Posted by: kentauros | July 4, 2011

An Afternoon Tea


One weekend recently gone, I had the opportunity to experience a demonstration of a Victorian-era “afternoon tea.” My friend, Amanda, the one that probably runs way too many Meet-up groups in our area, hosted the “tea party.” So, she over-booked. Their house was packed! Thankfully, they do have a good a/c unit and had requested a $10 fee for every participant. I hope that helped cover their electricity bill for the duration. (This is Texas and our summers are not only hot, but also very humid; you can’t help but sweat even when clothed minimally.)

The presenter was J’Nean Henderson, and she does other Victorian presentations, though I can’t remember now what they all are, other than some reenactments. (I have since received this information from Amanda and their business is The Victorian Lady.) Participants were also encouraged to show up in Victorian-era dress, though only one other did so that I saw. While the presenter and her assistant were in their full costume, one show in her costume from the Civil War era. I couldn’t tell, but the presenter knew the styles well enough to nail it when she asked the era. She also did reenactments, of both Texas’ participation in the Civil War as well as ones for our battle for Independence. Don’t know what role she played in those as either that subject didn’t come up, or I was distracted into another conversation elsewhere.

Now then, what I learned. It started with a Duchess (although at the time of the party, it sounded like the Dutch, and I wasn’t sure how they were associated.) Without going into all the information you can easily find online, the story as given was that way back in those times, people didn’t eat lunch, at least not the high-born. I know from doing demonstrations myself on turn-of-the-century woodstove cooking that the farmers of the late 19th century did take a lunch with them into the field, often consisting of raw onions and maybe some cornbread mash (leftover cornbread mixed with milk until it’s mush.) So, I would guess that peasants and the rest that worked the land back then mostly likely had some food on hand as they worked, or they wouldn’t last very long.

So, no lunch, but they did have large, and late, breakfasts, meant to carry you over until the mid-evening dinner (supper, evening meal) which wasn’t served until 8 pm or later! I think I’d have a hard time lasting, too, with no breaks, tea or otherwise, and no food between roughly 9 am and 8 pm (or later!) The women were getting hungry, and I don’t blame them!

Now, exactly where and/or how this Duchess got the idea of having a snack, I don’t know exactly, other than simply doing so and developing a tradition. From there, the etiquette shows up, and I can get into a few of the other things learned, not to mention one that’s a contradiction to something else learned in the last decade or so.

I can’t mention how to take tea without the mention of an item called the “Castilian” that was worn around the waist and would carry the various items a woman might need throughout the day. Things like needle and thread, scissors, her fan, and a key. Now, that’s no ordinary key, meant for the front door or what have you. No, that was the key to the tea-cabinet. Tea was very expensive back then and you couldn’t just have anyone getting access to it, either. However, upon seeing the presentation of the “tea brick” I had to wonder just how expensive it might have been to get loose tea…

I’ve seen these bricks elsewhere and didn’t know what they were. Now I do, and can’t really imagine taking tea from a brick of tea leaves. That is, it was a slab, much like a 5-kg slab of chocolate you might find at a gourmet store or in bulk through a restaurant supply. Compressed tea leaves in a slab about half a foot wide, maybe a foot long and an inch thick; and as hard as a real brick. Sure, it was dark like the tea leaves from which it was created, but most of us wouldn’t today consider that to be quality tea. It had to be either scraped or shaved off into the teapot, although it could be broken off, presumably for larger pots. And then there was the brewing time, completely indifferent to anything we’d expect: five minutes. Now, maybe back then it didn’t matter due to the quality you get from compressed tea, but today if you brewed black tea for five minutes, you’re going to get a mouthful of tannins. In other words, bitter tea. You better have some food handy, to wash down the tea!

Okay, after enough tea has been scraped to account for all the cups you intend to brew, the next step is preparing the pot. Only a few ounces of hot water is poured in and then swirled to warm the pot. That is poured out and the tea scooped in. It’s a one to one ratio of teaspoons of tea to cups of water, so if your pot holds four cups, you spoon in four teaspoons, plus one for the pot. I have to wonder if this extra is akin to the baker’s dozen. There was no explanation given that I heard.

Pour in your four cups (or whatever the capacity of your tea pot, though never too full) and let steep. The demonstration didn’t really wait that long in order to get on to the rest of the etiquette so I’m sure their tea was weak. For the rest of us, we had many pots of tea being served, all of different kinds thanks to our hostess’ tea-collection. Tea was always loose-leaf, because bags weren’t invented yet. The bag came about by the dunking of the whole bag of loose tea into hot water versus spooning out the required amount. I am guessing that happened where large numbers of people had to be served. It must have made more sense to not have the mess of loose tea and the subsequent straining for each cup, though some teapots have that part built in. My Japanese tea service has a pot with a pottery strainer built into the base of the neck inside the pot.

At this point you would be asked how you take your tea: sugar, milk, or clear. The first two are self-explanatory while the third simply means “straight” or no sugar or milk. The sugar was in cubes, and you would take it in “lumps”. Milk was used instead of cream due to how cream will curdle from the tannins in the tea. Very little would be used anyway, like around a tablespoon or so.

Now you are ready to drink your tea. Because you must take the saucer up with the cup, it will be hot, so your folded “serviette” will be under the saucer as you hold it and sip your tea from the cup with the other hand.

One thing to note here is that I was corrected when I answered “napkin” for the definition of a serviette. While it is what we know of today as a cloth napkin, back then it was a serviette. A “napkin” was made of paper and only used on picnics, or possibly for other outdoor eating. The weird part of this is back when I was married, I learned that Canadians called a paper napkin a “serviette”. And it’s not just that the definitions are switched, but that the French language still has a longstanding influence on their culture and idiosyncrasies while also having British origins. I don’t understand how that happened, making it interesting, at least for me. Just don’t ask me to research how that change took place. It’s not that important…

One other thing to note with regards to the cup and saucer is that when drinking coffee, the saucer remains on the table and no serviette is required. Also, for those that asked about the raised pinky thing, it was jokingly surmised that it probably came from Oscar Wilde…

Well! Far more demonstrated than I can remember, such as the whole etiquette around the use of the paper fan. What the signals mean, whether open, closed or in use, not to mention its use as a mild weapon. Plenty of flirting going on back then, without a word spoken. Try and do the same online!

All in all, it was a fun event and I thank Chantal of the Houston Bellydance and Flamenco Meetup group for organizing it and inviting me. I had a great time!

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Responses

  1. Thanks for the great review, Eric! Glad you enjoyed the tea party and presentation. I wish I could have heard more of the actual presentation, but I was busy boiling water for the tea in the kitchen and missed most of it.

  2. You’re welcome, Amanda! It was fun and nice to do something different like that. Maybe you can do it again next year, and just boil a big pot of water, ladling the hot water into the teapots. That would probably work just as well 🙂

  3. Good synopsis of the events. Fun details. Information about the castillian was interesting.

    I already knew about the reticule (http://www.georgianindex.net/Reticule/Chatelaine.html) that became common in late Georgian times and the earlier version of the lady’s pocket (http://www.costumes.org/history/100pages/18thbags.htm), which was simply a pouch worn about the waist and accessed through slips in the hoop skirt. Amazing how things changed.

    Also, here’s something good on the changing naming and timing of meals: http://www.history-magazine.com/dinner2.html

    Also, fun story about the teabag. It was an accidental invention. A tea seller wanted to share his new stock of tea with people, so he put them in silk pouches to send around as samplers. He only though of the pouches as containers. It was some of the people who received them that assumed he meant for them to use the bags to dip the leaves into the water. He decided it was a good idea — though with a less expensive fabric than silk.

    P.S. Hi. Finally made it here. 😉

  4. It is interesting to me that the way Europeans and, subsequently, Americans make tea is so at odds with how it is done in China where the custom of tea drinking originated. The Chinese simply brew a first pot of tea, let it steep shortly, poor off the bitter tannin flavored water and add new water for a second pot of tea that tastes good.

    Why do we always make things more difficult than necessary?

    It was interesting hearing about a tea party. It wouldn’t be something I would peg a straight guy as doing. 😉

    • I think there were five other guys there, mostly husbands. Amanda knows my tastes are eclectic and thought I’d enjoy something different. Then again, I know a little bit about that time from doing woodstove baking demonstrations at a local nature center. They have a farmhouse from 1898 and it used to also be a working farm, but had to drop that when the insurance payments became too much. But I got a good idea of that life back then, including things like driving a team of mules, household chores, gardening and even a little blacksmithing and woodworking. So, learning about afternoon tea this summer really isn’t that far removed from those previous experiences of 19th century farm life 🙂

      Thanks for the insight, too, on how the Chinese do it. I didn’t know that part, and only knew a little about how the Japanese take their “tea ceremonies” into almost an endurance test!


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