Tuesday, April 26, 2011
A Proper High Tea & the Recipe for My Granny's Scones
A quick break from the Mediterranean. My series on British food is being featured all week on PixiesDidIt! Below are my memories of my first ever high tea, not to mention the recipe for my grandmother's scones:
High tea, so named because it is eaten at a dining table rather than in a living room at a tea or coffee table, is a term much bandied about in the States. Visions of sterling, doily draped serving trays and raised pinkies poised over porcelain tea cups come to mind at the first mention of the phrase. But be wary, high tea is no light, lady-like pause for refreshment. The meal, for that is what it is, is a far cry from the lighter afternoon or low tea we tend to replicate on this side of the pond. High tea takes fortitude and self-possession. It is a commitment, a mission you accept, and you should come apprised of what you are entering into. Sound daunting? Press on. High tea is, at its best, one of the world’s great feasts.
My favorite high tea was quite possibly my first - or the first I was old enough to remember. It was an impromptu meal I enjoyed one damp, chilly summer as a child when my family stopped in the very late afternoon to break up a long, increasingly ravenous drive back down from the far reaches of the Highlands. We pulled up short at the chalkboard standing at the side of the road. “High Tea” it simply read.
The place was stately, an old stone grange set right on the narrow, twisting road. It resonated with the details and bustle of another life and another era. There were worn tartan carpets everywhere in faded blue and beige, and heavy velvet drapes trimmed in brocade. The menu was as succinct as the sign outside had been:
The rest was up to the good judgment and experience of the house.
We sat in a small front room with ceilings high enough to ensure one could never be warm. Several needlepoint stools were drawn up to a gas heater. My sister and I perched there to warm our fingers until the first course came, brought by a kindly matron with a low bun, thick, muscular legs and a sensible gait that held out her tweed walking skirt as she shooed us back to our chairs with an arched brow.
She brought tea sandwiches, which was to be expected. Ham, cucumber, and smoked salmon. We tasted each, especially enjoying the combination of Scottish salmon, fresh butter, and brown country bread, and settled back to wait for our lamb chops, but they were nowhere in sight. Shallow bowls of cock-a-leekie soup came next, rich broth, tender strips of chicken, silken rounds of leek, and a scattering of pleasantly chewy barley. Now we were warm, and I believe my mother may have made some comment about how soup and a sandwich makes such a nice, cozy supper.
The next thing I recall clearly is an intriguing waft of garlic in the air. Moments later
deep crocks of tiny shrimp in garlic butter came sizzling to the table along with more country bread for dipping. The shrimp were plump, sweet, and scaldingly hot, and there was a bowl of lemon halves for showering into their buttery juices.
I’ll admit we were broadsided by the vast platter of sausages and chips. The sausages burnished deep brown and crisp, their interiors juicy and fragrant, and the chips thick, crisp, sandy with salt, and fragrant with malt vinegar.
When 3 plates piled high with lamb chops and roast potatoes reached the table, along with a thick gammon steak crowned with pineapple and a maraschino cherry for my father, my parents collapsed into fits of hysterical laughter, weeping with the weakness that comes from having eaten heroic amounts only to realize that the end is nowhere in sight.
Back and forth between our little room and the grange kitchens trod our sturdy host’s moor-weathered shoes. She was stony-faced, relentless, and utterly inured to our frenzied giggles and groans of pain. Next, incomprehensibly, came scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream. Oh yes, this was still “tea” we were having after all. There were no raisins in the scones – something I heartily approve of to this day. I think I took one bite. My little sister lay down on the floor under the table, sensing that no one had the strength to reprimand her for it. But she picked her flushed cheek off the rough woolen carpeting at the sight of an entire Victoria Sponge, filled with cream and jam and blanketed with icing sugar.
Halfway through the trowel-sized wedge on my plate, I flopped my head to the side and gave a small sob at the injustice of not being physically capable of eating cake when it was on offer. I did however finish an entire chocolate éclair, bursting with freshly whipped cream, a salver of which was brought as the final flourish. One doesn’t quibble with éclairs.
Though the sky stayed light until what must have been 10 – as it does in Scotland at midsummer - the drive home was silent. The road signs grew gradually more familiar: Fort William, Killin, Perth, as we settled back, smiling at the occasional remnant burst of laughter from my parents in the front seat, and waited for home.
If you want to create your own high tea experience, be assured that the meal has no set menu or number of courses. Countless versions include steak and kidney pie, shepherd’s pie, poached salmon, even kippers. Trifle can be served for a particularly celebratory finish.
In the meantime, here are my grandmother’s magnificent scones. That’s pronounced, “skonn.” It rhymes with John. If you mean business, cool the tips of your fingers in ice water and dry thoroughly before starting.
8 oz (227g) self-raising flour
1 tbsp sugar
pinch of salt
2 oz (57g) unsalted butter
Preheat the oven to 425 F (218 C, gas mark 7)
Using only your fingertips, rub the butter into flour/sugar/salt mixture until it forms light crumbs. Mix with cold water, a tablespoon at a time, until it holds together. Turn onto a floured board and knead gently until just smooth. Do not overwork.
Roll out to a thickness of ½ inch and cut into 2 inch rounds. (Note: Reader Toffeeapple kindly reminded me to say to be sure to press your scone cutter straight down into the dough and pull it straight back out - no twisting). Place on a lightly floured baking sheet. Brush the tops with a little milk and bake towards the top of the oven for 12 – 15 minutes. Cool on a rack for at least 10 minutes before serving.
Serve with good fresh butter and jam, and for a treat with clotted cream as well.