Afternoon Tea -Spring 2019

Savoring the remains of the day

by: Marianne R. Stanton

“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” – Henry James
Nantucket’s connection to tea goes way back to the Colonial days. It’s an historical link as well as a cultural one.

Main Street is bookended by two brick buildings named after the island’s source of its wealth in the 18th and 19th centuries: the Pacific Ocean. Whalers departing from Nantucket rounded Cape Horn and sailed into the Pacific in search of sperm whales, whose oil was used to light the lamps of the world.

At the top of Main is the Pacific Bank, established in 1804. At the lower end is the Pacific Club, built by merchant William Rotch. A quarterboard on the front of the building names three vessels Rotch owned: the Dartmouth, Beaver and Bedford.

In 1773 the Dartmouth and Beaver had been chartered by the East India Company and were docked in Boston at Rowe’s Wharf with a cargo of tea. In the dark of night, the ships were raided by Colonists dressed as Indians and the tea was thrown overboard in protest of a tax being levied by the Crown. The event is known in history as the Boston Tea Party.

Two hundred and fifty years later, the concept of tea parties, albeit of a different kind, is still alive and well in the western world.

If you want to experience the absolute best example of what afternoon tea should be, you’ll have to travel to London for afternoon tea in one of the grand hotels like Claridge’s or the Dorchester, or Fortnum & Mason, that lovely food emporium near Piccadilly, where you can not only take tea but buy teas, biscuits, jams and other confections and savories.

But to save the trans-Atlantic airfare, let’s consider what can be done in one’s own back yard by throwing your own tea party at home. with fine china and a plate of warm scones and more.

It is said that the idea of afternoon tea arose sometime in the 1840s out of the afternoon hunger pangs of Anna Russell, seventh Duchess of Bedford, who complained that dinner at 8 p.m. left her ravenous in the afternoon. As a result she directed her staff to bring her a pot of tea and a tray of sandwiches in her drawing room. Soon, she began inviting friends, and afternoon tea became all the rage in Victorian England. Thus, a new custom was born.

You can experience the same enjoyment of afternoon tea, albeit more casual, by getting out your best china and inviting a few friends over in the late afternoon. Be sure to use looseleaf tea steeped in a teapot. Loose-leaf tea is available on Nantucket at Ambrosia on Centre Street and The Bean on India Street. My favorite online source is, which has a wide variety of black, green, white, herbal and flavored teas.

As for food, a variety of finger sandwiches, some fresh-baked scones or thin slices of tea bread spread with flavored cream cheese and a sweet dessert are all you need.

Scones are traditional and easy to make. A recipe is included here for currant scones, but you can vary the fruit according to your taste.

A combination of chopped dried apricots and candied ginger is very nice, as are dried cranberries or cherries paired with mini chocolate chips.

Egg salad, cucumber, curried chicken, crabmeat and smoked salmon are all favorite sandwiches and easy to make and assemble. Add a teaspoon of Major Grey’s chutney to curried chicken salad and you’ve created Coronation Chicken Salad, which was invented to celebrate Queen Elizabeth.

If you want to add another savory treat to the tea tray, try small phyllo pastry shells filled with truffled mushrooms or a mixture of leeks and Stilton. The shells are available in the freezer section of your grocery store, so all you need to do is make the filling, spoon it into the shells and bake. It’s very elegant, yet oh so easy. ///

Marianne R. Stanton is the founder, as well as editor and publisher, of Nantucket Today, and editor and publisher of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821. She writes frequently about travel, food and wine, and island personalities.

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