Written by Emma Mitchell

Lifestyle

More Than Darjeeling

Oh, afternoon tea. How do we love thee? Let Emma Mitchell count the ways.

teacupsMr M and I had a nail-biting moment earlier today. Minnie, our geriatric lurcher, has a bit of a gammy paw and we’d been told it was the ‘c’ word. This morning we received the results of her tests. Yes, it’s that disease but a slow growing kind. She’ll be stealing bacon and woofing at imaginary cats for some time longer. Goodish news. Without thinking we put the kettle on and brewed a pot of tea.

Reaching for the teapot is a reflex response and a bonding activity. We brewed tea when we learned I was pregnant, when we realised I was in labour and when we received the news that a family member had had a terrible accident. If one of us is having a tricky day, the other brews cheering, commiserative tea. If we’ve argued, we reach for the teapot for I’m-sorry-I-was-a-wally tea. If it’s too early for a gin but something excellent happens, however small, we brew a pot of celebratory brown stuff.

Tea is comforting; making it is a reassuring ritual and a mug of tea can be a small gift. When I’m brought tea in bed I feel like the queen of the duvet. I don’t think I’d feel quite so fancy if I were handed a cup of Tizer. I know we’re not alone in marking significant moments with a brew and using it as a liquid comfort blanket. Why does tea have such significance?

The East India Company first brought tea to Britain in 1600. On 25 September of that year Samuel Pepys visited one of London’s fashionable coffee shops and wrote: “…afterwards did send for a Cupp of Tee (a China drink) of which I never drank before.”

“The feelings of relaxation aren’t a figment of our imaginations. Research performed at UCL showed that levels of cortisol, a blood hormone released during times of stress, decreased by 47% after a cup of tea.”

For another 200 years tea remained expensive and the tea caddies of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were beautifully made, decorated with marquetry, lined with metal foil and had secure locks to keep out tea-nicking ne’er do wells.

Japanese tea rituals are precise, meaningful and the ceramics used are exquisite. The ritual in the Mitchell household isn’t quite so artful but is just as important – we warm the pot with hot water, use leaves NOT bags and Mr M in particular brews the tea for some minutes. No one knows quite how many minutes because it is a sort of mysterious tea alchemy but it results in a delicious depth of flavour and a sort of sweetness that makes the tea like a mini meal. It goes something like this: not ready, not ready, not ready, not ready, READY (for approximately 30 seconds), bitter and the colour of David Dickinson with added Burdall’s Gravy Salt.

Tea itself offers brown comfort and joy but in the 1800s, when Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford, invented a light meal, with cake, to bridge the gap between luncheon and dinner, her place as one of history’s geniuses was confirmed. Oh afternoon tea, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways… Scones, cake, optional little butties, more cake, jam and cream all washed down with several perfectly brewed cuppas? Oh yes.

You may be able to hear confessional music because despite being one of the least ladylike women in Britain I own a small blue box containing six cake forks, eight vintage embroidered tablecloths and a handknitted tea cosy decorated with a spray of small woolly primroses. I love the trappings of afternoon tea as much as I love the food and drink involved. Yes, I have a collection of 18th– and 19th-century hand-painted teacups and handmade lace doilies. SO WHAT?

“When I’m brought tea in bed I feel like the queen of the duvet. I don’t think I’d feel quite so fancy if I were handed a cup of Tizer.”

Tea and cake, especially together, are as cheering as a basket full of tiny puppies and can be sources of solace. The feelings of relaxation aren’t a figment of our imaginations. Research performed at UCL showed that levels of cortisol, a blood hormone released during times of stress, decreased by 47% after a cup of tea, compared to a 27% decrease after a similar-tasting drink that was not tea. The results were significant and although the exact compounds in the tea that cause the decrease in cortisol aren’t known, it shows that the brown stuff really can help in a crisis.

If I had to choose between tea and wine I’d chuck away the sauv blanc willingly. My luxury on the desert island would have to be a caddy of leaves and a teapot. It’s the finest drink known to humankind and, if you’ll excuse me, I haven’t brewed up for at least 15 minutes. I’m off to put the kettle on.

raspberyy, lemon and lime friands

Emma’s raspberry, lemon and lime friands. Tasty, non?

Raspberry, lemon and lime friands

These small, light French fancies are super quick to make and are perfect for afternoon tea (doilies and fancy cake forks are not obligatory). Alternatively eat three or four instead of breakfast. All major food groups are represented (except perhaps bacon). Serve with a massive pot of tea.

You will need:

100g salted butter melted and cooled
120g icing sugar
25g plain flour
65g ground almonds
20g polenta
3 egg whites
Grated rind of a lemon and a lime
24-36 frozen raspberries

Method:

Preheat your oven to 180 °C (or 170°C fan) and grease a mince pie/muffin/fancy friand or madeleine tin with a little butter.

Pop two or three frozen raspberries into each recess in the tin.

Place all the dry ingredients and the lemon and lime zest in a bowl and mix together.

Melt the butter in a microwave and set aside to cool a little.

Whizz up the egg whites into soft peaks with a food mixer or electric hand whisk.

Add the butter and egg whites to the dry ingredients and fold together.

Give the mixture a whisk for a minute or so to add a little more air and lightness.

Divide the mixture into the recesses in the tin using a spoon, covering the raspberries.

Bake for 15-20 minutes, until any large pale patches have disappeared and the friands are golden brown and firm to the touch.

Leave to cool for a few minutes, turn out onto a plate and scoff the lot.

@silverpebble

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Written by Emma Mitchell

I make things, mostly out of silver, sometimes out of wool. I’m never too far from a bottle of PVA glue.