainty cups with pinky fingers in the air, there really doesn’t need to be etiquette with this meal. It can be as fancy or as casual as the host would like.

Shadow Lawn Inn in Rothesay, N.B., started offering afternoon tea 70 years ago. Owner James Gallagher says the inn hosts 25 to 30 per year. ‘‘People kept asking for it and our venue is the ideal spot to offer it in this region,’’ Gallagher says.

The setting features intimate two- and four-seat tables with delicate china and crisp white linens. The food includes open-face or triangle-cut sandwiches filled with smoked salmon, lobster, egg salad, and ham and Swiss cheese.

The inn’s signature white-chocolate scones with jams and clotted cream are the star of the sweet tray, alongside lemon squares and sticky date pudding.

Gallagher and his staff set long tables with old-fashioned teacups and saucers, and serve sandwiches, sweets, and scones on multi-tiered plates. ‘‘It gives people the feeling of sophistication,’’ Gallagher says. ‘‘It brings them back to a romantic image.’’

When it comes to planning an afternoon tea at home, MacPherson suggests serving sandwiches, scones, and desserts, or even hot hors d’oeuvres. Ultimately, he says, afternoon tea is about keeping it simple and social.

‘‘It’s a great way to enjoy the company of family and friends,’’ MacPherson says. ‘‘It’s a great way to entertain without going into a great production.’’

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