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Tea Tuesday: The Basics & Rock Cake

Afternoon Tea at the Ritz in London

For many of us, there a few indulgent pastimes which live large in time strapped imaginations.  The English tradition of gathering for tea, cucumber sandwiches, and sweet scones is right up there on our bucket list, along spa day with the girls.  But what do most us non Brits really know about “tea time” and what if we want to try to host one ourselves?

When I started this blog, I wanted to share my love of Downton Abbey, food and history, but wasn’t sure exactly where it would take meI also wanted to gain a deeper appreciation of my husband’s “blue blood” English heritage.  His family tree traces to Devonshire in the 1600s, and with an upcoming family reunion in the UK, I wanted to be well informed and know what to look for when I do search for tea rooms in England.  I am still haunted by my dress code violation when I tried to have Afternoon Tea at the Ritz in London years ago.

I was inspired by Christine, a young woman from France, who commented on this blog about how she loved Downton, loved to bake (and eat, too, I hope), and wanted to learn more about the traditions.  Since there are so many recipes which could be added to the tea tray, I thought it would be interesting to set aside Tuesdays to share recipes.  So Christine, this weekly segment is dedicated to you.

I offer a new recipe each week, so check out and bookmark Online Guide to Afternoon Tea to keep up to date.

English Tea Basics

This week will begin with the basics of the tea rituals and provide an easy recipe to try.  They are really easy to make and the smaller sizes to help with portion control.

Where the English Tea ritual began

In 1662 Catherine of Braganza of Portugal married Charles II and brought with her the preference for tea, which had already become common in Europe. As tea was her temperance drink of choice, it gained social acceptance among the aristocracy as she replaced wine, ale and spirits with tea as the court drink.  Seriously!

Downton ladies conspire over tea (ITV)

The actual taking of tea in the afternoon developed into a new social event some time in the late 1830’s and early 1840’s.  It was Anne, Duchess of Bedford, one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting who “invented” the Afternoon Tea.  The gap between lunch and supper was widening, so Anne started asking for tea and small cakes to be brought to her private quarters.  I am sure she quickly realized that a lot of gossip could be shared if she invited other ladies to her quarters to share her cakes.  Of course those not invited started their own little gatherings out of spite, and thus the ritual of afternoon tea began.  Women do get things done.

Tea lingo:  Various tea times

If you are planning a visit to the UK,  watch Downton Abbey, Coronation Street, or other British type serials, it might be helpful to get proper knowledge of the terms used.

  • Cream Tea — A simple tea service consisting of scones, clotted cream, marmalade or lemon curd and tea.
  • Elevensies — Morning coffee hour in England (I remember the Hobbits used this term in Lord of the Rings.  I thought that they ate 11 times a day…just like me!)
  • Afternoon Tea — What we imagine all British teas to be.  An afternoon meal, served typically from 2 – 4 pm, which includes the tiers of smart little crustless sandwiches, scones, clotted cream, curd, 2-3 sweets and heaps of tea.
  • Low Tea— This still an afternoon tea, but called “low tea” because guests are seated in low armchairs with low side-tables on which to place their cups and saucers.
  • Royale Tea — A social tea served with champagne at the beginning or sherry at the end of the tea.
  • Celebration Tea — Another variation of afternoon tea with a celebratory cake which is also served alongside the other sweets
  • High Tea — It’s not what you think.  It is more like the North American dinner hour, so avoid disappointment by booking a “high tea” when you really wanted an afternoon tea.  Confusing, I know.  You think it means a fancy (scones and sandwiches are fancy, right?).  I would watch Corrie Street and wondered about the big fuss about “tea” at the end of the day and I never saw a single scone!  High tea consists of meat and potatoes as well as other foods and tea. It was not exclusively a working class meal but was adopted by all social groups. Families with servants often took high tea on Sundays in order to allow the maids and butlers time to go to church and not worry about cooking an evening meal for the family.

What goes on a Tea Tray

So we have a basic understanding of the history, and rituals.  One last bit of insider knowledge to know about Afternoon tea.  What goes on which level and how much to prepare.

  1. Top Level: The smaller top level holds the scones.
  2. The middle level should hold the sweets and fruits
  3. The Bottom level holds the savories and finger sandwiches.

Allow about 5 savory finger size items per person.  This would mean mini size savory tarts, finger sandwiches or other savory bites. It is nice to have a variety to three a piece works great.  Sandwiches need to be made fresh, but you can start baking items ahead of time and keep stashed in the freezer.  I never know when company may come or we are invited anywhere who when I do make sweets, I will put some away in the freezer so I won’t eat them all at once.  Saves me every time.

We will save tea making and sandwiches for another time.  I am a big fan for eating sweets first!  So let’s make some treats.

Easy Rock Cakes

Easy Rock Cakes

Harry Potter fans in your household will recognize these.  It was Harry’s favorite. I’m afraid this recipe isn’t low fat, but I’m working on a butter substitute which will make a comparable result.  In the meantime, try not to have too many of this little gems!

• 1 cup/8 oz/225g flour
• 2 tsp baking powder
• ½ cup/4 oz/110g soft butter or margarine
• ¼ cup/2 oz/55g granulated sugar
• ½ cup/ 4 0z/110g mixed dried fruits (i.e. currants, raisins, diced apricots)
• 1 medium egg
• 1 – 3 tbsp milk
• Dark brown sugar (Demerara sugar) for sprinkling
• Oil for greasing

The handy 1 tbsp scoop makes perfect shaped cakes
  1. Heat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6
  2. Mix flour and baking powder into a large baking bowl, add the softened butter or margarine, and lightly rub together with fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
  3. Add the sugar and the dried fruit and mix so all ingredients are well incorporated.
  4. Add the egg and 1 tbsp of the milk and mix to create a stiff dough. If the mixture is still dry add milk a tbsp at a time until required consistency.
  5. Lightly grease two baking sheets.
  6. Using a tablespoon divide the mixture into 12 mounds evenly spaced on the 2 baking sheets. If you are an experienced baker you likely already own a small scoop which will make quick work and perfect cakes.
  7. Sprinkle with the demerara sugar.
  8. Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes or until golden brown and well risen.

A Tea book you might Enjoy

Here is a book you might enjoy.  It combines history, great tea shops around the UK, and their lovely recipes.  It is my favorite tea book right now.


20 thoughts on “Tea Tuesday: The Basics & Rock Cake

  1. Love this! I fly to England nearly every year for the Globe season; I am a charter member of the Friends of Shakespeare’s Globe, so….I hope to experience tea with you very soon.

    Sue Landaw
    Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

    1. Thanks for stopping by. The Globe! What a wonderful organization to be involved in and a great reason to be in the UK. I would love to do tea, but I actually live in Canada. I do visit friends in London every few years, and my husband’s family is from there, do you never know when our paths may cross.

  2. Well, I have had tea at the Ritz in London…more than a few years ago. I was also a high tea waitress in the rockies — so I’m a big fan of tea! Lots of interesting tidbits that I didn’t know in your post Pam.

    1. You had tea at the Ritz? It is still on my bucket list. Pre planning is key. The “incident” was in my PwC days and a group of us escaped from the conference centre to shop. I was wearing a dress, but my shoes were too casual. Last trip I made a point of a few hours at Harrod’s food hall. Arguably a more memorable experience…and Laduree had a shop there, saving me a side trip back to Paris.
      I didn’t know you did high tea duty, Barb. You are so multi-talented! I bet you met a lot of Brits when you lived in Vancouver as did I.
      Glad I helped add a bit knowledge to a fellow foodie. (Editor’s note: check out Barb’s blog. She is great!)

  3. I love to eat too, of course! Pamela, I feel very honored that you dedicated the Tea segment to me. It was my very first request on a blog. I’ve already learned a lot through your article. I can’t wait to read more. Each one of your posts is like a treat, full of interesting details and so pleasant to read. I now have to buy myself a real tea set to get started! About your Ritz experience, I must confess I’ve never been to a real “salon de thé” (by real I mean a classy and fancy one), probably I still don’t dare to enter one, as if it was another world, but I am sure it must be a memorable experience! thank you for your gift, tuesdays won’t be the same from now on!

  4. […] Tea Tuesdays: The Basics and Rock Cake […]

  5. Me encanta el blog y la receta, no suelo tomar el thé pero es una costumbre que no debe de perderse. Enhorabuena!!!! me hare fiel seguidora del Blog!!!

  6. I am charmed with the blog and the recipe, I am not in the habit of taking the thé but it is a custom that has not to of getting lost. Congratulation!!!!
    I live in Malaga , and my English is not perfect, I have written to them in Spanish without realizing, because of it I repeat the entry, congratulations.

    1. Thanks for taking time to comment. Your English is much better than my Spanish. Hola.

  7. I visit London as often as I can, which generally (these days) works out to about once a year. The rest of the year I spend at home in New England, desperately trying to recreate the quality of scones and (real leaf) tea that I enjoy in the UK. I’ve pretty much got my scone recipe down, but I’m still struggling with a failsafe method of making clotted cream without access to unpasteurized cream! Have you tried this apparently impossible feat? Had any success? Or do you just go without clotted cream unless you’re in London itself?

    1. You can buy the bottled variety of clotted cream from online stores that supply British goods in the USA.

      1. You can practically buy anything in the stores these days, but then you wouldn’t be a Downton Abbey Cook, would you? I have weened myself off clotted cream personally and love plain strained yoghurt.

  8. Dear Pamela,

    Thank you for educating us about the proper way to serve Tea. I have been to the Ritz for Afternoon Tea several times and hosted an Afternoon Tea where a friend brought her best friend to the event as well. Unfortunately, I have since lost my notes and cannot remember everything that I had for the menu. So,,,

    My sister, Donna, a friend, Janet, and I are preparing a “Downton Abbey Garden Party” for August and we are just now in the planning stages. We would like to make it “Afternoon Tea” and do it as correctly as possible.

    We have a lovely garden with a waterscape, some turf for Croquet if anyone wants to play, and we want to give prizes for various categories as based on Downton Abbey facts, with a slant to understanding the historical pieces presented in the series such as is found in THE BUCCANEERS by Edith Wharton. We love Dame Maggie Smith’s “One Liners”!

    Can you please suggest a perfect Afternoon Tea Menu for our event? If you can also suggest good websites for correct clothing worn between 1912 and 1920 to a Garden Party, that would be helpful as well.


  9. FYI, since you are a blogger, you might want to note that “alot” is not a word. Check if you don’t believe me.

    1. Sarky just like me. Love it! You are correct. WordPress doesn’t have a decent spell checker so I do miss the odd word. Could have been worse I could have messed up a recipe and lives ruined. Thanks for taking the time to play my editor.

  10. How about a recipe for scones…. would love to learn to make them…
    thank you in advance…

    1. I actually do have a great scone recipe if you search the site, and you can change ingredients to make them sweet or savoury. you will love it, simple and not bad on fat content. Just search for scones on the site, or click on the “Afternoon Tea” menu at the top of the page, but thanks for a good idea. I should be doing more cross referencing of the Tea Tuesday posts. As we go forward we review what we have prepared in previous weeks, but I don’t go back as I have done as good of a job as I did with the Titanic recipes.

  11. Hiya i’m for the first time here. I came across this board and I find It seriously useful AND it helped me out much. I hope to give something back and help others as you aided me.

  12. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I was just asking these questions as I’ve begun to watch a few BBC shows myself. Delightful information. Thank you for the book suggestion as well. A delight!

    1. Thanks for your kind words. Gosh, I haven’t made rock cakes in ages. Time for a batch.

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