The venerable tradition is sporting a new, modern edge with inventive fare and the broader inclusion of spirits. Redefining the classic afternoon ritual.
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Citrus curd tart, white peony tea.
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Millionaire shortbread, chocolate truffles, cardamom shortbread, candied grapefruit peel.
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Tenderloin on pumpernickel, smoked salmon on cucumber, caramelized onion and tomato croutons. Drinks: basil-cucumber gimlet and kir royale.
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Blueberry lemon ginger scones, green tea with jasmine flowers.
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Macarons and coconut macaroons.
Let’s get this out of the way: Do not use the term “high tea.” You might as well be waving stars and bars and whistling “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” “High” doesn’t refer to those things regal or upper crust, or even the formality of the occasion. Historically, it was a meal served on high tables. So stow the lace hanky.
Like most Americans, I have long regarded afternoon tea as a ladylike, pinkies-up affair, with dainty finger sandwiches and scones with jams and clotted cream. My typically American perception of the thoroughly British tradition (fed by Evelyn Waugh novels and Downton Abbey) was that it is as much ritual as respite; a moment to catch a breath, review the day and fortify for a formal evening and late dinner. Indeed, the British wrote the book on afternoon tea.
But the stiff upper lip isn’t quite as stiff when it comes to afternoon tea. And the shift to a more relaxed version has been noted in Britain, where institutions both tony and venerable, like Dean Street Townhouse and The May Fair in London, have dubbed this new demi-repast “modern afternoon tea.”
Whereas what one wore and what one brought to a conversation were once the primary variables (and values), the contemporary afternoon respite is now focused more on fare than fancy. No longer hemmed in by tradition (even the 4 o’clock start time is more a suggestion than a guideline; teatime is anytime you need to refresh and replenish), tea options range from the expected Earl Grey and English Breakfast to heady brews with additives like lemon rind and jasmine petals. And when it comes to food, modern afternoon tea punctures that British reserve with edgy, inventive fare.
Like British aristocracy, teatime anchors like shortbread and lemon curd typically don’t call attention to themselves. But infused with herbs or spices, shortbread becomes a zingy alternative to the standard. And where once cucumber-and-cream cheese petit sandwiches were a mainstay of teatime savories, they’ve been replaced by daring bites, like candied grapefruit peel, Millionaire shortbread, and smoked salmon with yuzu mayonnaise. Best of all (and I’m sure Americans will be blamed), teatime etiquette is less starched—the effect, we suspect, of the inclusion of alcohol. (Why sip sherry when you can have Champagne or a cocktail?)
While the boundaries of traditional teatime have relaxed, certain conventions are still to be observed (do not squeeze your teabag; yes, I said it: teabag). But a little loosening of the rules makes modern afternoon tea more interesting, more casual. And, frankly, more fun.
A TEA PRIMER
Oolong or green? White or the stalwart black? What you need to know when selecting tea.
Much like fine wines or fine art, teas are curated into collections. When Sue Whitbeck, owner of The Tea Cart in Berryville, put together her tea menu, she sought interesting and exotic blends to appeal to knowledgeable palates as well as to inquisitive-but-busy modern audiences: “We sourced unique blends that would entice average non-tea drinkers to try a cup and interest those who may not come to a traditional tearoom.” When confronted with a lengthy (and intriguing) tea menu, here are some basics to help guide your choice and order to your taste.
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OOLONG TEA: Also known as Wu Long, it is full bodied with a slightly sweet aroma, and created by withering the leaves with strong sun and oxidation.
Recommendation: Peach Oolong
Earth & Tea Café, HarrisonburgEarthAndTeaCafe.com
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BLACK TEA: A stronger, more complex, fuller flavor,with more caffeine. The most common tea, it is made by withering the leaves in the sun, then fermenting them.
Recommendation: Special Blend Black
Oatlands Historic House and Gardens, LeesburgOatlands.org
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GREEN TEA: Carries healing properties for a broad range of ailments from cardiovascular disease to obesity, and is often scented with flowers and flavored with fruits.
Recommendation: Moroccan Mint
Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar, CharlottesvilleTeaBazaar.com
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WHITE TEA: The least processed tea, it is made by steaming the buds and the youngest leaves of the plant. Naturally sweet, light in color and flavor, with little caffeine.
Recommendation: Peach-Apricot White
White Oak Tea Co., TroutvilleWhiteOakTeas.com
Smoked Salmon on Cucumber Rounds with Yuzu Mayonnaise
1 package smoked salmon
Yuzu mayonnaise (available at Asian markets)
Slice the cucumber to desired thickness. Cover each piece with a layer of mayonnaise. Top with small piece of salmon and garnish with any herb of your choice.
Tenderloin on Pumpernickel with Horseradish Sauce
For the horseradish sauce:
½ cup sour cream
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
½ teaspoon white vinegar
¼ teaspoon salt
fresh ground black pepper
Mix all ingredients and refrigerate for several hours.
For the tenderloin on pumpernickel:
1 6- to 8-ounce beef tenderloin
salt and pepper
1 package cocktail-sized pumpernickel slices
Sear filet in a hot pan for 2-3 minutes on each side. Cool. Spread bread with horseradish sauce. Top each with a slice of tenderloin.
Caramelized Onion & Tomato Croutons
1 large onion
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 sprig thyme
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
salt, pepper and sugar to taste
Slice onion thinly. Sauté with thyme over medium-high heat in 2 tablespoons olive oil, stirring frequently. Reduce the heat to very low and cook the onion until deeply caramelized, 45 minutes to an hour. Season with vinegar, salt and pepper.
Cut tomatoes in half and remove seeds. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a small pot and cook tomatoes over low heat until very dry. Season with salt, pepper and sugar to taste.
Using a round cutter, cut croutons from your favorite white bread and fry in 1 tablespoon olive oil until golden. To assemble, layer croutons first with onion and top with tomatoes.
2/3 cup all purpose flour
5 ½ cups flaked coconut
¼ teaspoon salt
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Line baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl, stir flour, coconut and salt. Stir in condensed milk and vanilla extract. Using an ice cream scoop, drop golf ball-sized mounds onto parchment. Cook 15 minutes at 350 degrees until toasted.
2 cup confectioners sugar
¾ cup almond flour
2 large egg whites
pinch of cream of tartar
¼ cup superfine sugar
food coloring of choice
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Pulse sugar and flour in food processor until combined. Sift twice. Whisk egg whites in mixer at medium speed until foamy. Add tartar and whisk until soft peaks form. Reduce speed to low and add sugar. Increase speed to high and whisk until stiff peaks form. Add food coloring. Once meringues are the desired color, add slightly more food coloring (they lighten when cooked). Sift flour over whites and fold in until smooth.
Fill a pastry bag (with a 1/2-inch plain tip) with mixture and pipe 3/4–inch rounds spaced an inch apart on a parchment lined baking sheet. Tap sheet on counter several times to release air. Let stand at room temperature for 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees. Bake, rotating halfway through, until firm, about 10 minutes. Let cool on pan 2-3 minutes. Transfer rounds to wire racks. Use filling of choice (buttercream, Nutella, jam) between equal size macarons.
Makes 15-18 cookies
1 1/3 cups butter, room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour, sifted
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
½ teaspoon salt
With a hand mixer or in a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar for 5 minutes. Add egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each. In another bowl, whisk together flour, cardamom and salt. Reduce speed of mixer and add flour a little at a time to butter and sugar until well blended. Scrape dough from bowl and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for at least an hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly flour work surface to knead the dough until pliable. With a floured rolling pin, roll dough to 1/8-inch thick and 12 inches long. Cut into desired shapes. Lay on ungreased baking sheet and prick several times with a fork. Bake about 12 minutes or until lightly browned.
Makes 2 dozen biscuits
Citrus Curd Tart
For the curd:
5 egg yolks
½ cup sugar
juice of 1 each lime and lemon
¼ cup sweet butter
In a double boiler, cream yolks and sugar. Add juice and zest. Cook until thickened, stirring constantly, about 15 minutes. Slowly whisk in butter 1 tablespoon at a time.
For the tart shells:
1 ¼ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup cold unsalted butter
1/3 cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
Line cookie sheet with parchment paper. Pulse flour, butter, sugar and salt until moist crumbs form. Roll out dough to ¼ -inch thickness and separate into 1 ½-inch balls. Form into 4-inch shells and place on parchment.
Freeze until firm, about 15 minutes. Using a fork, prick each 2 or 3 times, depending on size. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes. Cool completely. Fill each with citrus curd.
Makes 3-4 tarts
For the shortbread:
2 sticks butter, cut into small pieces
2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
Grease two 8-inch pans and dust with flour, tapping out excess. Place flour, sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse once. Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles peas. Press into pans and bake 20 minutes at 350 degrees until golden around the edges. Cool completely.
For the caramel layer:
2 14-ounce cans sweetened condensed milk
2 tablespoons butter
In a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat, slowly combine milk and butter. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Continue stirring over heat until mixture becomes amber in color, about 15 minutes. Pour over the shortbread and smooth with a spatula. Cool to room temperature.
For the chocolate layer:
¾ pound good quality milk chocolate
In a double boiler, melt the chocolate, then pour it over caramel layer. Cool for 10 minutes, then refrigerate. Remove before chocolate hardens completely. Cut to desired size.
Makes 2 dozen
Blueberry Lemon Ginger Scones
1 ¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lemon zest
6 tablespoons cold butter
½ cup crystallized ginger, diced
½ cup fresh blueberries
½ teaspoon lemon extract
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3-4 tablespoons milk
sugar to top
In a large bowl, mix flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and zest. Cut in the butter with a pastry cutter until coarse crumbs form. Stir in ginger and blueberries. Add extract and lemon juice. Add milk 1 tablespoon at a time until dough comes together. Roll or pat into a circle ¾-inch thick and cut into 8 triangles. Place on parchment paper. Brush with milk and sprinkle with sugar. Bake 12-15 minutes, until brown.
Makes 6-8 scones
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 cup heavy cream
¼ cup salted butter
1 ¼ pound semisweet chocolate, chopped
Bring sugar and cream to a boil in a saucepan. Stir in butter. Stir in one pound chocolate. Refrigerate until firm. Roll into balls of desired size. Melt remaining ¼ pound chocolate and roll truffles in it to finish. If desired, roll in ground almonds or coconut.
Makes approximately 2 cups
Candied Grapefruit Peel
1 cup sugar, plus enough for tossing
Cut peel from grapefruits and slice into ½-inch strips, leaving white pith attached. Place in small saucepan, and add enough cold water to cover. Bring to a boil, then drain. Repeat the process two more times.
Add sugar and ½ cup water to saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 15-20 minutes until peel is translucent. Drain. Transfer peels to a wire rack and dry 2-4 hours.
Sprinkle liberally on all sides with sugar.
Makes 2 cups
Cucumber, Basil & Lime Gimlet
1 basil leaf
2 slices cucumber
2 ounces vodka
1 ounce lemonade
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
Muddle the basil with 1 slice cucumber in a highball glass. Add remaining ingredients. Fill with ice. Stir, strain and garnish with cucumber or lime.
3 ounces sparkling wine or dry white wine
1 ounce crème de cassis
Pour cassis into a flute. Slowly add wine.
No need to stir.
Tea Rooms to Try
Mix modern sensibilities with traditional afternoon tea.
The Blue Willow Tea Room
Green Leaf and Pebble Tea Spa
House of Steep
Pink Bicycle Tea Room