BATTEN down the hatches and put on the kettle: the season of gloomy Sunday afternoons is upon us — when lighting the fire and watching an old film seems like the best way of dealing with dark days.
Then again, it’s a time to catch up with friends without braving the weather, or queuing for a carvery lunch, when you can invite them round for a leisurely afternoon tea at 4 o’clock.
Everyone will be gone by 6.30pm and the washing up will be sorted before Downton Abbey starts. If you baulk at the idea of whipping up a batter, buy in your cakes and scones and just make little sandwiches, especially if you don’t have much time.
It will take just an hour to get everything set up, including your beautifully laid table. You know that somewhere in the back of a cupboard lurks a neglected set of old china that’s never used because it would melt in the dishwasher.
Well, now is the time to give it an airing along with that white linen table cloth you inherited, or received as a wedding present from a well-meaning, aged aunt. Set both on your coffee table in front of the fire with your best milk jug and sugar bowls.
In the absence of a set of china, use your everyday cups and saucers mixed with decorative plates. If you insist on mugs, use your best china versions or create a theme as it’s a special event.
A little effort at least is required to make it memorable, and not just a mug of tea and a digestive biscuit while you catch up on the latest gossip.
Now make a selection of sandwiches, the tradition being a mix of cucumber, smoked salmon and coronation chicken, but really, make what you like and cut off the crusts. Then stand them in little triangles on one of your best plates: usually a large plate comes with a set of china and just needs a traditional doily.
Next organise your scones and dainty cakes, arranging them on fancy plates or a tray or chopping board. If you have a three-tiered cake stand all the better, so sandwiches will go on the lowest, scones in the middle tier and the dainty cakes on top.
Put jam and cream for the scones in bowls and chop the butter into tiny dice if you’re feeling extra posh. Napkins are a must to catch crumbs and wipe jammy fingers. If they match your cloth it will all look very professional — like a very grand hotel.
But if you lack the necessary linens, just improvise. A throw or fancy bedspread can happily double up as a table cloth augmented with some nice paper napkins.
To finish the look, make sure you have a centrepiece on the table. The obvious thing is a cake stand or the must-have tea pot, particularly an interesting one. If you don’t have enough space for everything on the table, a child who loves to help can pass around the goodies, and guests can use occasional tables to perch cups.
If you go all out and have a champagne afternoon tea (sparkling wine, especially Italian prosecco and Spanish cava are excellent and more affordable), little tables are a necessity to avoid tipsy spillages.
* Next week we’re warming to midnight blue.
Trying to cut down on caffeine consumption? Get your fix with a scented candle from a brand new tea-based range just launched by Max Benjamin. Or you could just enhance the atmosphere of your afternoon tea party with combinations of Assam and lemon, and Victorian Earl Grey.
€15 each at Arnotts, House of Fraser, Kilkenny, Avoca, Meadows & Byrne and Carraig Donn.
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