I grew up Irish. I cannot remember a time when the tea kettle atop my Irish grandmother’s gas stove wasn’t happily tooting away. “Have a cup of tea,” she would say to all who entered her domestic domain. There was nothing a nice cup of hot tea couldn’t cure. To this day, I still take comfort whenever my tea kettle whistles.
Tea is as popular as ale in Ireland. The hot beverage is traditionally served daily with most meals in most homes in Ireland. With a population of 6.5 million people drinking an estimated 4 to 6 cups of tea every day, more per capita than anywhere else, it’s no wonder that the average person in Ireland consumes about 7 lbs. of tea each year. Tea is a staple in these kitchens that are long-associated with warmth, family and safe-havens.
There are approximately 39 million Irish Americans living in the U.S. with many indulging in a hot cup of tea whenever the mood strikes. But there is an elegant side to that simple cup of tea that may become lost to future generations. Not to be confused with the traditional “perfect” cup of tea (steeped exactly four minutes), the “proper” tea is about tradition, ambiance, accoutrements, and tea, of course.
Traditional Irish teas are three in number with each type easily defined by time.
A Simple Tea is traditionally served at 11 a.m. to incorporate a late breakfast or early lunch – brunch – if desired, while keeping well before the Noon hour.
Afternoon Tea is a fancy affair served between the hours of 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., the time span giving more latitude to accommodate busy afternoon schedules and commitments.
The High Tea begins at the 6 p.m. dinner hour as a more formal protocol that may also include the evening meal, depending upon the menu being served.
Once the teatime has been selected, the level of formality is automatically determined. Menu options that are appropriate for a Simple Tea, an Afternoon Tea, or a High Tea, must be thoughtfully considered and carefully prepared. This is when that bit of modern creativity can be a welcoming factor to enhance the old, Irish traditions.
An Irish Tea Menu has three traditional food requirements known as the 3 S’s: savouries, scones and sweets. A typical menu for an Irish Afternoon Tea could look like this:
Savouries – Pea Soup, Potato-Leek Quiche, and Cucumber-Bleu Cheese Canapes paired with *Celtic Cottage Tea
Scones – Irish Soda Scones with Honey Cream and *Connemara Morning Tea
Sweets – Peppermint-Filled Shortbread Shamrocks, Lemon-Thyme Curd Cakes, and Buttermilk Tartlets served with *Lemon Meringue Rooibos Tea
*Teas are available from Trail Lodge Tea, www.traillodgetea.com
The Westin Dublin Hotel in Dublin, Ireland serves a traditional Afternoon Tea, with a large helping of out-of-the-box innovation! The up and coming, wildly popular, “Time for Gin Afternoon Tea” is the creation of the hotel’s trail-blazing mixology team. At the appointed hour, the teapot containing tea is replaced with a teapot containing a serious blend of gin, lime, mint, and freshly-pressed apple juice. The concoction is called Hendrick’s Victoria Mojito and like a fine tea, this special cocktail requires the perfect edible accompaniments to compliment the fine spirits.
The Time for Gin Afternoon Tea is served in the hotel’s atrium, a partially covered courtyard located in the heart of the Westin Dublin Hotel where cocktails are served in teacups. A multi-tiered cake stand on the table delivers seasonal tidbits to sample while sipping Hendrick’s Victoria Mojito.
But not every Irish teatime is laden with unusual beverages and exotic tapas. Simple finger sandwiches with trimmed crusts featuring cucumbers, smoked salmon, cream cheese, watercress, roast beef and boiled eggs are standard tea sandwich fare.
Irish soda bread and oatcakes are Irish tea staples. Scones in a variety of flavors are found at every tea because the dense pastry is perfect for dipping into hot liquids. Individual fruit tartlets are popular items often paired with tea alongside dainty, bite-sized petits fours, cream puffs, eclairs and macaroons.
Tea selections can vary by time of day, season or mood. The strong-bodied Irish Breakfast Tea is a traditional, black tea blend and a favorite at most tables. Many Irish will pour as much as a 1/3 of milk into their tea, especially in the stronger blends, without sacrificing flavor. Earl Gray, Oolong, Chamomile, and other herbal teas are all excellent choices.
Themed teatimes can be adapted to suit any occasion and any age, young and old. Valentines’ Day, with all its pretty possibilities, would be an easy first themed tea party to host. Use heart-shaped cookie cutters for cutting out tea sandwiches and cookies. Decorate in shades of red and pink and serve petits fours, chocolates and Oolong tea to guests.
A Garden Teatime Party is a seasonal theme held in a classic setting. Fresh flowers on the table, seed packets for favors, and a salad of spring greens garnished with edible flowers, when added to the basic tea party menu, creates a lovely of expression of Spring. For Eastertime, leave eggs dyed in pastel colors on the table and add deviled eggs and egg salad to the menu.
Tea party themes are limited only by imagination. A Mad Hatter Tea Party would suit both kids and adults. Mismatched and chipped teacups with “Drink Me” tags on the handles go well with Earl Grey Tea. Or try a Book Club Tea. Choose a book to discuss with friends while sipping English Breakfast Tea and nibbling on tasty tea sandwiches and petits fours.
I recently heard about a tea tasting party from friends who frequent wine and whisky tasting events. The guests brought their favorite tea and a treat to share. The host supplied teacups and saucers, place settings, kettle, milk, sugar, lemon and honey.
Living in Maryland, it would be remiss not to include a classic southern tea tradition in a tea party theme. An Iced Tea Party on a hot summer day could not be a more refreshing experience. Pour refreshing peach or raspberry tea from chilled glass pitchers into tall, frosted glasses filled with ice. Serve ice cold green tea coolers and have plenty of fresh mint sprigs and lemon slices on the table. Dainty tea sandwiches, a luscious fruit salad and just-baked cookies complete the Summertime menu.
A cup of tea is a simple pleasure enjoyed by anyone, at any time, in any place, for any reason. Traditional afternoon tea continues to be served regularly in prominent Irish hotels like the Shelbourne and the Merrion in Dublin, and the Lough Erne Resort in County Fermanagh. History shows us that tea is a versatile brew with deep, social roots. It’s not surprising that tea is the most popular beverage in the world, second only to water.
Sharon is a writer/photographer and a proud “Bay” Boomer from Anne Arundel County who is 88% Irish, per the latest DNA data. She can be contacted at [email protected]
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