Afternoon tea offers an easy, stress-free entertaining option over Christmas, writes Carol O’Callaghan
Main image: Marks & Spencer’s Hollywood Deco set of four china cups and saucers (€40) and four plates (€40), cite afternoon tea at The Ritz in the1930s. The Pineapple cake stand (€65) will show off your sandwiches, scones and cake.
Have you ever heard of a musical called Come Out of The Pantry?
I hadn’t either, but we’ve all heard of a famous song from it called ‘Everything Stops for Tea’, written by Goodhart, Hoffman and Sigler in 1935.
It was a time when afternoon tea reached its apogee of savoury and sweet deliciousness, and provided a smoke screen of respectability for daytime assignations.
But even this rarefied event of delicacy and refinement has fallen victim to a new age makeover. In 2017 we have the Tea-tox, where the eponymous beverage is green, sandwiches are made with spinach bread encasing virtuous fillings like miso glazed smoked salmon, accompanied by beetroot crêpes.
Am I likely to be led into temptation? Well, I probably would in a moment of dietary rectitude more suited to the New Year.
For me, authentic afternoon tea offers detoxification from the rat race rather than from food, as an event of singular indulgence while sunk into a well-upholstered sofa never to be removed.
It’s made all the more appealing after the hard work of dinner preparations on Christmas Day and a restorative St Stephen’s Day, to entertain guests with tea in front of the fire before the razzmatazz of New Year’s Eve descends.
Of course, it will also despatch left-over turkey and ham that didn’t fall victim to the reheat or inevitable turkey curry.
To make the occasion extra special and festive, serve your guests champagne when they arrive, or a flute of less expensive, but perfectly delicious, Spanish Cava.
If you’ve invited significant numbers, it isn’t necessary to seat everyone together. Some can gather round a table, others on sofas balancing dainty cups and saucers on napkin-draped knees, with plates on occasional tables.
For authenticity, tablecloths are preferable, but don’t feel you have to cover the entire tabletop. Runners and placemats will do nicely. Linen napkins are luxurious, but as this afternoon tea party ought to involve as little effort as possible, colourful paper napkins from supermarkets and home interior shops.
In the centre of the table place three courses which make up traditional afternoon tea:
Course one: Dainty quarter sandwiches. Course two: Scones with jam and whipped cream. Course three: Delicious pastries and creamy cakes.
As the object is to use up leftovers, triangulate somesandwiches of turkey and stuffing and embellish them with acranberry relish. Try ham with mustard, and even spiced beef with chutney.
For younger guests bearing a sweet tooth, slices of the crustiest buttered bread slathered with seasonal jam will be acceptable.
Scones - lovely though they are fresh from the oven - involve cooking, so try slices of Christmas cake on a doily-covered china plate, interspersed with fingers of Madeira cake. If you own a cake stand, show off your whole cake as a centrepiece.
Improvise with your third plate and dish out from your boxes of biscuits, or if there’s some plum pudding hanging about, serve with cream and a little drizzle of warmed up whiskey liquor.
Two- and three-tiered plate stands are the ultimate in tradition and can be handed round by a younger guest who loves to help.
As we’re a few days off the 25th, there’s still time to ask Santa Baby to put some china beauties under the tree.
Wedgwood’s Polka Dot two-tier plate stand is feminine and fun (€60), but for the ultimate afternoon tea display, Royal Doulton’s Old Roses three-tiered assemblage can hold your afternoon triumvirate of goodies (€75).
Start with sandwiches on the bottom, scones or slices of cake in the middle, and dainties or chocolate biscuits on
Teapots are a must and, for authenticity, try to use loose tea and a strainer for a slow, relaxing pouring ritual.
Many houses already have a lonely pot lost in the back of a cupboard, but if you don’t possess one, there’s plenty of choice from genteel flowery varieties to contemporary models.
Royal Tara has a thoroughly modern example finished in matt black with a minimal motif of St Brigid’s Cross (€32.50). Belleek offers a square pot finished in cream with the addition of a pale green lid to give it a 1950s vibe. But if you’d prefer the traditional round, try Rachel Allen’s white version for Tipperary Crystal with its gentle blue pattern (€34.50).
To complete the mood, don your best Christmas outfit. Hats and fur stoles are optional.
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