Tea time, with scones

Barb Gulley loves tea, especially English tea, the type served at ever-so-proper afternoon gatherings, poured from beautiful silver or china pots into delicate china teacups.

Her company, Barb’s Tea Shop, is not a restaurant or store but a source of education about tea. She offers seminars–complete with tea tastings–at parties, corporate events, club meetings, libraries and museum. A former college marketing and management instructor, Barb now devotes her life to tea. She’s traveled widely to sample her favorite beverage, including trips to China, Japan, Ireland and of course England. She is qualified by the Protocol School of Washington, D.C. to teach tea etiquette to diplomats and businesspeople working in other countries. Her daughter, Rachel, is her marketing and operations manager.

My synagogue’s Sisterhood brought Barb in for a recent fundraiser. Her presentation was delightful.

A long history

Tea was discovered nearly 5,000 years ago, by the Chinese emperor Shen Nong, when a leaf from a tea plant (camellia sinensis) fell into a cup of hot water he was planning to drink. The first written reference to tea is from China in 600 BCE. There are four types of tea, defined by how oxidized (or fermented) the tea leaves become after picking and before brewing. The most oxidized is black tea, followed by oolong, green and white tea. Black and oolong are the only teas strong enough to be taken with milk. How long to steep the tea in hot water (it should be almost, but not quite, boiling) is a matter of personal taste.

In general, Barb says black tea should steep for three to five minutes, oolong and green teas for two to four minutes, and white teas from two to seven minutes. Herbal teas are not, strictly speaking, teas because they aren’t made with leaves from the tea plant. If you want to be quite proper, call them tissanes.

Barb prefers loose tea to teabags, but acknowledges that it can be a nuisance to clean a pot after brewing loose tea. Most tea balls and infusers don’t give the leaves enough room to move in the pot. You can buy paper tea filters to contain the loose tea that give the leaves more room to move and expand.

Afternoon delight

Tea came to England around 1600 through the work of the East India Company. And around 1840, Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, started inviting her friends over in the late afternoon for a little pick-me-up between lunch and dinner, which was served quite late. Thus was born the afternoon tea. Most afternoon teas are served with scones, dainty sandwiches and cakes or cookies.

You can make it as fancy as you like, but don’t call it “high tea” to impress those you invite. After the English aristocracy made a habit of taking tea in the afternoon, the hoi polloi wanted in on the act too. Unfortunately, most working people didn’t get home until 5 or 6 p.m. or later. When the working stiffs had their tea in the evening, they needed some real food with it, and so they ate at the high table – the kitchen or dining room table where food was normally served – rather than at the lower tea (aka coffee) table. So “high tea” is a light evening meal, served with tea. The refreshment served to refined ladies is properly called “afternoon tea.”

Tea etiquette

If you’re invited to an afternoon tea, here are some of Barb’s tips on tea etiquette. And be aware that if you are asked to pour you should consider it a great honor!

  • Don’t put milk in the cup first. First pour the tea, then add the milk, so you can see how much it needs. (And don’t use cream!)
  • Hold the teacup by hooking your index finger through the cup handle. There’s no need to stick out your pinky. If you’re taking tea at a low tea table, hold the saucer in your other hand.
  • If you use teabags it’s a good idea to offer guests a separate saucer to put the bag on. If you don’t have a separate saucer or one of those little teapot-shaped dishes made expressly for holding used teabags, put the used bag on your saucer next to the cup. Don’t squeeze it out by wrapping the string around your spoon; the metal spoon might affect the taste.

Dean Burnett, writing on the blog of The Guardian newspaper in England, disagrees with Barb on the milk question. He says there’s scientific evidence that you should put the milk in the cup first – maybe not when using teabags, but certainly when pouring from a pot. He reports that a Dr Stapley of Loughborough University found  that adding milk after the tea is poured causes the milk to heat unevenly, which causes the proteins in it to denature, affecting the taste and possibly causing a skin to form on the surface of the tea.  Brits and Anglophile tea lovers will probably disagree on this question forever.

In England, many restaurant menus will include “cream tea.” This means that with your pot of tea you’ll get scones, clotted cream and jam. I know “clotted cream” sounds disgusting, but it’s delicious, a little like whipped cream, but thicker and richer, sort of a cross between whipped cream and whipped butter.

Barb says it’s not classy to slice a scone in half, add cream and jam, and put the halves together again to eat it like a sandwich. Tsk! Better you should break off a small piece, spread it with a little cream, add a dollop of jam, and enjoy. And if you’re invited to a “royal tea”? That includes a flute a champagne!

Want to learn more? Check out Barb’s tea blog! Meanwhile, try this recipe for scones. It’s adapted from a recipe by Alton Brown on www.foodnetwork.com and makes about a dozen scones.

Come back next week for some Coffee Talk, and another great recipe to go with your favorite hot beverage.