Letters from the Loire: The art of afternoon tea in France
Teresa Dolan shares her tips on how to prepare the perfect English afternoon tea while living in France.
In the eponymous words of Noel Coward, everything does indeed stop for tea in our tea room. Here in Fontevraud l'abbaye in the Loire Valley in the west of France, we have been running our Salon de Thé since March 2006. Located next to the Cultural Centre for the west of the Loire, it is here that we serve light lunches and home-made afternoon teas.
Visitors from across the globe love it when we bring out the fine porcelain, the tiered cake stands and other afternoon tea paraphernalia. Some pieces have been in my family since my grandmother's day; other items we tend to source in France from the many vide greniers and from antique shops and charity emporiums, such as Emmaus. With the current interest and revival across Europe in the art of baking and the consequent serving of afternoon tea, many stores and even some of the supermarkets are stocking elegant cake stands and pretty tea cups, saucers and sets that are reasonably priced. Serving up an English-style afternoon tea in France is increasingly easy.
What could be a more perfect a way to spend an afternoon with friends and family than to offer them the treat of some home-made scones and jams and a slice of a signature cake such as the ubiquitous Queen Victoria Sandwich? With the abundance of fresh fruit available in season in the Loire Valley, we are spoilt for choice as to what jams to make. Strawberry, raspberry, cherry and almond jams are firm favourites with our customers and we use these to fill our cakes and our scones. But what of the traditions of afternoon tea?
The history of afternoon tea
Within a French context the tradition for serving afternoon tea is very probably an 18th-century phenomenon associated with the memorable Queen of France, Marie Antoinette (1755–1793). Her now apocryphal remark when asking why the poor were rebelling against the Ancien Regime of 'let them eat cake' has gone down in history as not the most tactful of responses. The fact she was referring to brioche is, in a sense, irrelevant.
What it does bear testimony to is the fact that Marie Antoinette was herself a lover of sweet treats and delicacies. In fact she is known in the pages of history and immortalised in film as a both a doyenne of fashion and one who adored serving a veritable fête of pastel coloured macarons to her friends and family. The latter is well illustrated in the 2006 film version directed by Sophia Copola, of the life and times of this ill-fated queen. Dainty biscuits, petit fours, éclairs, meringues and little glacé gateaux were being served amongst the elite of France throughout the 19th century.
There seems to be some discussion as to who actually started the overall trend for afternoon tea as we know it today. In the 16th century, tea drinking was in vogue among the upper classes in the United States and in England. The mistress of the house would keep the tea under lock and key, usually in a wooden 'caddy' as it was such a precious and expensive commodity.
The term 'under lock and key' probably relates to this practice. During the Georgian era, the middle classes and some of the burgeoning bourgeoisie on the back of the success of trade began to serve a selection of teas. In terms of actually serving afternoon tea at an allotted hour, however, some say that it was actually the 4th-century British Earl of Sandwich (1718–1792), began to partake in an eating ritual in the afternoons, though not in any elaborate way. Being a committed card player and not wishing to leave the card table between lunch and dinner, he one day had a eureka moment of asking his butler to bring him some sustenance and suggested slabs of steak sandwiched between two slices of bread as just the ticket. Such a practice soon caught on with his friends.
Fast forward to 1840 when the then Duchess of Devonshire experienced what would probably today be described as hyperglycaemia, that 'sinking feeling around 4pm' and decided to fill the gap by having something sweet, delicious and sustaining to eat and began doing this on a regular basis.
The seventh Duchess of Bedford, also in the 19th century, took this one step further and started to serve pots of tea, sandwiches and cakes, initially just for her own delight in her boudoir, but then extended to her visitors at Woburn Abbey. The idea caught on and soon everyone who was anyone was hosting afternoon tea parties, and tea rooms were springing up alongside the traditional coffee houses. By the 1880s, tea drinking had replaced ale as the 'national' drink. By the late 19th century partaking of afternoon tea in one form or another had caught on in both the United Kingdom and France.
Scones à la Chez Teresa
Visitors to our tea room from all over the world are tempted to try our scones, a staple of many English afternoon teas. Take a look at our own recipe from The Chez Teresa Recipe Book, Sweets and Treats: Culinary Delights from the Loire Valley, with some extra tips for those sourcing ingredients in France.
- 8oz (200g) Gâteaux or self-raising flour (or semi-complet with an added teaspoon of raising agent/baking powder/La levure chimique blanche in France, for a more nourishing scone).
- 1 heaped tablespoon of white sugar.
- 2oz (50g) butter.
- Pinch of sea-salt.
- Four tablespoons of milk or butter milk.
- Two medium sized free-range eggs/plein air.
These ingredients create a light scone. For a healthier scone, swap white flour for brown or wholemeal (or here in France 'complet', and do not forget to add raising agent or your scones will be like little rocks!). Add some plump, juicy raisins, walnuts, and for a hint of luxury, add a dash of maple syrup.
Mix together the flour, sugar and salt. Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs, then add the egg and milk. Blend well, then place on a floured board.
To shape the scones you can use your hands or for a professional finish you can use a small stainless steel cutter or metal mould. For example Ikea sell stainless steel pastry/cookie cutters and some supermarkets and kitchen speciality shops also sell them here in France.
Make 8 – 10 scone like shapes and bake in a hot oven for approximately 12 minutes. Brush each scone with some beaten eggs to which you have added a hint of sea salt. Once cool, fill the scones with raspberry or strawberry jam and clotted cream. Serve immediately.
Scones keep in an airtight tin or tupperware container for up to a week, and, just before serving, you can put them in the microwave for a few seconds and serve slightly warm. They can also be frozen for up to two months but are best made on the day and served straight from the oven.
Tips for making scones in France
If clotted cream is not available we favour Crème entiere or Crème d'Isgny. The latter is a delicious thick buttery cream from Normandy which you can find in all supermarkets and some fromageries in France. Another option is Crème de Chantilly to be found in the cold cabinets of most supermarchés.
There is even a variety of Crème de Chantilly that is flavoured with vanilla from Madagascar which is really rather delicious. Of course Clotted Cream from the West Country in the United Kingdom is the most traditional and scrumptious cream to serve with freshly baked scones. It is possible to order this cream in jars from internet shipping companies such as the British Corner Shop. Other companies that ship British food products across the globe including to France, are to be found listed here.
Remember, unless you have raising agents to hand, never make your scones with ordinary French flour viz, Farine de Blé. Instead make them with Farine de Blé pour Gâteaux.
If you do not have the inclination or time to make your own scones and cakes, French supermarkets are now also stocking a more diverse range of international produce and it is even possible to buy scone mix in some supermarkets and speciality shops. For scone mixes, Greens is the most common make available in France, and can be found in the supermarket chains Le Clerc and Intermarche usually located in the aisles dedicated to International foods.
It is, however, easy to make your own perfect scone mix. All you need is a packet of Farine de Ble pour Gâteaux. Alternatively you can add to ordinary plain flour (farine de ble) a sachet of Levure chimique. There are various brands and usually come in individual paper sachets. You could instead add a mélange of 1 tsp of bicarbonate of soda (to be found in the pharmacy or in supermarkets) and one tsp of cream of tartar. If you are fortunate enough to have some English baking powder in your store cupboard, then add two tsp of this to farine de ble and this will have the desired raising effect.
Written by Teresa Dolan.
Teresa Dolan was brought up in 1960s Britain. With her husband Tony and son Jay, she runs a Chambre d'Hôtes and Salon de Thé. She has written for a number of publications and runs creative writing and themed workshops for expats and tourists to the Loire. Her recipe book, The Chez Teresa Recipe Book, Sweets and Treats: Culinary Delights from the Loire Valley, is now also available from Amazon.
Comment here on the article, or if you have a suggestion to improve this article, please click here.