Britain’s Victorian era, from 1837-1901, produced many great things. There was an industrial revolution, social reform, and advances in science, technology and culture. Art and design were heralded … but perhaps the best invention of those ‘golden’ years, was afternoon tea.
During this age of prosperity and, some might suggest, frivolity, the extra meal was introduced by the 7th Duchess of Bedford. Too hungry to wait for dinner at a fashionably late hour, she requested an assortment of biscuits and cakes be served. The Duchess quickly made afternoon tea a daily habit and began inviting friends to take part, including her husband, the Duke of Bedford. Historians in the know, say because of the Duke’s proclivity for ‘socialising’ without the Duchess, afternoon tea took hold as a way for her to spend time with him before his evening plans.
Queen Victoria’s afternoon tea
By the 1840s Queen Victoria fell in love with the idea and adopted the afternoon tea as tradition, hosting daily tea parties.
In the ultimate nod to history, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), has recently added to their café offerings with a classic Victorian tea served by Benugo in the Morris room. The room itself is a living, working museum object. The V&A made history when it became the first museum in the world to provide a public restaurant. William Morris, one of the most famous designers of the Victorian period, and a leader in the Arts and Crafts movement, was commissioned for the interiors of one of the ‘refreshment’ rooms. It was his design firm’s first big job. Combined with dishes like Mrs. Beeton’s cucumber sandwich and Victoria sponge, the rooms, with their stained-glass windows, dark wood and deep green and gold painted panels, makes history experiential.
When the refreshment rooms first opened in the mid 19th century, visitors would come for breakfast, ordering from a long menu, split into two – one for labourers, another for the ‘other half.’ The first-class menu included items like jugged hare, sausage and mash, and cold chicken and ham. The ‘downstairs’ menu listed poached egg and spinach, a dish that would feel right at home on the menu of many a trendy, ‘clean-eating’ restaurant these days, stewed rabbit (not so much), and buns and sponge cakes (definitely not).
The makings of history
Food historian Natasha Marks created Benugo’s Victorian afternoon tea after much research and selected five sandwiches and five cakes, including fruit sconelets infused with Earl Grey tea. As one sits in the Morris room imagining life in the Victorian era, trays arrive filled with sandwiches of crayfish and mayonnaise with nutmeg and paprika – some of the spices traded by the East India Company. The influence of Britain’s ties to India can also be tasted in the ham hock sandwich with chutney. The provenance of the asparagus and parmesan tart is mysterious, given that it’s hard to imagine parmesan cheese making it’s way to England in 1901. But, it’s a welcome ingredient, more likely replacing a less savoury one and makes a nice change from bread with fillings, no matter how tasty.
Victoria sponge is presented with black currant jam and elderflower cream, but the favourites at our table are a gooseberry tart with compote and crème patissiere. Best of all, is a cake that appears, like the trend for high-waisted jeans, to have come full circle – an iced orange cake made with Clementine puree, orange zest, almonds and pistachios. The recipe dates back to 1891, but one could easily mistake it for one of the modern inventions to emerge from the Middle Eastern, fusion cuisine that seem limitless these days, blending Persian, Israeli, and other flavours together. Perhaps even more interesting than time travelling back to the Victorian period, is the chance to explore how much, or how little has actually changed.
The Victorian afternoon tea is served on Sundays from 3 – 5pm by reservation only.