Some say that the British Empire was built on the backs of its loyal citizens and afternoon tea. The tradition of afternoon tea dates back centuries and is a piece of living history that has survived to this day. Etiquette schools all across the world still teach ‘afternoon tea’ as a social event that has to be navigated, and indeed, in many parts of the world, across social classes, it is still a popular pastime.
In the olden days, afternoon tea consisted of just that, tea and a few things to eat such as cucumber or watercress sandwiches and macaron in Singapore (also called macaroons). There might be a bit of fruitcake sometimes, or a buttered scone. Today, the food has changed quite a bit to accommodate the different cultures that have embraced afternoon tea as part of their own. Here is a breakdown of the tiers of the afternoon tea food tray:
The Bread and Butter of Sandwiches
As mentioned above, traditional sandwiches were fairly bland. After all, they served no other purpose than as things to munch on before a good strong cuppa. Today however, sandwiches have more of a kick in them. Potted meat with enhanced flavours, various condiments and jams, and other such fillings are used to adorn the sandwich tier. Countries like India take this a step further by putting their own spin on the sandwich. Instead of the usual wheat bread, they will introduce a chapatti or parata, which are types of Indian flat breads or they will use the normal sandwich bread but fill it with curries made according to traditional Indian tastes.
The next layer usually comes out of a bakery. This is where the pastry chef shines. Normally the domain of croissants, éclairs and apple tarts, today, the tray is dominated by pineapple tarts, nectarine tarts, cream puffs, choux pastry and other delectable treats that deliver more of a tang to our tongues. Since people are more health conscious now, every effort is made by bakeries to use ingredients that contribute to that such as whole grain flour, organic sugar and butter etc. and no artificial colourings. Many places also pledge against deep oil frying, especially when it comes to the new savoury goods on a tier like Chinese rolls. These are wok tossed vegetable rolled in a translucent pastry cover and are usually deep fried but baked, works just as well.
The Sweet Layer
This is the home of the decorative cakes. They have sprinkles, glitter, icing, fruit and every other known decoration on them. There are cakes, cup cakes, muffins, doughnuts and all kinds of sweet and wonderful goods that cause taste buds to explode. While these have remained largely unchained since the 1800’s, one difference is that countries often add a piece or two that is not a traditional ‘cake.’ For instance, high tea in Goa, India might witness a piece of dark, mince-heavy “rich” cake – the settler’s variety of the traditional Yule time cake. So, enjoy your tea!