Balanced Afternoon Tea

Text and Photography by Bruce Richardson

I remember my first afternoon tea in London. It was at Harrods in 1979. We queued nearly 30 minutes while waiting for the velvet rope to drop, allowing access to a three-tiered buffet of sweets that would make a regiment of Horse Guards swoon.

The dessert trolleys held row after row of delicious pastries, cakes, and tarts. I filled my plate more than once and consumed so many luscious sweets that a sugar rush finally bested me, and a headache set in for the evening. My body longed for anything savory to offset my bad behavior.

I learned a valuable lesson that day—a well-designed afternoon-tea meal is a blend of both sweets and savories. That tenet served my wife and me well when we opened a tearoom 10 years later. We crafted delicious tea meals at the Elmwood Inn for 14 years, but always with a balance of about 60 percent savories and 40 percent sweets.

Here are five more helpful suggestions to consider as you organize your next afternoon-tea event:

We taste first with our eyes. Teatime foods should be beautiful and presented in a fashion that pleases the eye before it pleases the taste buds. Consider using edible flowers, multigrain breads, or fruits to brighten your teatime color scheme.

No one item should dominate an afternoon-tea meal. Guests should be looking forward to tasting your next exquisite creation. That anticipation won’t come about if one dominant item satiates their appetites. Keep it light.

Use glazes rather than frostings for your tea cakes. Victorian sponges and cakes sliced into small portions are perfect for afternoon-tea meals. Avoid heavy chocolate icing or sugary fillings that might overpower other foods on the plate.

Feel free to draw from multiple culinary traditions. I love English afternoon teas at such restaurants as The Wolseley in London, where I expect to find cucumber, egg and cress, and smoked-salmon tea sandwiches on the plate. But in America, anything goes as long as items don’t compete with each other.

Make your food easy to manage. Your guests will appreciate the effort you put into making sandwiches, canapés, and tarts easy to eat. Most foods should be small enough to consume in two to four bites, especially when you are putting together a buffet tea. Everything should be in miniature form for those who may be standing or seated away from a table while eating. This helps diners feel at ease and conversant, and it gives them more opportunities to compliment you on the skill and thoughtfulness that went into your culinary creation!

Bruce Richardson and his wife, Shelley, are authors of numerous teatime cookbooks, such as A Year of Teas at the Elmwood Inn and The Tea Table.

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I am very simple for such sophisticated teas.


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