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Time for tea

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Photo: Steve Smith/VisionFire

Afternoon and high teas are making a comeback

Once a cherished way to spend time with friends and family, afternoon and high teas are back in fashion. 

“I think it feels traditional or nostalgic,” says Angela Barclay, general manager of Red Oak Catering, which runs the Rooms Café in St. John’s, Nfld. “It’s a throwback to gentler times.”

Afternoon tea began in the 19th century and is credited to Duchess Anna of Bedford.  

“She would have her friends over in the afternoon to walk the estate’s grounds, and then they would get a bit peckish around 4 p.m.,” says Barclay. “They wouldn’t eat supper until about 8 p.m., so they needed a little something to carry themselves over. That’s how it is thought to have started.”

Finger sandwiches were — and still are — typically on the menu during afternoon tea. They are made with white bread, with the crusts sliced off. Cucumber, cheese and pickles are the traditional fillings. 

Barclay says Red Oak has elevated their sandwich game with options such as sesame chicken, cornbread with pulled pork and curried egg. In addition to sandwiches, Red Oak also has an array of sweets and scones with homemade preserves and clotted cream.

“Clotted cream is a traditional thing from Cornwall,” says Barclay. “You take your full-fat cream, bake it in the oven and it cooks from the top down in a very slow process. We typically leave it in the oven overnight to a very low temperature… It becomes thick, almost like butter.”

Photo: Steve Smith/VisionFire

Bow down to royal-tea

Carol Rybinski of P.E.I.’s Tyne Valley Teas Café says there’s a misconception among people in North America that high tea is fancy.

“High tea would have been for labourers or blue-collar workers and it would be a more substantive meal,” she says. “You’d have meat pie, potted meat, cheese on toast. You might even have tea, cake, pies and pickled eggs, and it would be served on a high table like a kitchen table. That’s why it’s called ‘high tea’ — because it’s served up high.”

Of course, tea is the most crucial part of the experience.

“When people first come in, we ask them to choose the tea they’d like so everyone can have their flavour of potted tea,” says Rybinski. “We go over the history of tea, how it used to be packaged in blocks and the tea road through China, and how it was introduced to England and Europe.”

Rybinski says Tyne Valley has a three-course menu for its afternoon tea, starting with scones, then sandwiches followed by sweets. The sandwiches are cucumber with dill cream cheese or smoked salmon with capers. The dessert options include cream puffs, napoleons, squares, tarts and cupcakes.

Time to par-tea!

Occasion-themed teas can also elevate the experience, such as adding truffles and rose-shaped foods for Mother’s Day. For Father’s Day, Red Oak adds scotch eggs, sausage rolls, English beer and more meat-based foods. On a birthday, you can add a cupcake and champagne.

For families, there are also options to cater some of the food items for children so they can partake in the fun.

“They tend to like little mini cupcakes,” says Rybinski. “For platters, children might not like smoked salmon, so we’ll do little cheese sandwiches with a little cut-out in the shapes of flowers or hearts, little peanut butter and jam sandwiches, blueberries and fruit.” 

They also give kids their own special little mini teacups and platters.

“We don’t take it too seriously,” says Rybinski. “It’s fancy, but light and folks can sit back, be a little bit more mindful and enjoy the small luxuries of life.”

Another idea is to add an international flair to the food items of your tea party. 

For an Indian-themed event, you could incorporate curry into sandwiches, samosas, little pots with cardamom rice pudding and gulab jamuns (a sweet Indian confectionary). Other ways to add an international flair are Thai-inspired golden baskets and green and white tea with Korean food.

Sip, sip, hooray!

A tea set-up can also be a semi-formal event, with mismatched teacups and saucers, cloth napkins, and fancy spoons and forks. A tea tier stand is typically used for presentation and has a station with lovely teapots and an array of different teas.

“One of the reasons I opened my shop is to share my antique teacups and my favourite tea,” says Jassy Kim, owner of Moncton’s Jassy Boutique and Tea Room. “I displayed my favourite teas in the store and opened my china cabinet. We want to share with our customers the experience of hundreds of antique china teacups we have collected so far, so I give them a chance to choose their teacup in my cabinet and drink their tea in them.”

Jassy Boutique and Tea Room offers a high tea in addition to its afternoon tea. Its menu includes the traditional scones with clotted cream and fruit jam, plus items such as a seafood salad with French Earl Grey infused dressings. For dessert, it’s macarons and either raspberry or chocolate mousse.

If you’re hosting your own high tea, Barclay says decorating the table is the first important step.  

“You can break out all the stuff you rarely get out of your china cabinet,” says Barclay. “Everybody’s got their linens; I certainly have my grandmother’s napkins and tablecloths. People can put their personal touch on it with the stuff they probably have packed away in their basement and some old, mismatched china they’ve had for 20 years.”

Tea etiquette is common and diverse, depending on what part of the world you enjoy the event. For example, it’s often advised that people not raise their pinky finger up when drinking tea, as it indicated that’re trying too hard. 

Kim notes other etiquette and tips for high or afternoon tea.

Photo: Steve Smith/VisionFire

For dress attire, women have been known to wear dresses, skirts and fancy hats to tea. However, in these times, there are more relaxed rules on dressing up or down, as long as people are neat, tidy and comfortable.

“Warm the cup in advance, turn off your cell phone ringtone to avoid disturbing the quiet teatime, don’t sip your tea and quietly put down your teacup,” she says. “I think teatime is not only for drinking tea, but also time for curing and emphasizing each other’s hearts with conversation.” 

How to make the perfect cup

Angela Barclay, general manager of Red Oak Catering, which runs the Rooms Café in St. John’s, Nfld., recommends the following steps for making the perfect cup of tea:

1. Use one tea bag for two cups

2. After boiling the water, let it sit for a minute before you pour over the teabag, so you don’t burn the bag

3. Let the tea steep for five to 10 minutes

4. Pour the tea from the pot that’s using tea bags into a nice serving tea pot

Carol Rybinski of P.E.I.’s Tyne Valley Teas Café says that for fresher and better flavour, consider using loose tea leaves.  

1. Use 1 tsp per cup

2. For black tea, steep three to five minutes

3. Since herbal teas are lighter, steep for only one to two minutes

Tea and food pairings

Orange pekoe and Earl Grey with finger sandwiches

Darjeeling or Assam tea with curried sandwiches and samosas

Chai tea with cardamom rice pudding and gulab jamuns

English breakfast or Irish tea with savouries

Dewy cherry or peach oolong tea with sweets

Green or white tea with Korean food

Popular teas

Orange pekoe (black)

English breakfast (black)



Irish (black)

Silver moon (green)

Darjeeling with rose scent

Bain de roses 

Honeybush banana nut (herbal)

* At Tyne Valley, Rybinski offers blooming tea as a calming alternative to the other teas. It starts as a green tea all tied up into a little ball. When you put hot water in it, it opens into a lovely flower.

Ameeta Vohra

East Coast Living