Granny’s Afternoon Tea

Dorothy Woolsey Rutherford – (1893-1976) at the Stafford house

Afternoon Tea

on the Lawn

It must have been quite a sight for local farmers rumbling by on their tractors, heading back and forth between the Third and Fourth Line of Bathurst with full loads of summer hay. There she was, decked out in one of her fine silk dresses, with a strand of pearls and matching earrings, waiting patiently in a lawn chair for her afternoon tea.

Our Granny came for a visit from Edmonton every few years, and we all tried to make things as nice as possible for her stay. She often worried that she wouldn’t be able to sleep during her time with us, and so, one of my brothers was always tasked to visit the liquor store in Perth and purchase a bottle of her favourite cordial – Cherry Jack liqueur, which she claimed would help her drift off to sleep at night. It was not unusual at the end of her stay for Granny to leave the entire bottle untouched, as she claimed that it was so quiet and peaceful at our house, with the gentle rustling of the maple leaves and the sound of the crickets to lull her to sleep.

Apart from her request for the Cherry Jack, Granny was accustomed to having afternoon tea. Born in Lincolnshire, England, in 1893, Granny grew up in comfortable circumstances. Her family owned two successful butcher shops in Huddersfield, her maternal grandparents, the Fosters, owned butcher shops in Grantham, and her paternal grandfather was the owner of Woolsey’s Silversmiths and Jewellers, also in Grantham. Her family summered in Blackpool, England, a resort town on the northwest coast, and she and her siblings had a proper Victorian upbringing, enjoying certain daily rituals, like afternoon tea.

It’s been said that it was the seventh Duchess of Bedford, one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting who started the custom, sometime around 1840. City dwellers who benefited from the new invention of gas-powered street lights, began to stretch their dinner hour later and later into the evenings, sometimes as late as 8 p.m. or 9 p.m.

7th Duchess of Bedford, Anna Russell

The Duchess often described feeling peckish in the late afternoon, and began to request that her maid bring bread, butter, jam, cake, and tea to her room, around 4 p.m. each day, and from this habit a tradition was born. The upper classes seldom needed an excuse to have another slice of cake or another cup of tea, and so the custom spread quickly across Britain.

The ritual of afternoon tea for the wealthy came with a number of accessories. Fine porcelain cups became the standard, with matching saucers, special tea-sized plates, sterling silver tea pots with matching cream and sugar servers. Names like Royal Crown Derby, Wedgwood, and Spode, and in later years Royal Doulton, and Royal Albert were the usual suppliers of these fine china sets, often trimmed with genuine gold. Linens were also important, as were the types and blends of teas available, and the variety of condiments like potted jams and honey.

“Royal Antoinette” pattern, by Royal Crown Derby

There was also an important social aspect of afternoon tea, and the way in which women could entertain at home, and were free to exchange ideas, opinions, and share their views on topics ranging from the domestic, to the religious, and the political. Tea dresses became fashionable and didn’t contain the usual restrictive boning, but were more free-flowing and comfortable, often made of lighter fabrics.

Tea Sandwiches

One of Granny’s favourites at tea-time were dainty cucumber sandwiches, cut on the diagonal, with the crusts removed. Long, thin English cucumbers are peeled and sliced paper-thin. Soft, thin slices of white bread are spread lightly with plain cream cheese and a layer of thin cucumber slices are lightly seasoned with salt and pepper. Tiny sprigs of dill or mint leaves may be used as a garnish.

Traditional cucumber tea-sandwiches

Tea sandwiches at the Stafford house were often served on a Lazy Susan, a three-tiered serving tray, sometimes made of silver, or fine china. Mother made several different types of tea sandwiches – Pinwheel, Ribbon – with several alternating layers, Checkerboard – with two different colours of bread, and Open-Faced – a circle of bread (she used a water glass to cut the slice) topped with a filling and a garnish. Fillings were finely chopped egg salad, ham salad, salmon salad, cream cheese with maraschino cherries. Garnishes were tiny springs of parsley, and sometimes radish roses, and carrot-curls were placed on the plate as decoration.

Pastries and Sweets

Granny’s favourites were the small Jam Pastries. Whenever Mother baked pies, (which was often) she saved the scraps of pastry, rolled them flat, cut them in circles or other shapes, placed a dollop of homemade jam in the center, folded it over, then sealed the edges with a fork tine. Mother also made bite-sized jam tarts, and dainty Cherry Balls, for a sweets-tray that was pleasing to the eye as well as the stomach. (recipe below)

Mother’s Cherry Balls

1/2 c softened butter

1 1/2 c icing sugar

1 1/2 c desiccated coconut

1 Tbsp milk

1/2 tsp vanilla

a pinch of salt

graham wafer crumbs

maraschino cherries

Method: Mix well and shape around a drained cherry, then roll into graham crumbs

For variety, may be dipped in melted chocolate.

Chill on a cookie sheet, and serve. May be frozen.

The Tea

While Mother preferred Orange Pekoe tea, and drank Red Rose brand daily, our Granny drank English Breakfast Tea – a full-bodied black tea, and Earl Grey Tea – with the essence of bergamot. At one time the Red Rose company included a small ceramic figurine in each box of their tea, and perhaps that was part of their popularity with Mother. I remember seeing dozens of the little figurines here and there, around our house, in shapes of small animals and nursery rhyme characters.

(Tea Bags were invented in the United States in 1908, but they did not become popular in England until the 1950s.)

Tea bags, or loose tea in an Infuser

Brewing Tea

Fresh Water

It’s important to use fresh water when making tea. We were fortunate at home to have well water, but if you don’t then bottled spring water will do. If there is an ‘off’ taste or chlorine in the water then it will affect the flavour of the cup of tea.

Choose Your Pot

Traditional tea was made in a silver pot, and metal will keep the water hot longer, but a china pot will retain the flavour better.

The First Cup is For the Pot.”

After the water reaches a rolling boil, the first cup of water should be poured into the pot and swirled around and then poured out. Our Dad always said, “The first cup is for the pot.” This helps to maintain the temperature.

The remaining boiling water is poured into the pot over the loose leaves, or the tea infuser, or the bag (bags), and allowed to brew for three to five minutes

Loose brewed tea is poured into the cup, through a tea strainer placed over the top of the cup. Infusers or tea bags should be removed once the tea has reached the desired strength.

Silver tea strainer – 1930s

Tea Cozy

A tea cozy may be placed over the pot to keep the tea warm. Mother made crocheted tea cozies to give as gifts, and would often inquire about the recipient’s china pattern, then she would match the cozy to the main china colour.

Milk or Sugar?

Some drink their tea black, or with a dollop of honey, or a squeeze of lemon.

Our Granny preferred to take her tea with a splash of milk. The milk was always poured in the cup before the tea, so that the delicate bone china cup would not crack or shatter.

The British began adding sugar to their tea between the 17th and the early 18th century. At this time, sugar was being used to enhance the flavour of other foods among the upper classes and was thought of as an ostentatious luxury. At that time both tea and sugar had status implications, so it made sense to drink them together.

Tea TimesWhat to Expect:

A ‘Cream’ Tea — This is a simple tea with biscuits, scones, clotted cream, marmalade sometimes lemon curd and tea.

A ‘Low Tea/Afternoon Tea‘ — This is a light afternoon meal with small crustless ‘finger’ sandwiches, 2-3 sweets and tea. This is the one our Granny enjoyed on the lawns of the Stafford house. It’s known as “low tea” because guests are seated in low chairs with side-tables on which to place their cups and saucers.

High Tea – A ‘High’ tea consists of meat and potatoes as well as other foods and tea. Families with servants often took high tea on Sundays in order to allow the maids and butlers time to go to church and not worry about cooking an evening meal for the family.

Dreaming of England

As a child, I sometimes wondered if Granny missed her life in England, her childhood in Gainsborough, and her youth in Huddersfield. Did she dream of the elaborate silver tea settings crafted in her grandfather’s shop, and did she miss the elegant table settings, dainty afternoon delicacies, and the impeccable service by their family’s domestics?

Dorothy Woolsey Rutherford

I like to think that Granny enjoyed the times spent at the Stafford house, sitting under the tall sprawling maple trees on warm summer days, enjoying her afternoon tea in our yard.

The Stafford House, Tay Valley Township, Lanark County, Ontario, Canada

Whenever Granny stayed with us Mother made delicious tea sandwiches that were as pleasing to the eye as they were to our taste buds. Her sandwich fillings were seasoned to perfection, and the small sweets and pastries were just the right finish to an afternoon tea.

Arlene Stafford-Wilson, Dorothy Woolsey Rutherford, and Audry Rutherford Stafford – 1965 at the Stafford house

Enjoy Your Own

Afternoon Tea

This lovely daily ritual needn’t be expensive, and takes very little time to prepare. Simple fillings of egg, ham, or salmon salad can be prepared ahead of time, and a few small pastries or chocolate coated biscuits will do nicely. The tea of your choice may be one you’ve enjoyed for years, or you might like to experiment and try some new varieties. Perhaps you already have some lovely fine china that’s been passed down in the family to use for your tea service. Many swear that tea tastes better served in a fine bone china tea-cup.

In a busy world, where sometimes the news is less than cheerful, taking a few minutes for ourselves with a small daily ritual might be just the thing to brighten our spirits.

If weather permits, take your afternoon tea outside, and invite a friend or neighbour. Breathe in the fresh air, marvel at the beauty of the colourful flowers in your garden, or the clear blue skies overhead. A colourful bouquet at the table adds a nice touch.

For a meager amount of expense and preparation, the simple pleasures and contentment of enjoying afternoon tea is truly priceless. Make some lasting memories with your children and grandchildren, just as I did, so many years ago, on our front lawn, sharing afternoon tea with Granny.

Arlene Stafford-Wilson

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