Taking afternoon tea: A great British tradition

It’s difficult to think of anything more English than afternoon tea – or “low” tea as it’s also uncommonly known.

 

With its dainty sandwiches, melt-in-the-mouth scones and multitude of pretty confections, it really is one of our most noble British institutions. So I feel it’s my duty to give heartfelt thanks to TV programmes such as The Great British Bake Off for rehabilitating the tradition and restoring it to national glory after so many years spent languishing quietly in the parlours of maiden aunts.

 

And in honour of this ritual, which has such a special place in our collective hearts these days, I decided to dedicate one of several 50th birthday celebrations to partaking of its delights. So following a recommendation from my Beloved, we plumped for a family afternoon out with both sets of parents at Luton Hoo. The former manor house in Bedfordshire was formerly owned by the Anglo-Norman de Hoo family, which a couple of generations after the name itself died out, spawned Anne Boleyn of King Henry VIII fame.

Luton Hoo gardens
Luton Hoo gardens

Anyway, not to be confused with Sutton Hoo, a renowned burial site of Anglo-Saxon royalty near Woodbridge in East Anglia, the mansion with its stunning vista, originally landscaped by none other than Lancelot Capability Brown himself, is now an 18-hole golf course and spa hotel. And the rather odd name ‘Hoo’ is less of a badly spelled question, it seems, and more of a Saxon word meaning “spur of a hill”.

 

As for afternoon tea itself, although very nice, the wealth of tiny, rich cakes made it somewhat sugar-rush-inducing, which lost it marks. As a result, it failed to make it into the global top three carefully devised by my parents and myself over several years. After jointly indulging during various trips both at home and abroad, the number one slot simply has to go to the exquisite repast provided by the Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg, which was only enhanced by its discrete and solicitous service.

 

Next by mutual agreement came the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, followed by Tea at the Ritz in London, which despite the cliché managed only a (very worthy) third.

 

High and low tea

 

But it all set me to wondering just where this glorious convention came from in the first place. Interestingly, while the name itself obviously refers to the beverage that sits at its heart, its application appears to be of rather more mixed heritage.

 

At the lower end of the social scale during the Industrial Revolution, when working class families came home after a wearying day at their looms and factories, they apparently sat down to a table set with all manner of cold cuts, bread, butter, pickles, cheese and, of course, the drink of the day, tea. Because the meal was partaken of at a high dining table rather than a low tea table near a sofa or chair in the drawing room like the aristocracy, however, it was known as “high tea” – a name with which afternoon tea, or low tea, is all too often distressingly confused. And as might be expected, “tea” is still the working class name assigned to one’s big evening meal to this day.

 

As to the original creator of afternoon tea as we think of it now, meanwhile, that is believed to be one Anna Maria Stanhope, Duchess of Bedford and one of the young Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting. Because the upper class lunchtime meal was petite and the evening meal distinctly large and late, the Duchess proclaimed that she suffered from a “sinking feeling” at around four o’clock in the afternoon.

Afternoon tea at the Saxon, Johannesburg
Afternoon tea at the Saxon, Johannesburg

At first, she had her servants sneak her up a pot of tea and a few dainty morsels of bread to tide her over. But as time went on, she adopted the habit of inviting friends to her rooms in Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire, during the summer months to indulge in a cup of tea and a bite to eat at five o’clock.

 

Her menu consisted of bread and butter sandwiches, small cakes and assorted sweets – and the practice proved so popular that she transported it to London when she returned for the Season. There she sent cards to friends asking them to join her for “tea and a walking in the fields” and her quaint idiosyncrasy was quickly picked up and emulated by other society ladies, making it quite the thing to do.

 

At this point though, I feel I must inject and clarify the difference between afternoon tea and a cream tea, which is something different again and is actually thought to be a much older tradition. According to local historians, the dish was actually created by monks at the Benedictine Abbey in Tavistock, West Devon, around 1,000 or so AD.

 

Cream tea

 

They had suffered their home being plundered and wrecked by a band of marauding Vikings, but Ordulf, Earl of Devon, sent some workers to try and sort out the mess. They were lucky enough to be fed on plates of bread, clotted cream and strawberry preserves for their trouble – and so the Devon cream tea was born, although the bread eventually morphed into scones, of course.

 

Anyway, so popular did the cream teas prove that the monks continued serving them to passing travellers, which saw their fame only grow and spread – although such idle talk is, of course, hotly disputed by arch-rival Cornwall, which also claims the cream tea as its own.

 

But there is, of course, a significant difference between the two varieties: After breaking (rather than cutting) their scone in two as is correct practice, the good people of Devon cover each half with thick clotted, (rather than whipped cream, God forbid) before putting strawberry jam on top. In Cornwall, however, it is de rigueur to butter your scone first, layer on your strawberry jam and then complete the whole pretty picture with the aforementioned cream dollop.

Cream tea
Cream tea

On a final note though, there is, unsurprisingly given its origins, a whole raft of etiquette associated with the afternoon tea tradition, which I learned by strange coincidence only the week before my Luton Hoo jaunt from a speaker at a Women’s Institute meeting. Although my pearls of wisdom were to fall on deaf ears on the day itself, I nonetheless did attempt to appraise my recalcitrant audience of the finer points. These include:

 

  • placing your napkin on your knee as soon as you sit down, ensuring it’s folded down the middle into a rectangle shape, with the fold facing your stomach. If you have to leave the table at any point (not recommended), be careful to fold the napkin up and place it on your chair rather than just dumping it down on the table, covering your fellow guests with crumbs in the process
  • putting sugar in your cup first, followed by tea. Last of all comes the milk – a sign in the old days that you were wealthy enough to afford porcelain rather than regular china, which would shatter with the heat if milk wasn’t poured in first to cool it
  • stirring your tea by placing your spoon at six o’clock and folding it towards the 12 o’clock position, being careful not to chink against the sides and set everyone’s teeth on edge.

 

So as you can see, although such great English habits may appear to have been invented quite arbitrarily to confuse the lower classes, there is some rhyme and reason to them, no matter how obscure.

 

 

 

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Is the end nigh for our Great British staples?

I’m not entirely sure what it says about the Great British People, but the top  symbols of nationhood that make our chests swell with collective pride relate to food and drink.

 

First on the list of iconic delights is the inevitable Sunday roast, complete with meat and two veg, roast potatoes, and of course, Yorkshire pudding, said by many to be our national dish. Second is greasy takeaway staple fish and chips, followed by the BBC, the Union flag, Wimbledon and that most enduring of British cliches, the “nice cup of tea”.

 

So it was with shock that I learnt recently that sales of our national beverage are actually in decline – between 2010 and 2015, it seems, overall black tea volumes slumped by a huge 22% from 97 million kilograms to a mere 76 million. And according to market research agency Mintel, this outrage was attributable to one key thing – dwindling teabag purchases.

 

Sales of your bog-standard black teabag nosedived by 13% between 2012 and 2014 to £425 million as people such as myself forsook them with gay abandon for healthier, trendier – or, in my intolerance-scarred case, caffeine-free – alternatives ranging from green tea (sales up 50%), fruit and herb (up 31%) and speciality blends such as Earl Grey, Darjeeling and Assam (up 15%).

Nice cup of tea
Nice cup of tea

The increasing popularity of coffee, stimulated by premium-priced coffee shops springing up on every street corner – more than 20,000 such establishments now exist across the country, it seems – also didn’t help, of course, but did serve to create a market currently valued at more than £1 billion per annum.

 

Incidentally, coffee when first brought to Europe in the 16th century was apparently viewed with suspicion, being as it was the drink of choice in a Muslim world that Christendom had been at war with for centuries. On rather adventurously giving it a go though, Pope Clement VIII, under pressure from his advisors to declare it the “bitter invention of Satan”, is said to have stated: “This devil’s drink is so delicious…we should cheat the devil by baptizing it!”

 

And this ringing endorsement led to it it taking off all over the region pretty quickly after that. Europe’s first coffee house opened in Vienna in 1645, while the UK’s followed in Oxford seven years later – and still exists to this day under the name, The Grand Café.

 

Within as little as 25 years, some 3,000 or so such concerns had sprung up across the country, becoming popular places to meet and chat about the news, politics and gossip of the day – to such an extent, in fact, that Charles II tried unsuccessfully to get them banned in 1675 for being hotbeds of sedition. Unusually coffee shops were open to all men irrespective of their social status and so were associated with such dissolute notions as equality and republicanism, which obviously didn’t go down too well.

 

Anyway, even though the devil’s drink may once again be trying to assert its  fiendish grip on the nation, reassuringly according to the UK Tea and Infusions Association, black tea is still by far the country’s most popular hot drink. More than 165 million cups are imbibed every day compared to coffee’s mere 70 million.

In fact, more than half (54%) of the population drink at least one cup each day, with men aged between 16 and 44 being the biggest fans (four out of five indulge their vice on a daily basis). The only people that drink more of the stuff per head than us apparently are the Irish.

 

Great British bangers

 

Another staple that seems to be falling equally foul of the current migration to all things healthy, however, is the Great British Banger. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of sausages sold has slumped by more than a quarter – or a huge 260 million packs – since 2008 – although the value of those sales has dropped by a mere 2.1% to £820.7 million.

 

The problem seems to lie in the fact that shoppers are now moving to healthier, non-processed meats such as chicken and steak, put off by reports of sausages’ high fat and salt content as well as the inclusion of cheap fillers such as breadcrumbs or wheat rusks.

 

But people also didn’t appear too keen on reports last June that the superbug MRSA had been found in sausages and minced pork sold in UK supermarkets. Or on last October’s revelations from the World Health Organisation that processed meat was a major cause of cancer – all of which, when taken together, has unsurprisingly done a fine job of hammering sales.

 

But it’s a shame in a way because sausages are, apparently, one of our oldest processed foods. A culinary gift from the Romans, their name is derived from the Latin word “salsus”, which means something salted.

 

Sausages
Sausages

They gained their nickname of “bangers’ during the First World War though, when food shortages led to a big reduction in meat levels. As a result, they were packed with scraps, cereal and water, which made them pop, hiss and even explode when cooked over open fires in the trenches.

 

But despite the sausage’s demotion in status in the national diet, thankfully all is not lost – last month, we were able to stand proud once more when the humble black pudding was dubbed a “superfood” by online health retailer, MuscleFood.com – and the word seemed to spread like wildfire.

 

Packed with protein, practically carb-free and rich in iron and zinc, the (pig’s) blood sausage and staple of the ever-popular full English breakfast was ranked among black beans, sprouted grains and kohlrabi (the new kale) in terms of health-giving properties.

 

Although various spoilsports have since burst the bubble by indiscreetly mentioning its high fat and salt content and equally high calorie count, that doesn’t seem to have put off sales of the Stornoway Black Pudding, for one. This particular titbit was awarded Protected Geographical Indication status in 2013, putting it on a similar footing to champagne in France and tea in Darjeeling.

 

As a result, Charles Macleod Butchers in Scotland’s Western Isles told the Mail that it had seen postal demand for its iconic delicacy jump eight-fold in the days after the story broke, and the expectation is that sales will as much as treble over the next five years on the back of it.

 

So despite ongoing fears of obesity epidemics, endless food and drink fads and all too frequent food scares, it seems that at least some of our Great British staples could triumph yet.

North Norfolk: From coast to cuisine

It’s become something of a tradition for my Beloved and I to spend a couple of days between Christmas and New Year up on the wild and rugged North Norfolk coast – although inevitably there was a bit of a hiatus for a couple of years when we lived in South Africa.

 

But things haven’t half changed there over the years. While a healthy tourist trade always meant that it was never exactly down at heel, the place is now oozing with rich Londoners to the extent that the average asking price for a (second) home in celebrity-strewn Blakeney is over £500,000 and an expansive dwelling in the bird-watching capital of Cley-next-the-Sea (pronounced ‘Cly’ rather than “Clay”) just went for £1.5 million.

 

Which is all very well, but it means that, like all too many places in areas such as Cornwall and the Lake District, the locals, many of whom have minimum wage jobs, can no longer afford to buy there. So they have to try their luck with council homes or social housing instead.

 

It also means that these charming little villages with their narrow streets bursting with Dutch-gabled houses and flint-pebble former fishermen’s cottages become the equivalent of ghost towns for much of the year, springing briefly to life only over the summer holidays and at big festivals such as Christmas and Easter. Which doesn’t really seem right to me.

 

DDutch-gabled house and flint cottages in Cley
Dutch-gabled house and flint cottages in Cley

One thing that this influx of wealth is doing for the county though is transforming it into quite a culinary mecca – often with prices to match. In fact, to reflect this phenomenon, a new monthly magazine called Feast has just been published in a bid to tap into foodie interest in the area. Dishing up everything from restaurant reviews, interviews with up-and-coming chefs and a selection of gourmet recipes to try at home, its advent makes sense in a region intent on making the most of what it’s got.

 

And what this flat and fertile land has most of, apart from tourism, is food and farming, which accounts for more than 20% of local jobs. The biggest arable crops around there are sugar beet, oil seed rape, wheat and barley (for brewing – as well as the more established Woodforde’s, Norfolk now boasts an impressive 25 microbreweries). But you’ll also see lots of plump, pink pigs snuffling around in big, open, muddy fields and generally seeming to enjoy life, which is good to see.

 

More than one of them though is likely to make a star appearance at the annual, six-week-long Norwich Food and Drink Festival in the Battle of the Bangers competition. Here members of the public vote for their favourite sausage from a selection provided by 10 local butchers.

 

Norwich, Norfolk’s county town and England’s first Unesco City of Literature  (Edinburgh in Scotland sports a similar accolade), has for the last decade been hosting the festival, which also invites local schools to participate in the Tallest Jelly Competition – an event sadly cancelled last year for reasons unknown.

 

But the whole Festival is all very professional, it seems, jelly setbacks notwithstanding. Run by not-for-profit organisation Norfolk Food and Drink Ltd, the key aim – very sensibly – is to encourage visitors to come to the region at a time, in September and early October, when the whole tourism thing is cooling down after the summer rush.

 

Norfolk wildlife

 

Conveniently though, it also fits in nicely with game season. So if you’re partial to a bit of pheasant or even the odd teal, which I must confess I’d never eaten before but which my Beloved and I picked up for a song in a local butcher’s in the charming market town of Holt, then treat yourself.

 

The teal, which is a small freshwater duck with a green-coloured band on its wing, was lovely by the way – not that dissimilar to partridge, and definitely less ‘gamey’ than something like woodpigeon. We indulged on New Year’s Day.

 

Anyway, scrummy food isn’t the only thing that Norfolk’s developed a reputation for. The other is the largely unspoiled nature of much of its coastline and the nearby wetlands, marshes and lowland meadows. These account for just over half of the 65 habitats listed in the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan as being priorities for conservation and are havens for all kinds of plants and animals.

 

Cley-next-the-Sea, where we stayed, is in fact an internationally renowned destination site for birders and twitchers, and the adjoining Cley Marshes were even nominated as “Nature Reserve of the Year” in the BBC’s Countryfile Magazine’s awards towards the end of 2015.

 

But the Marshes have got a bit of history behind them too. After a bunch of friends, under the leadership of one Dr Sydney Long, got together in the George Hotel – which still exists to this day and was, as it happens, where we resided during our trip – for a conflab in 1926, they purchased an initial 400 or so acres of land on today’s site for an impressive £5,160 (around £2 million in today’s money).

Cley Windmill
Cley Windmill

The aim of the Norfolk Naturalists Trust as they called themselves, was to create a bird-breeding sanctuary. And the idea proved such a success that the Norfolk Wildlife Trust as it is now known, will celebrate its 90th anniversary this year after having acted as a blueprint for a further 47 such native conservation charities up and down the country.

 

But the original site also now houses a pristine Visitor Centre, from which you can sit and spot everything from marsh harriers and terns to spoonbills – and where you can even treat yourself to a mean bacon sandwich. Not that we spent the entire break eating, I hasten to add.

 

But even if we had, a hearty walk along the pounding seashore to visit the seals at Blakeney Point will soon sort that kind of thing out. The colony there is a lovely, honk-y mix of common and grey seals of all ages and persuasions. But about 15 or so years ago, the former were badly hit by an outbreak of distemper, which cut their numbers to as few as 400.

Seals at Blakeney Point
Seals at Blakeney Point

Now though, thankfully, their fortunes have revived and by the start of 2015, Blakeney Point had become the largest seal colony in England. Which also implies that fish stocks must have recovered at least enough to support them too. And that can only be a good thing – on all counts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Food, glorious British food

There’s nothing at the moment that’s quite able to rival “The Great British Bake Off” in terms of feel-good TV, as far as I can see.

The much-discussed cookery competition is all about artsy-craftsy creativity, good, wholesome rivalry and everyday, everyman-kind of contestants – even though most of us have nowhere near their level of amateur baking skill – courteously sparring for a place in the final.

It’s all very civilised and quintessentially British – you certainly couldn’t imagine it getting past programme commissioners anywhere else in the world. And it’s breathtakingly popular, pulling in an average audience this year of 12 million, up two million on 2014. Its success even means that it’s now in the process of being reworked for a US audience, albeit for a second time.

So the good-humoured Bake-Off, as it’s known to its fans, is thriving, pandering presumably to the nation’s collective nostalgia for cream teas. And our mutual need for a bit of light-hearted frippery in a world that can at times appear all too dark elsewhere – the programme was born, after all, in 2010 at the epicentre of the worst global recession since World War II, and at a time when we definitely all needed cheering up a bit.

But that’s not the only thing the reality TV show can be credited with – it’s also been acclaimed for spurring a huge resurgence in interest in home baking. A phenomenon that has led, among other things, to the omnipresence of cupcakes in British high street stores and the revival of such kitsch delights as multi-coloured china cake stands, a traditional bit of grandma’s crockery not so very long ago assigned to car boot sales.

cakestand

In fact, in the wake of the Bake Off phenomenon, the UK home baking industry has apparently leapt in value from a mere £523 million in 2009 to a vast £1.7 billion last year – with people spending £176 million each year on cooking chocolate, sprinkles and other decorative delights alone.

Even the Women’s Institute, with its reputation for Jam, Jerusalem and fabulous cakes, has benefited from this great culinary upsurge, with membership now at its highest levels since the 1970s.

Mixed foodie fortunes

But despite our current national obsession with foodie TV shows, celebrity chefs and aspirational cook books, it seems that cooking more mundane fare from scratch is actually on the wan – and has been for some time.

For instance, retail analysts Kantar Worldpanel pointed out a few years ago – and I can’t imagine things have changed much since – that members of the great British public, and especially those who are short of time, money or both, are spending larger chunks of their food budgets than ever on frozen and chilled ready meals – something that can’t be doing much for the nation’s collective waist-line in today’s age of obesity.

In fact, it seems the UK now has more amply-sized residents than anywhere else in Western Europe apart from Iceland and Malta, with 67% of men and 57% of women weighing our great land down rather more than they should, according to a recent study published in the Lancet medical journal.

As to how this translates into time spent slaving in the kitchen as opposed to sticking something in the microwave, the average time taken to prepare the main family meal has plummeted from 60 minutes two decades ago to around 32 minutes today. Which kind of says it all.

Moreover, the renaissance in restaurants serving British cuisine that we all heard so much about a few years ago now appears to have stalled, particularly outside of London.

P1010639

Instead, according to specialist food service market researchers Horizons, the average UK town centre is jam-packed full of Italian-style chains (25%) and curry houses – some 12,000 apparently, although a national shortage of chefs is currently raising fears that up to a third may have to close over the next few years due to the government’s controversial immigration cap. But British cuisine is way down on the list of favourites at a mere 9%, ranking lower than American food (12%) and only just ahead of Japanese and Mexican (6% respectively).

Surprisingly though, particularly given the unflattering reputation of British food abroad, it seems that our export trade in the stuff is booming. This apparent distaste for our hearty fare was incidentally cruelly but aptly encapsulated by former French president and prime minister Jacques Chirac at an international get-together in 2005 when he said: “One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad. The only thing they have ever done for European agriculture is mad cow disease”. Charming.

Food import and export

Anyway, in a sock in the eye for the now discredited Monsieur Chirac, the Institute of Export revealed earlier this year that the UK has now wangled its way into exporting culinary delicacies to a host of proud nations that are generally known for producing those very same foods domestically. So rather deliciously, this means selling huge amounts of tea to China, cheese to France (22,000 tonnes, in fact, Mr Chirac) and chocolate to Switzerland, to name but a few.

JacquesChirac

The entire sector is, as a result, now worth an eye-popping £19 billion a year and consists of as many as 2,500 companies selling their wares to 150 countries across the globe.

On the other hand and much less positively though, it appears that the country is playing fast and loose with its food security by relying on huge imports of fruit and veg from overseas that could just as easily be produced at home.

A report published earlier this year by the House of Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee unveiled that the UK’s “self-sufficiency ratio” – which compares the amount of local food produced with levels of imported goods – has declined from a peak of nearly 87% in the early 1990s to a mere 68% in 2012, the last time figures were available.

In terms of fruit and veg that could be produced here, meanwhile, the ratio plummets still further to 12% and 58% respectively, with a huge £8 billion’s worth of goods being imported instead.

Which somewhat worryingly implies that, should the country hit trouble, whether that be as a result of conflict, pestilence or climate change-generated food shocks, we’re all likely to end up being scurvy-ridden. And vegans to boot due to the British livestock and dairy industries’ heavy reliance on imported soybean for animal feed from countries such as China, India and various parts of Africa.

All of which will, of course, make us even keener to watch Bake Off in order to cheer ourselves up and see exactly what it is we’re missing.