The institution of tea

Julia had been kind enough to arrange a gathering in my honor the next day, inviting some of the village ladies to come and meet her crazy American friend and take proper afternoon tea with pinkies lifted. When I came down from my apartments that morning at the leisurely hour of shortly before noon, the kitchen was alive with activity, sumptuous with the aroma of baking in progress. Julia had already turned out several batches of golden shortbread stars and was busy at work preparing layers of Victoria Sponge and tiny oval scones (for our Utah readers: please see photo of actual scone at right). Julia is a wonderful cook, but is excessively modest and will proceed to eloquently argue her ineptitude while effortlessly trimming a crust to fit the edges of a fluted pastry pan. I felt certain I had wandered onto the set of a fancy cooking show when I saw her SIFT some dry ingredients together. Now that's some fancy cooking!

After I had polished off my second or third cup of tea (along with several pieces of shortbread that I managed to filch from the cooling rack) I insisted on joining in the preparations and was given the enviable job of fashioning delicate cucumber finger sandwiches. I set up a finger sandwich center of operations so I could sit and turn out sandwiches while we chatted, which we proceeded to do for several pleasant hours while busily mounding trays with mouth watering tea morsels.

Tea had been arranged for half past four, and shortly before the guests were due to arrive, I reminded Julia that we simply must pop upstairs and change into our tea frocks. (Tee hee! I have ALWAYS wanted to say that!) It probably won't surprise you to learn that I unashamedly mined the depths of my Anglophilic fantasy while visiting, sounding its furthest recesses by frequently lapsing into a dreadfully inept English accent to amuse myself and confuse others.

It was a blustery late winter afternoon, windy, raining, cold. Charles had been kind enough to lay in the makings of a splendid fire in the huge fireplace at the end of the sitting room and we ignited it just as the guests began to arrive. The flames were soon licking at the logs with a satisfying crackle, creating a warm glow in the room and a rich gleam on the silver. Julia couldn't have created a more beautiful or perfect backdrop for afternoon tea.

Julia’s parents Donald and Joy drove down from Ascot to join us and were the first to arrive. Donald greeted us warmly and then sensibly retreated to the farthest reaches of the house to read the sports page and avoid the gaggle of women that had begun gathering in the foyer and would soon be attaining dominion over the tea table.

When all the guests had arrived, we settled into various cozy spots in the beautiful sitting room and a flurry of activity began in the vicinity of the tea pot. Delicate china vessels (the sort you're only allowed to use when company comes) full of rich brown tea, riding on saucer skirts, began circulating around the room from hand to hand in a clicking clanking quadrille. I added a lump of sugar (not a pedestrian cube, mind you) and some milk to mine, transforming it to a beautiful creamy red brown. Several of us practiced holding our cups so as to produce an expertly crooked pinkie and Joy (from the village, not to be confused with Julia's mum) expertly schooled me in pronouncing "DAHR-leeng" just so. Conversation was lively, and was only briefly interrupted from time to time when one of the guests would retrieve a tray from the table and begin offering delectables around the circle in service of being a gracious guest. As soon as I noticed the pattern, I began to pay more attention to the finer points of etiquette surrounding what we were doing and soon got a lesson on that subject that tickled me to no end.

One of the gals that came by passing a tray paused to offer refreshments to the guest on my left and then discreetly to the guest on my right, but quite purposefully passed me by in what I'd have to call an expert toreadoric move. Her omission was so slight as to be invisible to others and was really only barely perceptible to me. I, however, having no shame and little dignity, hailed her, "Say - I'd like one of those lovely morsels!" She smiled shyly as she returned to proffer the tray and replied discreetly “Sorry – I saw that your plate was full and thought you might feel embarrassed to take something else.” Now, some might take offense at a statement like that, but interestingly it didn't even occur to me to do so because something important stood in the way: who this woman was being made what she'd just said to me feel solicitous and inclusive - she was trying to help me understand how this game was played so I could be a part of it and not feel awkward. I quickly glanced around the room, and sure enough, not a single other person had more than one item on their plate and most plates were empty or on their way to being so. When I thought about it, I realized the diference was mainly cultural - Americans epitomize the buffet mentality - heap everything on your plate to celebrate and prove prosperity. Around the English tea table, life unfolds much more like a series of gifts, one after another, flowing until you've had your fill. The tray passing gal wanted to share that with me and for that gift I am grateful.

I spent the next hours in so many fascinating conversations that I couldn't imagine where the time had gone when the first person stood up and declared they must be going. Over and over I found myself imagining that I was smack dab in the middle of my own little BBC series, enjoying each new character as she was introduced and told her story.

One by one the guests departed in a flurry of thank yous and good byes, and finally Julia and I were left alone in the quiet to wash the cups and compare notes on what we had learned at tea. I proudly related my lesson, even though it was a bit hard to explain without sounding like Pollyana. (Who, Julia later explained to me, was a marvelous communicator - much more so than the simple optimist that is associated with her name. I mention this, dear reader, to give you an idea of the range of our conversation over the course of the week.)

Charles was soon home from the city and the three of us enjoyed a relaxed dinner together. Not long after our meal, I retired to my heavenly bed chamber so I could crawl under the duvet and curl up. Jet lag was a great cover for just plain old exhaustion brought on by a long exciting day.

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