Henry James famously wrote in The Portrait of a Lady, 'There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.' Afternoon tea it can be said, is a quintessentially British tradition, an institution in fact. It was originally meant as a stopgap for the Duchess of Bedford to deal with afternoon hunger pangs between her two meals. However, afternoon tea is more fashionable than ever and no visit to Britain is complete without experiencing this custom. Fortnum and Mason, The Ritz, Claridges and The Goring, all pride themselves at being aficionados in tea-drinking and in the artistry of tiered plate presentation. In fact these chefs are becoming more and more creative with themes being added for Mother's Day, The Chelsea Flower Show and Wimbledon. Afternoon tea is all about relaxing over a pot of tea, (despite having at least fifteen different varieties to choose from), alongside a variety of sandwiches, scones, pastries and cakes. There is actually more than that to think about and there are several ongoing debates. Does the milk go into the cup before or after the tea; and which goes onto the scone first, the cream or the jam? All this etiquette should not get in the way of enjoying the indulgence of this time-honoured tradition.
An Indian 'High Tea' is not just cardamom chai with a couple of biscuits thrown in. It is usually a lavish spread of finger foods. The obligatory sandwiches, scones and cakes do get a look in, but bite size samosas, paneer pakoras, chaats, aloo tikkis and sweet barfis embellish the whole spread. I have wonderful childhood memories of savouring afternoon tea in Mumbai at that iconic, majestic landmark that is the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Overlooking the Gateway of India and the Arabian Sea, the Sea Lounge in the hotel with all its colonial charm was and still is the most serene place to not only enjoy afternoon tea but to view the ferries bobbing up and down on the sea, travelling to and from Elephanta Island. The extensive food delicacies certainly enhanced my experience and to this day whenever I'm in Mumbai, I can't leave without revelling in tea drinking at the Sea Lounge.
I recently hosted afternoon tea for friends and family and I did indulge my guests in a variety of sweet and savoury fare. The sumptuous cakes, macarons and bite sized pastries produced squeals of delight, and to cut through the richness of the savouries, I served platters of exotic fresh fruit, a little something to minimise the guilt of too much excess! Afternoon tea maybe trendy, but it's dignified and elegant too, so go forth and enjoy your high chai.