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What happened to afternoon tea?

"The morning cup of coffee has an exhilaration about it which the cheering influence of the afternoon or evening cup of tea cannot be expected to reproduce." Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

This is my painting of the day on my desk calendar. It's by an American artist of German descent called Frederick Carl Frieseke about whom I know very little and it's called Afternoon tea on the Terrace.

The first thing it made me think about was all of the other Impressionist kind of paintings on the same subject. We tackled the Impressionists recently in one of my book groups and I have thought about them on and off since then. One of the things it has occurred to me since then was how lucky they all were to have existed at a time when women's fashions were so beautiful (if impractical) and romantic. Mostly white, floaty and often with parasols in hand. Or those beautiful wide and feathery hats. Delicate, yet sensuous and at the same time, romantic. Which may have led them to paint so many pictures of women sitting around tables or reclining on chaise tongues, reading books. So I decided to see how many I could find with the title Afternoon tea on the Terrace - or something similar. And here is what I found - mostly from artists I do not know. But from here, there and everywhere which shows that the custom of afternoon tea was widespread in polite society wherever you lived in the world. You can skip the pictures if you like, but I just thought I would show some that I found. There are many more.

They are: Teatime in the garden / Todd Haiman; A cup of tea / Pierre-Auguste Renoir; In repose / Karl Albert Buehr; Summer afternoon (in the terrace) / Pierre Bonnard; Afternoon tea on the terrace / Konstantin Korovin; Afternoon tea / Irving R. Wiles; Table in the sun in the garden / Henri le Sidaner; Afternoon tea on the terrace / Eva Gonzales; In the conservatory / James Tissot and Terre-cuite tea set / Frededrick Childe Hassam

So many pretty ladies, such delicate china tea cups, and teapots, such beautiful gardens and terraces. And almost exclusively female. So romantically nostalgic, calm and ideal. The sun shines, the view is divine or the garden exquisite and the company is pleasant. If there is no company then there is time to reflect, to have time to oneself.

But this doesn't happen any more does it? Well there are posh afternoon teas that can get served in hotels, restaurants, tea rooms but at home? No I don't think so. We are too busy and we prefer coffee. I wonder if in England, where they are avid tea drinkers, they still have the high tea meal. We did when I was a child. We would come home from school to some bread and jam, or something similar with perhaps a drink of lemon cordial, although more likely it was water. Very modest of course, but it was a meal that was observed. When I was at university my friends and I would sometimes treat ourselves to a drink of some kind and a sticky bun in the union café, or if studying in our rooms we would stop for a time over a cup of instant coffee and perhaps a biscuit or two.

Ladies do lunch these days, and yummy mummies do brunch, working ladies do breakfast in a café after a bit of morning exercise. Or they will some day soon we hope. Those at work snatch a takeaway cup of coffee with a muffin or, if slightly more refined, a macaron. I think probably the nearest we get to it these days is the after book group cake and coffee. Well I'm not really being honest am I because I'm really only writing about what I do? I have no idea what other people do in their own homes. The nearest I can guess is what I do on holidays with friends in the afternoon. And that might be a stop at a café for a cooling drink, not generally any food, if out and about, or if at home the same. I have a Zoom book group tonight - I shall ask.

Back in the days of those paintings though - indeed for a couple of hundred years or so before ladies of polite society would gather over their cups of tea, cakes and other dainties. If they were intellectually minded they would talk about the latest book, or play, painting or event. If not they would gossip.

"Afternoon tea should be provided, fresh supplies, with thin bread-and-butter, fancy pastries, cakes, etc., being brought in as other guests arrive." Isabella Beeton

It was part of the daily routine.

I started this post yesterday, but had to stop as we had a date with friends for a walk near their home. Lunch was not to be provided, but sort of ironically, and possibly on the edge of what is allowed at the moment, we were treated to an afternoon tea on their beautiful terrace. But of course it was not afternoon tea as shown in the paintings:

There were the usual pick and eat kind of things - of very high quality in a beautiful setting - home-made smoked trout pâté, parsley pesto and pickles together with quality cheese, smoked fish and ham, not to mention Laurent's bread. And I think that this is more the kind of thing that you might get offered these days for an in-between meal. Or is it a late lunch? Fortunately we only had minuscule leftovers for dinner. And we did go for a pretty long walk.

But no tea - there was wine and water and later after the walk there was coffee. So maybe we sinned in terms of COVID about which I feel very bad, but it was so nice, and the setting so very much like those Impressionist era paintings.

Maybe the English do afternoon tea so well because they don't have the weather for idling time away on a terrace, or verandah, or balcony with a view of the blue sea sparkling under the sun.

"Tea to the English is really a picnic indoors." Alice Walker

But I see I haven't really answered the question I posed. What happened to afternoon tea? Well, as I said, I honestly don't know whether it has disappeared in England. Maybe the English still have an afternoon tea break. Here I'm guessing at two factors. The most important is, of course, the lack of time. Most adults - male and female - work these days. And yes they are entitled to a break in the afternoon but that is much more likely to be a cup of coffee and a biscuit or something else sweet. By the time they get home it's time for dinner. The children might get a sweet snack of some time when they come home from school but it's likely to be just a snack. The second thing is the rise of coffee - afternoon coffee not tea would be more common. And coffee does go well with cake.

No - I think here in Australia, and please correct me if I'm wrong - afternoon tea is now a special occasion thing, either out at the Hotel Windsor or some other similar establishment or else at home with home-made cakes and coffee from whatever coffee machine you have - for you will have them.

Perhaps, when the COVID restrictions eventually lift we should revive the custom of afternoon tea and invite our friends to come round and enjoy tea and cake - or coffee. Maybe I could even persuade my husband to sit down to a coffee and cake in the afternoon. I have a lot of ricotta to use up - maybe I'll make a cake.


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