It was Dick and Helen Adorjan’s first time abroad: a trip to London to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. But for the Adorjans it also became a journey of discovery – a discovery of the delights of tea.
Not just tea as a beverage, although drinking properly brewed tea made with top quality leaves was a revelation. There was also the experience of tea as an event.
“Helen had always wanted to go to an afternoon tea,” says Dick. “So we chose the Savoy.” The Adorjans loved everything about it – the pots with different brews of tea, the tiered stands of cakes and scones, and savory sandwiches.
Different customs, ceremonies and cuisines based around tea span the globe: from Japan’s ritual tea ceremony, to Russian samovars, to British builder’s tea – so named because builders would refuse to work on sites when provisions weren’t available for their tea breaks. Builder’s tea is exceptionally strong – as black as the strongest coffee – and drunk with milk and sugar, sometimes lots of sugar. It’s a far cry from a refined cup of tea. But when weather is cold and damp, I sometimes make builder’s tea – it can be as comforting and warming as a cup of cocoa. In Britain and many of its Commonwealth countries, tea is a beverage, but also a synonym for supper, especially in farm country and working class neighborhoods. When students at New Zealand’s Lincoln University, where my daughter, Ashley, studied, asked “What’s for tea?” the answer was found on the dining hall’s posted dinner menu. Tea-as-supper is also called high tea in Britain, a term that in America is often confused with afternoon tea.
European afternoon tea is where the most elaborate, most profuse foodstuffs make an appearance. During the classical age of European diplomacy, it played a significant role in maintaining one of the longest peaceful periods in history. According to UIS professor Steven Schwark, after the fall of Napoleon, wealthy well-bred diplomats from all European countries met regularly for what was called the Concert of Europe (a sort of 19th century precursor to the United Nations) to solve problems arising between their countries and prevent the rise of another Napoleon. They found le té de cinq heures (five o’clock tea) an ideal forum to nurture the cordial atmosphere necessary to conduct their negotiations.
Though the custom of afternoon tea has faded in much of the Continent, it remains popular in the U.K. The Adorjans enjoyed their afternoon tea at the Savoy so much, they wanted to recreate the experience back home in Springfield.
Almost two decades later, they and a group of tea-loving friends are still getting together every other month for afternoon tea. They decided to add book reading to their teas, naming their group Read and Feed; although, as member Judy Everson says, “Sometimes I think we should’ve named it Feed and Read.”
“We’re lucky to have wonderful cooks and bakers in the group,” says Dick Adorjan. Though they most often have traditional tea foods, such as scones, trifles and tea sandwiches, Read and Feed members branch out into other areas, too, such as a Chinese woman who has made dim sum, delectable Chinese “small plates.”
Read and Feed teas always include at least three pots of different types of tea, always including one that’s become the group’s favorite: Blue Lady, a black tea with fruity elements. Like tea aficionados everywhere, they use only loose teas. Most tea in tea bags is of poor quality, but tea made with even good tea in bags can’t compare with loose tea, because the leaves are crushed when put into bags. Unfortunately, members say they can’t find really good loose teas locally; they order theirs (including the Blue Lady) online.
No matter what they’re reading, Read and Feed’s get-togethers have the three elements crucial to classic afternoon teas: Properly made tea, delicious food and an air of warm conviviality.
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.
Use good tea. As with all food and drink, the end product can only be as good as the ingredients that go into it. There are good quality teas sold in bags, and they’re certainly convenient, but serious tea drinkers know that the best tea can only be made with loose tea. Use one teaspoon per cup.
Use good water. If your tap water is hard (has many minerals) or has chemical flavors such as chlorine, use bottled spring water or distilled water.
Bring the water to a full boil.
While the water heats, warm the teapot with hot tap water or hot water from the kettle. Pour the water out of the teapot and put the tea in it.
As soon as the water comes to a full boil, pour it into the pot. Tea connoisseurs usually insist on bringing the teapot to the kettle: releasing the full flavor of the tea depends on the water hitting the leaves at exactly the boiling point.
Let the tea steep at least 3 minutes. Five minutes is considered ideal. After that point it may begin to get bitter.
Strain the spent tea leaves from the brewed tea and serve immediately.
Making tea sandwiches is a great opportunity to have fun and let your creativity shine. The sandwiches should look pretty, but they should also taste as good as they look. Sandwiches can be open-faced or not. Variations – fillings, garnishes, shapes – are almost limitless.
Bread for tea sandwiches should be thin-cut and firm-textured, crusts trimmed. White sandwich loaf (called pan de mie in French) is the traditional choice and is in many ways the best. Bakers sometimes bake pan de mies in special molds that form them into triangles, rounds or other shapes. Similar results can be had using cookie cutters. Pepperidge Farm Classic White and Wheat Sandwich loaves which come in regular (which is relatively thin) and very thin are good, widely available pan de mies. Other good choices are challah, brioche and the thinly sliced light and dark pumpernickels found in grocery deli sections. Rustic breads with large air pockets do not work well.
Fillings for tea sandwiches should be finely chopped, especially if they are to be used between two slices of bread. The filling should be moist but not runny, so that it won’t seep out of the edges. Use just enough of the binding agent – mayonnaise and cream cheese are the most common – to hold the filling ingredients together.
SOME IDEAS FOR GARNISHES:
- Spread sandwich edges (not open-faced) VERY THINLY with mayonnaise or softened butter, then dip gently into minced parsley or finely chopped nuts such as toasted almonds or pistachios
- Make a small cutout in the top piece of bread with a miniature garnish cutter.
- Use edible unsprayed flowers such as violets, violas, single pansy petals, or herb blossoms such as borage, chive blossoms, scented geranium blooms on open-faced sandwiches.
- Use herbs to garnish, but make sure that they do not overwhelm the flavor of the fillings. Strong-flavored herbs such as rosemary are too intense.
- Make a cut in the top piece of bread with a knife tip and insert a sprig of fresh herb, or an edible flower.
- Top a cheese or chicken salad, etc. open-faced sandwich with a seedless grape half.
- Garnish open-faced sandwiches with a larger piece of the filling ingredient such as a half shrimp for shrimp salad or potted shrimp, or a slice of stuffed olive.
This classic British concoction is most typically used as a spread for scones or toast, but I spread it between cake layers, fill miniature tart shells with it, spread a layer on the bottom of a fresh fruit tart – and have been known to eat a spoonful straight from the jar. It’s delicious made with regular lemons, but the fragrant and flavorful seasonal Meyer lemons available now in many local groceries make it utterly scrumptious.
- 2 c. sugar
- 2 T. finely grated lemon peel
- 12 large egg yolks
- 1 c. lemon juice
- ¼ tsp. Kosher or sea salt
- 1 c. unsalted butter, cut into small chunks
If you have a food processor, combine the sugar and grated peel and process until the peel is ground completely into the sugar. Put the mixture into a heavy-bottomed pan and whisk in the egg yolks. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and coats a spoon. It should register about 168°F on a thermometer. DO NOT ALLOW THE MIXTURE TO BOIL!! Remove from the heat, still stirring constantly. Continue to whisk for a couple of minutes, then begin adding the butter a few pieces at a time. When all the butter has been incorporated, pour into jars and refrigerate. It will keep for up to four weeks.
Makes 2 pints
- 1 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 2 T. chopped parsley, preferably flat-leafed
- 8 T. (1/2 c.) unsalted butter
- 2 T. white wine Worcestershire sauce
- ¼ tsp. freshly ground white pepper, or to taste
- ¼ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg, or to taste
- ¼ tsp. dried mustard
- 1 heaping T. minced shallot
Coarsely chop shrimp, reserving 3 whole shrimp for garnish. This is best done by hand. Using a food processor will often result in too finely minced shrimp. Melt 1 T. of the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the shallot, and sauté until soft, but not browned. Add the white wine Worcestershire and cook until slightly reduced. Add the shrimp (including three for garnish), pepper, nutmeg, and mustard, raise heat to high, and sauté until shrimp are just cooked through, about 2 minutes. Remove 3 shrimp for garnish to separate plate. Remove skillet from the heat, and add remaining butter, which has been cut into small cubes and kept cool, to skillet a few cubes at a time, stirring continuously. The butter should emulsify into a creamy sauce. Stir in the parsley. Transfer mixture to a bowl and garnish with the reserved shrimp. Serve at room temperature with toasts as a first course or part of an afternoon tea. To make open-face sandwiches, mince the shrimp more finely and use additional shrimp, cut in half AFTER cooking (that way they won’t curl) to garnish each sandwich.