By: Lynn Ogryzlo
Photos by: Jon Ogryzlo

It was the combination of sugar and caffeinated tea that gave the working poor of the 19th century England their afternoon boost. Add to that some simple food and it fortified those who had a more physically demanding occupation than anyone does today.

Afternoon tea was not always as dull as necessity dictated. On the other side of town Afternoon Tea was being served to the aristocracy in a manner that defined elegant decadence.

While the offering of luxurious foods has improved over the years, so has the tea. A Master of Tea and tea blender by trade, Englishman Alex Probyn has put together an amazing tea list at The Langham in downtown London, England that includes some personally blended teas as well as a collection of the best from around the world. Reading through The Langham’s tea bible it’s obvious that Probyn’s collection has less to do with offering his customers an afternoon boost and more to do with soothing the soul, exciting the palate and pampering the appetite.

It’s one of the best places in the world to experience a posh Afternoon Tea. It begins with an amuse bouche, in Langham’s case, Eggnog Panna Cotta with Rum Jelly served in a miniature bubble glass.

Afternoon Tea is served in a traditional three-tiered plate, each layer representing a different course. Starting from the bottom tier, it holds a selection of miniature sandwiches, the middle layer is for the traditional scones and the top is for the finest and most elegant of finger pastries.

At The Langham they serve each course paired with a different tea, each tea suggested by the Tea Sommelier to offer complimentary flavours and a palette experience of immense finesse.

While we look to England for the quintessential Afternoon Tea, here in Niagara it’s not difficult to find a wealth of Afternoon Tea experiences that range from Victorian Tea service at the Prince of Wales Hotel, a true Canadiana tea at the McFarlane house, a country tea at Ridge Berry Farm to cult-like, word-of-mouth, private, themed teas.

Culinary Historian and avid tea aficionado Carole Berlove of Niagara-on-the-Lake creates period themed teas. Her latest was a Downton Abbey Tea. Guests came in period 1920 English dress complete with hats. Tea service, table setting and room ambience creating dramatic vignettes that took guests back in time for an amazing look into another world.

The event started with calling cards and a butler announced each guest as they arrived. Everyone was seated around a beautifully set dining table. This makes it a High Tea instead of a more casual Low Tea served around a coffee table.

“In cold weather afternoon teas would start with a warm soup and in hot weather it would be champagne,” explains Carole as the maid (her sister dressed in full maid costume) serves everyone warm broccoli soup garnished with a drop of crème fraiche in miniature ornate tulip shaped glass cups sitting on doily lined, little scalloped saucer.

We laid beautiful hand-embroidered antique linen napkins on our lap as tea was poured. “Cucumber sandwiches are the aristocratic sandwich of the tea table,” says Carole. The three-tiered plate was set on the table full of delicious looking little foods like beautifully sculpted finger sandwiches, some with curls of “Mrs. Crawley’s salmon” on top. For fans of Downton Abbey, you’ll know exactly what that is and if you’re not a fan, Carole says, “start watching.”

The middle tier shows off Carole’s famous scones. There is her popular white chocolate, walnut and apricot scones and a few butter rich scones offered for variety. On the table are little cups, one for the clotted cream and the other for the strawberry jam. They’re spread over scones and eaten with sighs of delight.

The top plate cradles tiny little period pastries made by Carole herself. The decadent end to an exquisite afternoon was a rich chocolate mousse. It was served in Carole’s antique, etched crystal teardrop glasses that hover elegantly over an ornate sterling silver base with accompanying little silver spoons – decadent!

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In the past, Carole has arranged a Tea with Monet and Black and White teas with the same amount of elegant perfection. They’re available only through word-of-mouth.

Foods served at an afternoon tea are meant to be plain foods so it’s a fun event to plan at home. Set a beautiful table the day before and don’t forget to include fresh flowers as all fine Afternoon Teas do. You can make the little sandwiches the day of your event and pick up the rest of the foods from your favourite bakery. Afternoon teas are as simple as that, yet a special treat to offer and fun to experience.

The McFarlane House on the Niagara Parkway in Niagara-on-the-Lake is a beautiful location to enjoy a period tea. The historic home is one of the few that survived the war in the early 1800’s. Afternoon Tea is served in the large glass conservatory under the shade of old oak trees and staff is dressed Jane Austin-style. “We have one foot in the past and one foot in the present,” explains manager Rebecca Pascoe. The food is all present day, “no one would like the foods of the early 1800’s,” says Rebecca referring to sweets that were once made with molasses or honey instead of the refined ingredients we have today.

Tea service includes the traditional 3-course Afternoon Tea of finger sandwiches, scones and home-made sweets. Everything is made in small batches everyday which prompts Rebecca to describe it as, “the microbrewery of the tea room”. You can start your Afternoon Tea with a tour of the historic home. Once you’ve toured the rooms, settle into the conservatory for tea and a relaxing experience back to Canadiana circa 1812.

If you’re like me and you’re more comfortable in pants, I strongly recommend you put on a dress when you go to the Prince of Wales Afternoon Tea. I can’t imagine anything more elegantly feminine and pampering than this experience. But if you don’t feel comfortable putting on a dress, think of me when half way through you begin to regret you didn’t dress for the occasion.

The Prince of Wales Drawing Room is an elegant room lost in time with rich mahogany woodwork, lightly aged walls, tapestry carpets and plush period furniture. Large bouquets of pink and white roses add an air of posh decadence to the Victorian warmth.

You can have a Low Tea in the Drawing Room (around coffee tables) or High Tea (at higher dining tables) in the Greenhouse. Both include service on Royal Daulton Oberon English Wedgewood with sterling silver cutlery. It begins with a tall flute of Jackson-Triggs sparkling wine turned red with a drop of cassis and garnished with fresh raspberries. To go with this is a small cheese plate offering premium cheeses from Ontario and Quebec.

Our lead server, Sandy sets a 2-tiered plate on the table. The bottom is filled with finger sandwiches holding onto a variety of traditional fillings, each on a different style of thin bread. There is one, super large fruit scone, still warm from the oven and sitting among some seductive looking mini sweets.

A proper tea is nothing more than a gathering of friends with light refreshments and a lot of chatter. What’s important is how it’s executed. The perfection comes in the little details that turn a cup of tea into an affair to remember.

Lynn Ogryzlo is a food, wine and travel writer, international award winning author and regular contributor to REV Publications. She can be reached for questions or comments at www.lynnogryzlo.com.