Food: Take a Leaf out of the History Books; We Drink Millions of Cups of Tea a Day in Britain. but Our Tradition of Afternoon Tea Has Fallen by the Wayside . . . or Has It? Caroline Foulkes Finds Out

Article excerpt

Byline: Caroline Foulkes

Making a mid-afternoon cup of tea is a five minute thing, if that. Flick the kettle on, chuck a teabag in a mug. Fill mug, burn fingers fishing out teabag because you can't find a teaspoon. Add milk and sugar as required. Done.

But there is another way. A more enjoyable way. A way that, for many of us, is now little more than a memory or an occasional treat.

Proper, old fashioned, afternoon tea. A cream tea. A-nice-cup-of-tea-and-a-sliceof-cake kind of tea.

The kind of tea that Jane Pettigrew enjoyed during her childhood.

'I grew up in the 50s in a family where afternoon tea was a bit of ritual on Saturday and Sunday afternoons,' she says.

'I can remember there were always lots of homemade cakes and scones and biscuits, dripping toast, cinnamon toast, toast with butter and jam, muffins, crumpets. The trolley would be wheeled in and the cake stand bought in. It stood about three feet tall and would be piled with things.'

Jane is what in my family would be called 'a tea-belly'. She loves the stuff. So much so, it has become her life's work.

She started out in life as a language and communications lecturer, but after ten years she began to look at a career change.

'I had two friends and we were all quite mad about tea and the idea of afternoon tea, so we decided to set up a tea shop.'

Even in 1983, before the mass-invasion of most high streets by coffee bar giants like Starbucks, Costa and Coffee Republic, this seemed a somewhat rash idea. Surely noone wanted proper afternoon tea?

Yet Jane and her friends believed in their idea. Having found the ideal building, close to Clapham Common, they decided to recreate a 1930s Art Deco-style tearoom and set about hunting down period teaware in antique markets and fairs so they could serve tea 'properly': besides delicate patterned china they also tracked down embroidered and lace tablecloths, cakestands, hot water jugs, strainers, tea knives, teaspoons, sugar bowls and milk jugs.

'Everyone told us we were mad at the time,' says Jane. 'But on the opening day we were full within the first five minutes.' Tea Time is now just a happy memory for Jane, who now works for St James' Tea, of which she will become MD in January. But her passion for old fashioned tea times continues.

'I still hold afternoon teas at my house, but I do try and make the sandwich fillings a bit more adventurous than they used to back then.

'The other week I did chicken with pistachio nuts, mayonnaise, celery and olives. And yes, I did cut the crusts off. I do like cucumber sandwiches though.'

In her new book, Design For Tea, Jane gives an insight into the world of afternoon tea and all the ritual and history that accompanies it.

Tracing tea back to its origins in ancient China, she charts how tea drinking has changed -and how the accoutrements associated with it came about and developed.

'Teabags are good for convience,' says Jane, 'but you do get a better brew from leaf tea. A tealeaf can swell up to two or three times their size when introduced to water, so to get the best flavour you need to give it plenty of room to move around.

'It's always better to use a pot with a built-in infuser or do what I do and put a paper filter into the pot to catch the leaves -it essentially acts like a giant teabag.'

Jane says that most of the rituals surrounding tea drinking today stem from those developed in ancient China.

'If you look at some of the customs that surround our tea drinking, then you can trace them back to China and Japan. Generally you tend to find that whatever trade route a country used affects the rituals they have surrounding tea today.

'For example, although tea was traditionally drunk green or black, without milk, some of the courts of the Manchu dynasty drank tea with milk. The Dutch traded with them, and we used to get a lot of our tea throught that route until the development of tea plantations in India and Ceylon, so it's a habit we picked up. …