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April 1, 2013
Little Wren

Little Wren


I learned to love afternoon tea the summer Mike and I spent some time in the Yorkshire dales, the home of the famous veterinarian, James Herriot. I have been a Herriot groupie ever since I discovered his All Creatures Great and Small books and made it a ritual to watch the BBC series on Sunday nights back in the 80s. So of course, it was a real joy to make a pilgrimage to the beautiful place immortalized by Herriot’s lovable patients.

One drizzly, cold day, when the mist worms its way through your inadequate summer sweater and clear through to your bones, we drove through the dales and into a small village where the scent of coal smoke hung low, drenching the village with that old-fashioned feeling that we Americans rarely experience. We stopped at a small tea shop/inn and had a cozy, comfortable cup of tea and one of those cherry tarts that the British do so well. After 20 some-odd years, I still remember how it felt, smelled, and tasted in that ancient room with the low ceiling and the coal fire glowing in the little fireplace, and ever since then, I have loved the tradition of British tea.

A year later, I spent a month in Wales, teaching a performance course at the Welsh College of Music and Drama, and every afternoon we would break for a few minutes for tea. That was always an ad-hoc affair, usually just tea purchased from a street vendor, but my, oh, my! Was it ever good! The tea was very hot, strong and black—none of this silly, perfumey stuff Americans seem to like, but deep, dark, tea, richly oxidized, laced with hot whole milk and a lump of sugar. I quickly came to appreciate the boost it gave you without the heavy, lingering aftertaste of coffee.

I rarely have a chance to enjoy afternoon tea in America like I did in the British Isles, because few Americans know how to do it. If I order tea at a restaurant, I rarely can get real tea. Assam is the best, but I will be happy with any good, strong, black tea, as long as it is hot. But American restaurants don’t know what real tea is. They offer a a selection of several “gourmet” teas, which are gussied-up, nasty blends of berries and flowers, serve it lukewarm, and they try to foist lemon on you. If you beg for milk, they bring it to you cold. I end up settling for plain old lukewarm Lipton, made even cooler by the milk straight from the refrigerator, and weep for the memory of that day in the dales. Believe it or not, I have had worse tea here in the Triangle than I did once in Texas where, not wanting to disappoint, they heated some strong ice tea in the microwave for me. And they microwaved the milk, too. At least it was hot and black.

The history of the European teatime (not terribly different from the Asian tea, for the soul of both is good company and ceremony) is kind of interesting. Originally, in Europe, and particularly, Great Britain, the meal called “tea” was served in the evening, between 5 and 7 PM, and basically stood in for what we call “supper” today. Back then, there were only two meals served: breakfast and tea (or dinner or supper). The aristocracy, having the luxury of being able to party long into the night, and not having to hit the dockyards or coal mines early the next morning, began to eat dinner later and later, until the established time for an upper class dinner was around 8 pm. Light luncheon was introduced, but still, ladies found it to be a long wait between a noontime luncheon and an 8 o’clock dinner. Afternoon tea came into being to fill in the long gap between the meals in France in the middle of the 17th century. The custom was picked up in England a century later by the Dutchess of Bedford to stave off that “sinking feeling” she got in the middle of the afternoon. Ultimately, “high” tea, so named because it was served at the high supper table became the mainstay meal of the working classes, and “low” or afternoon tea, so named because it was generally served from low tables in the drawing room, salon, or garden, was a social snack enjoyed by the upper classes. Although it may be counterintuitive, considering the connotation between “high” and “low,” you might want to remember that the queen NEVER attends a “high” tea, and chimney sweeps rarely enjoy “low” tea. Being the pedantic snob that I sometimes can be, I am amused that some tea shops in America call afternoon tea “high” tea and wonder if the Brits consider it much of a faux pas.

But enough snobbery and pedantry. The beauty of afternoon tea is of pleasantries and good company, not a quibbling over outdated terms and manners. Not only is tea itself a wonderful beverage, but the ritual of afternoon tea is such a pleasure as well. So civilized, so energizing, so tasty. A full tea with finger sandwiches, scones, a little cake and a good friend is a very pleasant way to spend part of an afternoon. And it is especially pleasant if you have it in the garden on pretty china when everything is in bloom and the birds are singing and the friend(s) who have joined you are happy and full of good conversation.

Yes, I love afternoon tea. I love the way the silver gleams in the sunlight and the clear “clink!” of a china cup against the saucer. I love the feel of crisp linen napkins that I have lovingly ironed and the flutter of a tablecloth in the breeze. I love settling back and listening to the laugh of a good friend and the taste of the strong black Assam and the buttery sweetness of a scone. The only thing that makes these moments more perfect is include my beautiful granddaughter Corinne into the mix. The sound of a friend’s laughter is made all the sweeter when you add in the higher octave of a baby’s laughter. The conversation is made all the more interesting when you add in the singsong babble of a little girl. The linen appears crisper and more elegant when nestled against baby skin. And what better ritual can I use to teach my granddaughter the gentle art of conversation, the appreciation of beauty, and the pleasure of a good table? That’s why my little Wren joins me every week as I host afternoon tea.


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