My last tea party was a simple affair: Raggedy Ann, Andy and I gathered around a table of plastic teacups and make-believe tea. Those companions disappeared in the Goodwill bin long ago, but the ritual and daintiness of the afternoon tea party continued to intrigue me. Why not host a grown-up tea party, this time with friends who actually talk back?
Invented by the Duchess of Bedford in early 19th-century England, afternoon tea was an immediate hit with the Victorian set. Not only did it stave off hunger between breakfast and dinner, the only formal meals of the day, but the ritualistic steeping of the leaves encouraged the leisurely whiling -- ahem, gossiping -- away of the afternoon.
Soon miniature pastries and finger sandwiches began to accompany teapots, and a new social tradition was born and exported to all corners of the Empire. "Alice in Wonderland" author Lewis Carroll (the man behind the most famous tea party of all) referred to "five o'clock tea" as a national institution that "rivals . . . the glorious Magna Carta." (Though the terms are often used interchangeably, afternoon tea differs from high tea in that the latter was a workers' affair, held in the evening as a replacement for the evening meal.)
Not wanting to challenge the integrity of a national institution, I set about learning to brew a proper pot. My friend Nick, a no-nonsense Brit, briefed me on rule number one: "Use loose tea. Tea bags are for peasants." Nick recommended Darjeeling or Earl Grey, both available in loose form at local grocery stores.
Brewing the perfect pot of tea requires a teakettle and a teapot. I boiled water in the kettle, poured it into the empty teapot and swished it around to warm up the vessel before tossing the "warm up" water out. The loose tea -- one teaspoon for every cup, plus an extra teaspoon for the pot -- was packed into a wire mesh "tea globe," basically a metal sieve that fits inside the pot. (You can also spoon the loose leaves into the pot and catch them in a strainer that you hold over each teacup as you pour.) The pot was replenished with fresh boiling water and the tea began to steep.
While we waited, the ladies and I nibbled on strawberries, cookies, open-faced tea sandwiches, and scones served with clotted cream, a tasty (if terribly named) British specialty. After a few minutes, the tea was a rich light-brown color. We filled our cups, stuck out our pinky fingers and commenced with the time-honored traditions of gossiping and pretending to read tea leaves. What a perfectly proper way to spend an afternoon!