Are We Killing Afternoon Tea?

Shelly Preston

Fruit shakes, amuse bouche, fancy props and waiting lists. Enough, says Shelly Preston. We need to reclaim the simple delight of British afternoon tea.

I used to thank God for the genteel fellowship of afternoon tea. Ceremonial and traditional it forms, along with the hangover fry up and fish & chips on the sea front, part of a holy trinity of British food rituals that by and large have proved immune to meddling. But lately I have detected a sly and unnecessary mutation of one of my favourite democratic institutions. A day-glo biscuit pop here and a fruit shake there, are all signs of it being bent out of shape by those attempting to keep it in vogue. The most recent insult to the form, I’ve noted, has been the introduction of gaggy ceramic spoons from which to eat the various unsandwiched savoury morsels – which themselves have no place on the traditional tiers of delight – provided. The increasingly exorbitant prices, waiting lists and incessant hype are other contemporary curses.

Why the showboating? It’s completely redundant. From the moment we confirm a booking for afternoon tea we’re already wild-in-the-aisles excited. What shall I order? For me a precision-cut finger sandwich without the crust – what a fabulous waste! – is the very height of decadence. But shall I stick it on expenses and add champagne? I’m a complete sucker for the glamour of it all. Whether I’m in the hands of a smart town café, the ever-dependable Bettys or dressed-up-to-the-nines at Claridges, the feeling I get is one of real swellegance. Add to that the fact that I am wholeheartedly signed up to the real tea (leaves) party movement and am wholly fetishistic about all customs, rights and wrongs adhering to the pouring and production of a cup of the hot stuff and you already have the perfect recipe for success.

It is the frivolity and the escapism involved in the act of taking afternoon tea that endures and will draw us in time and time again not the modern bells and whistles, quirky cutlery or the supposedly exclusive feeling induced by a six month wait. We’re pretending to be ladies, we’re playing tea parties, we’re channelling childhood memories – we have whimsy enough of our own. We don’t need anybody adding it to our plates.

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