You sip on a glass of lovely chilled champagne as you recline back into a comfortable sofa, by the side of a roaring fire, your gaze attracted by the view over to the lawn and the beautiful sea beyond. There is a delicious smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwich in your hand, savouring the moment, and you start daydreaming about what comes next: scones, petits fours, cakes, shortbread… and you give thanks for the delights of Afternoon Tea.
We enjoy our Afternoon Teas here at Loch Melfort and turn them into quite an occasion. But where did it all come from? That quintessential of British tradition, the Afternoon Tea is actually only as recent as the 19th Century. It is said to have been instigated by Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, in the early 1800s. It was fashionable at the time to eat dinner quite late and essentially the Duchess needed a bit of a snack to ensure she lasted between lunch and dinner without what she described as a “sinking feeling”.
Tea, bread, butter and cakes were therefore served in her boudoir and, after inviting a few friends around to enjoy this novel meal, the custom very quickly became fashionable in the London good society who all started tucking into tea, sandwiches (invented not that long before that by the Earl of the same name) and cakes in their drawing rooms with friends.
Well, we are a far cry from the 1800s’ London high society but the custom did spread throughout the country quite quickly and made its way up to Scotland where it may have somewhat clashed with High Tea, which was once a more middle-class tradition. High Tea, sometimes simply referred to as Tea, is a much more dinner-like and rather less dainty affair, consisting of a rich main course (fish featuring highly) with lots of bread and butter, and plenty of cakes, scones and other baked goods for afters.
This tradition, which some say is dying out, did not mean that the Scots didn’t also enjoy their Afternoon Tea. Probably something to do with the delicious cakes on offer! And Scottish cakes are quite sensational.
Afternoon Teas in our part of the world have long made use of local delicacies, including smoked salmon and venison and a variety of breads. The cake part of the event usually includes the traditional scones and clotted cream, shortbread and an assortment of other cakes, at least one of which is chocolate. Tiffin (crushed biscuits mixed with butter, syrup, raisins and cocoa powder, covered in melted chocolate) or flapjacks sometimes replace shortbread.
The main cakes, served in finger food portions on impressive cake towers, can include classic petits fours such as macaroons, eclairs, tartlets, meringues, tiny vanilla or chocolate sponge-based cakes. But Scottish cakes also make a much-appreciated appearance with traditional bakes such as the Selkirk Bannock (a rich fruit bread, very yummy!), gingerbread, Dundee cake (a glazed fruitcake with cherries, sultanas and almonds), jam tarts or cranachan (oatmeal, whipping cream, whisky and fruit often make up this delicious treat). Are you hungry yet? We are!
Whilst Afternoon Tea is a treat best enjoyed when someone else prepares it for you, we couldn’t quite end this blog without adding some top tips on that most elusive of baking challenges: a good scone. Whether you pronounce it “Skon” or “Skoan”, a good scone is the result of a few key aspects: using chilled butter (think making pastry) and very good quality buttermilk, getting the oven very hot and packing the scones quite tighly together to ensure a good rise. Finally the most important point is to limit your handling of the dough: just bring it together then fold a couple of times and no more. Overworking it will kill the rise.
So there you go, we hope you have given you an appetite for Afternoon Tea. At a time of year when we treat loved ones, other halves, our mums, or just need a little comfort ahead of the warmer months, Afternoon Tea could be just the treat for you.