Dirt, Sweat & Cucumber Sandwiches – English Afternoon Tea

Afternoon Tea at The Cranley

Afternoon Tea at The Cranley

A clock plods through its strict rhythm as the clink of china echoes through the drawing room. A Union Jack plays hide-and-seek at the window when the teapot isn’t watching and a platter of cucumber sandwiches make themselves comfy for afternoon tea.

It’s hard to play tourist in your own country. Particularly when your own country’s customs derive from other countries and when even the question of which country you come from turns a straightforward question into a geopolitical Sudoku. England, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, Wales. They’re not the same thing, in case you were wondering…

Jammy Dodger Avoids Afternoon Tea

Jammy Dodger – Waiting Upstairs

I’m at The Cranley, a luxury boutique hotel in the devilishly handsome London borough of Kensington & Chelsea. Upstairs waits a four-poster bed with free wifi, a fluffy dressing gown and that quintessential British biscuit the Jammy Dodger, sidling up to its old ally, the plain digestive. But they can wait…

Right now, I’m sitting here enjoying Afternoon Tea and reflecting on the unusual journey of those small brown leaves.

Afternoon Tea Around the World

Afternoon Tea in Malaysia

Afternoon Tea in Malaysia

Just a few weeks ago, I stood in the sweaty hills of the Cameron Highlands, where shrubs tickled the ridges and contours of the tea plantations that rise and fall across central Malaysia.

We walked between them, the sun pressing against our skins, the hum of insects and scattered birdsong crowding into our jet-lagged minds.

Behind panes of glass, tea leaves withered, rolled, fermented and then dried themselves before freshening up and hopping into packets ready to travel the world.

Malaysia is hardly the world’s top tea producer. Yet, back in London, scone in hand, I remembered just how Asian this English custom is.

Afternoon Tea in Japan

Afternoon Tea in Japan

Afternoon Tea in Asia

In Japan I knelt on the floor, kneecaps howling, as a woman performed the Karantei Tea Ceremony in Matsushima. There tea came with rice cakes and perfection, served on a tatami mat.

In China, men carried around jam jars, sloshing with a warm cocktail of pond juice that tasted surprisingly good.

And in the Boh plantation in central Malaysia, tea came with the offer of a Firecracker hot dog.

English Afternoon Tea

Afternoon Tea

English Afternoon Tea

Here in The Cranley, Afternoon Tea obeys the traditional English customs.

Juicy strawberries with scones dusted in the softest white sugar. Plum, cream and chocolate treats beneath the twinkle of the chandelier. Silver tongs for rough-edged cubes of sugar and paper doilies resting provocatively on gleaming plates.

And among this elegant feast of cakes and tea, fresh salmon and chopped egg sandwiches, I find the component that mystifies me still: the near tasteless and always soggy fingers of cucumber sandwiches.

I think it’s time we took on another Asian tradition. Rice cakes anyone?

Cucumber Sandwiches at Afternoon Tea

Cucumber Sandwiches at Afternoon Tea

Disclosure: I received a special rate for my Afternoon Tea at The Cranley and in Matsushima. Nothing from the Jammy Dodger Foundation though…

Have you had afternoon tea before? And would you admit to liking cucumber sandwiches?

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20 Responses to Dirt, Sweat & Cucumber Sandwiches – English Afternoon Tea

  1. Claudia Looi October 9, 2011 at 3:16 pm #

    I like how you took tea traditions from two continents and made into an article…being from the east and living in the west for a long time…had tea in Asia and England…somehow…there is nothing new under the sun…travel has enriched lives. Thanks for sharing.

    • Abi October 10, 2011 at 10:53 am #

      Thanks for stopping by – I wonder whether cucumber sandwiches have made it to Asia? I didn’t notice any when I was there…;)

  2. Valerie Hamer October 9, 2011 at 3:30 pm #

    Great pictures. You made this Brit a little homesick, though I rarely had afternoon tea when I lived there!

    I also lived in Japan. I remember a private student who was determined to learn how to carry out the tea ceremony in English. As she didn’t speak more than three words I got paid $100 for 90 minutes of reading a leaflet into a tape recorder mic!

    • Abi October 10, 2011 at 4:21 pm #

      I don’t have afternoon tea very often either – although I do drink plenty in the morning ;)

  3. Steve October 9, 2011 at 7:37 pm #

    My favourite post for a while! Not a word wasted, each one adding to the atmosphere. In fact, I think I’ll go and make a cuppa now! Being an expat living in Spain, I get my teabags imported by generous guests from home. No jammy dodgers though, or chocolate hob-nobs for that matter, more’s the pity….

    • Abi October 10, 2011 at 4:28 pm #

      Perhaps it’s time to drop some heavy hints in the direction of your generous guests ;) Enjoy your cuppa!

  4. Emma Field October 10, 2011 at 12:02 pm #

    Great post – really interesting to tie in the various tea traditions of the world. I’ve visited tea plantations in Assam, India, and was struck by the similarities between the tea rituals in the UK and Assam; but that’s easily explained by the fact that it was a Brit who smuggled tea plants out of China (a tremendous feat in itself, at the time, but we won’t go into the rights and wrongs of the whole thing here…) and established tea plantations in India.

    However, there wasn’t a single cucumber sandwich involved. And I’m not ashamed to admit I’d pick a cucumber sandwich over a rice cake any day. Time for a brew!

    • Abi October 14, 2011 at 5:59 am #

      Yes, the history of tea is fascinating but controversial…but what’s this about picking a cucumber sandwich over a rice cake?! Now that’s scandalous! ;)

  5. Darlene Foster October 11, 2011 at 7:08 am #

    I love afternoon tea and would enjoy it anywhere. I was fortunate to win Tea For Two at the famous Empress Hotel in Victoria, BC. I blogged about the experience
    http://darlenefoster.wordpress.com/2011/04/20/tea-for-two/

    • Abi October 19, 2011 at 9:44 am #

      Very nice

  6. Prime October 11, 2011 at 9:29 am #

    Hi Abi: I’m more of a coffee person myself, but I like the idea of having a quiet tea time – whenever, wherever I travel. Mine of course is more of a quite coffee time, with a slice of cake, while reading another cozy mystery

    Your photos are lovely, by the way. And no cucumber sandwiches never really made it in Asia.

    • Abi October 19, 2011 at 9:49 am #

      That sounds lovely…I love my tea, although usually (right now in fact!) it comes in a mug and sits next to my laptop…Best way to start the day…

  7. Steve October 15, 2011 at 4:44 pm #

    I can’t help feeling you’re all missing the point with the cucumber sandwich vs rice cake debate. I know this post is about Afternoon Tea, but the best time for a cuppa is clearly first thing in the morning, and the only truly worthy accompaniment is a bacon and egg sarnie on Warburtons Seeded Batch (bread of champions), with some freshly ground black pepper and HP sauce!

    • Abi October 19, 2011 at 10:20 am #

      What if I throw marmite toast into the equation?!

  8. Sheila-Yusof-Johnson January 19, 2012 at 10:11 pm #

    Abi;
    Thanks to the Brits we have tea, and rubber, and soccer…many, many more, but those are the ones that come to mind right now. BTW, I am glad you made it to Cameron Highlands. The area is not like what it used to be but Thank Godness the weather (temperature) is still ideal for tea plants. Happy discovery Abi!

    • Abi July 25, 2012 at 5:37 pm #

      Thanks to India, Ceylon & China the Brits have tea I suppose! Yes, the Cameron Highlands were spectacular. I loved them and would love to go back…

  9. Jean | Delightful Repast September 3, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

    Abi, I would love to have afternoon tea at The Cranley. Afternoon tea is my “thing.” English on my mother’s side, I grew up with tea and frequently give, attend and go out for afternoon teas. I agree, the cucumber sandwiches one gets nearly everywhere are very bland. However, I make a fabulously flavourful cucumber sandwich. Unfortunately, I’ve not yet blogged my method. But perhaps in a week or two … I feel motivated now!

    • Abi October 28, 2012 at 8:15 am #

      Go on – spill the beans!

  10. Pam Goode October 23, 2012 at 7:35 pm #

    There’s nothing like an English tea, cucumber sandwiches and all (and yes, I love them!), but that view in Malaysia is most tempting!

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