Afternoon tea is a 200-year-old ritual indulged in by lovers of a porcelain cup with tea streaming from a china pot, and dainty treats, sweet and savoury, that we have Anna, Duchess of Bedford to thank for.
Back in the thick of the Victorian era when lunch, as we know it today, didn’t exist, poor Anna complained of a sinking feeling mid-afternoon which she remedied with tea and a bite, later inviting friends round to join her.
A celebrity in her day, being besties with Queen Victoria, Anna’s afternoon tea caught on, like the micro-distillery gin and charcuterie board of its time. something we can replicate over Christmas while we’re relaxed, the fire is blazing and candles are lit on a beautifully laid table.
But let’s steer clear of the gimmicky deconstructed afternoon tea that diminishes fluffy scones to mere croutons for sprinkling over strawberry compote, and where Assam is tipped out for a cheeky fruit infusion claiming to enhance the compote’s sweetness.
This is the season when flavours of history and tradition are requisite.
Giving us the scoop on how to do it in five-star style are historic Adare Manor in Co. Limerick and the flamboyant Townhouse Café in Doneraile, Co Cork.
Rasa Alisauskaite, assistant food and beverage manager of The Gallery at Adare Manor, advocates for a traditional tablescape, starting with a gleaming white tablecloth and napkins to make the set-up feel clean and elegant.
“One of the most exciting parts of getting ready for a tea party is setting the table for your guests,” she says.
“This is when your cake stand, crockery and utensils come out to shine. Use your finest crockery and make it a little more special with folded napkins and name place cards. A tiered cake stand to display and serve the food as your table's centrepiece is a must.
For adding in Christmas Day leftovers and presenting them with novelty and enhanced flavour, Rasa says, “Sugar cure your ham and serve with wholegrain mustard on cranberry rye bread. Serve turkey with chutney which we have on our signature Carriage House onion bread, with mince pies as dessert with Irish whipped cream.”
To make the event pop, Rasa adds a glass of bubbly to a lush afternoon of tea, sandwiches and cake, and for a touch of sophistication, handwritten or digital menus.
Myra Ryall, owner of Townhouse Café and Interiors, says, “Dress the table as if you’re creating the table of your dreams and fantasy.
"Think masquerade balls and Vanity Fair, starting with the tablecloth you’ve been keeping for a special day.
“Place a small dessert plate in the centre of the place setting and your cutlery on top,” she adds.
Some guests might be driving or non-drinkers, so having a selection of drinks to suit both is essential, Myra says. “Keep your drinks on a trolley or side table so your guests are not obliged to have a tipple. Have a selection of non-alcoholic and alcoholic but dress them as if they were cocktails.”
With a focus on everything being relaxing, especially after the rigours of cooking Christmas dinner, Myra suggests keeping food fuss-free, preparing it beforehand to leave time to be with your guests.
“Turkey is delicious as savoury tarts with some cranberry sauce,” she suggests.
“Finger sandwiches of beef, ham, and turkey are all reinvented perfectly as afternoon tea. Smoked salmon on a circle cut brown bread with cream cheese and a wedge of lemon.”