Afternoon tea not just for royals

People sometimes prefer afternoon tea to formal dining because the tea set is more relaxing and better for social interaction.

Nana Jiang, a 24-year-old Shanghai woman, picks afternoon tea to treat her best friends and for her first dates.

"Foods in an afternoon tea set are served in finger size, which gives us more time to talk rather than chewing," Jiang says.

That's so important that she considers ambience above the quality of food or tea when choosing a venue. Quiet and relaxed are requirements.

Some people choose afternoon tea for its variety.

"I agonize when I have to make a choice from among the many dishes on a menu, so it's a relief that afternoon tea is served in a set with a big variety," says Mona Lee, a Shanghai woman fond of afternoon tea.

That also avoids making friends unhappy by ordering food they don't like, Lee adds. A big varieties of desserts served in small portions also satisfy women with a big sweet tooth who also want to keep fit.

English, French and modern afternoon tea styles are the most popular in town.

English style, featuring a 3-tiered food set and an extensive tea menu, plays a leading role probably because England is the home to afternoon tea culture, which can be traced back to the 1840s, when the Duchess of Bedford in Bedfordshire was lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria.

The duchess felt hungry in the mid-afternoon, long before dinnertime at 8 in the evening. She asked her footman to prepare some bread, butter and tea, which gradually developed into an elaborate selection of sandwiches, scones, cakes and cookies. As she invited more of her aristocratic friends to her tea parties, afternoon tea culture became popular throughout England. The Langham is the first British heritage hotel in London that introduced English afternoon tea in 1865.

A 3-tiered set with finger-sized sweet and savory foods and fresh tea served in porcelain teacups define the authenticity of classic English afternoon tea, according to Lisa Crowe, executive pastry chef at The Peninsula Shanghai. She's also from England.

"The silver tea stand should be served with dainty pastries on the top tier; sweetened scones, always with jam and clotted cream, on the second level, and sandwiches at the base," Crowe says.

Scones matter for English teas and could even be considered a yardstick of authenticity and quality.

It's a good thing for customers to find their tea set served with its second tier empty — that means the scones will soon be brought out freshly baked, warm and soft.

Some local hotels and restaurants write "high tea" on their menus to indicate their upscale and quality fare, which is a classic mistake caused by confusing English high tea with low tea. Some assume "high" means high class, but it actually refers to tea and scones often served on a high kitchen table between 5pm and 6pm to workers returning home.

"It (high tea) is taken particularly in Scotland and the north of England, where the evening meal is replaced by tea served with cold meat, fish and salads, as well as buttered rolls, toast and cakes," says Linda Hemels, director of food and beverage at Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund.

Low, referring to "low table," is actually a byword for the classic 3-tiered tea set served between 2pm and 4pm originating with the aristocracy.

French-style afternoon tea is currently in fashion because it is less sophisticated and places more emphasis on pastry.

Although it is called afternoon tea, French people prefer coffee to tea, according to Lu Mengxi, who studied in France for years and is now working in Shanghai.

When tea time starts, a wooden trolley called a "chariot" in French is wheeled in by a server. The trolley is filled with savory snacks and desserts such as cakes, tarts and seasonal fruit.

Reproduced from