Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Victorian Tea

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The Englishness of the Victorian tea is baked right into the sweets and savories that are traditionally served, for many have place names like Dundee and Eccles cakes, Cornish pasties, Shrewberry cookies, or Coventry tarts. Other recipes can be traced back to the court of Henry the Eighth. The custom of ¨taking¨ tea was championed by the English in the time of the ¨merry monarch¨, Charles II, whose wife, the Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza, came to London with a large chest of tea as part of her dowry. But tea was precious in the seventeenth century, and remained too expensive an item to be consumed by anyone but the aristocracy until it began to be brought by clipper ships, those exotic and romantic  three-masted vessels that raced across the oceans of the world during the height of the British empire. By the nineteenth century, many a British subject was enjoying this once exotic beverage, and the delights of bold, brisk Assam, delicate Darjeeling, golden Ceylon, or aromatic jasmine, whose flowers open and bloom in the teapot, had become part of everyday life.
But it was Queen Victoria who popularized the custom of taking afternoon tea. During Victoria´s long reign, no loyal subject of the British Empire neglected to take a substantial afternoon tea, as unlikely an event as neglecting to take their umbrellas on a misty day. Sponge cake was the Queen´s favorite sweet, served with a layer of strawberry jam and whipped cream, and she also popularized the custom of drinking tea with a slice of lemon, which she brought from the Russian court where she had been visiting her eldest daughter, the Princess Royal.
 (….) In the more than sixty years of Queen Victoria´s reign, the afternoon tea had become a national pastime. When the clock struck four, every kettle in the empire began to whistle and every tea table was set with all manner of delectables to appease the appetite and restore the flagging spirit, an egalitarian legacy few monarches could surpass. The observance had become a treasured costum, a moment best described by Charles Dickens as one ¨in which we are perfectly contented with ourselves and one another.¨

Victoria. The Charms of Tea. Reminiscences and Recipes. P. 10. Hearst Books. New York. 1991

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