the austen tea room

Halloween High Tea

A few weeks ago I celebrated Halloween with a high tea at The Austen Tea Room. The decor and crockery were delightful. There were four of us taking tea and we had a room all to ourselves. We were in the Elizabeth Bennet room, which we thought most appropriate 🙂

We were quite excited as we waited for our tiered plates of savoury and sweet treats. We weren’t disappointed! Our first plate arrived filled with mouthwatering finger sandwiches, mini pies and quiches. Then a towering plate of sweets came. We started with the meringues with cream followed by little cakes and macarons. We ended with scones, jam and cream. Pots of tea flowed smoothly throughout the service. It was a wonderful experience and one we would do again.

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As I have never been to a high tea before, I started thinking about the difference between an afternoon tea, a cream tea and a high tea. After researching the subject I made a fascinating discovery – what many of us think of as a high tea isn’t really a high tea. Rather than dainty little morsels served on delicate crockery in the afternoon, a high tea is really a hearty meal served late in the evening at the end of the working day.

During the Industrial Revolution, workers would arrive home late and hungry. This led to the tradition of sitting around a table and eating an evening meal. Hot and cold food would be served including meat, fish, pies, tarts, breads and cakes. Food was accompanied with cupfuls of strong tea. These hearty dishes were served on sturdy crockery and cups, not the delicate plates, sauces and teacups we associate with a modern high tea. This evening meal came to be known as high tea, meat tea and later simply as tea.

There are two theories as to why this evening meal was called high tea:
High tea was eaten sitting at a kitchen table or high table while afternoon tea, also called low tea, was eaten sitting on low sofas and chairs, with food served on lower lounge tables.
High tea was taken later in the day when the day was well advanced or “higher” in the day whereas afternoon tea was served earlier or “lower” in the day.

If the high tea I enjoyed at The Austen Tea Room wasn’t really a high tea, then what was it? Using the term high tea for afternoon tea appears to have occurred due to a misunderstanding as to what the term “high” meant. At some point the term “high” was thought to mean formal. So high teas are now a fancy form of afternoon tea. Whatever their origin, one thing is definite – they are delicious 🙂

Pies are popular in both afternoon and high teas. While dainty little party pies may grace an afternoon tea party, these hearty stout, beef and smoked oyster pot pies would be welcome on any high tea table.

Surf and Turf Pot Pies

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Ingredients
1kg stewing beef, cubed
2 tablespoons plain flour
olive oil for browning
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1 cup stout
1 cup beef stock
2 bay leaves
120g button mushrooms, quartered
2 x 85g tin of smoked oysters
1-2 sheets ready rolled frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 egg, beaten
sesame seeds

Instructions
Toss the cubed meat through the flour until coated.
Heat oil in a large saucepan.
Add meat in batches and cook over a high heat until browned. Add more oil as needed. Remove browned meat and set aside.
Add a splash of oil to the pan, add the onion and garlic and cook until onion is soft.
Add the salt and basil and stir through.
Return the meat to pan.
Add the stout and stock and stir through.
Add the bay leaves and bring to the boil.
Once boiling, cover, reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 1 + 1/2 hours.
Add the mushrooms and simmer, uncovered, for a further 30 minutes.
Remove bay leaves.
Preheat oven to 180C / 350F.
Distribute the smoked oysters evenly between four 12cm x 6cm oven-proof bowls or ramekins.
Pour stew evenly into the ramekins.
Cut puff pastry lids slightly bigger than the bowls.
Cover bowls with puff pastry, pressing the edges down around the rim of the ramekins to seal the pies.
Brush tops with beaten egg.
Sprinkle with sesame seeds.
Bake for 20 minutes or until pastry is golden brown.

Note – check the liquid during the cooking process and add more stout, stock or water if needed.

The Austen Tea Room

A Tale Of Two Valentines, my first post about Valentine’s Day, was about love and death and the history of the day. As we move toward another Valentine’s Day, the shadow of death moves with me.

Someone very dear to me passed away just after xmas. Although neither of us were Eastern Orthodox any more, we were both born into that religion and some of the traditions still have special significance for me. One such tradition is the ritual performed on or around the 40th day after a death.

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In Orthodox theology, the soul of the departed stays on earth for 40 days after death. The soul wanders around, visiting their home and places of personal importance. Many rituals are performed during this period to help the soul on its journey. On the 40th day, the soul leaves the earth. This final departure is celebrated with family and friends. Rituals are performed culminating in a meal, usually eaten at the grave or at the home of the departed. Traditional funeral foods and the favourite foods of the departed are served. It is a time of celebration and the ending of the official mourning period for most involved.

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As the 40th day approached, I wondered what I would to do to honour this ritual. A visit to her grave was a must. But what about food? It was an important part of our relationship. We loved going out to eat and we spent most of our visits together talking about food and recipes. I thought about making one of her favourite dishes and bringing it to the grave but it didn’t feel right. Then, while doing research for an unrelated event, I found the perfect solution – The Austen Tea Room – a tearoom honouring the late and great romantic writer Jane Austen. Located halfway between my home and the cemetery, it was the perfect place to have a a celebratory funeral meal.

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The Austen Tea Room brings us right back to Valentine’s Day. What could be more romantic than dining under the watchful gaze of the creator of Mr Darcy! I had a toasted cheese and ham sandwich with coffee followed by scones with jam and cream and a pot of tea. The surroundings in the cafe section were informal but the rooms where the high teas are served were incredible. I am definitely going back for high tea.

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I must admit that I have read only one of her books – Northanger Abbey – but I do love the television and movie versions of Pride and Prejudice – especially Pride, Prejudice and Zombies! I also own the Tarot of Jane Austen 🙂

The scone recipe below is not traditional, but you can serve it with traditional jam and cream. I wanted something different so I went with butter and maple syrup which works really well with sparkling wine.

Sparkling Scones

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Ingredients
2 + 1/2 cups self raising flour
200ml cream
200ml sparkling wine
butter for serving
pure maple syrup for serving

Method
Preheat oven to 225C / 440F.
Line a baking tray with baking paper.
Sift flour into a medium sized bowl. Add cream and sparkling wine. Mix together until just combined.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead into a 4cm thick square. Using a sharp knife, cut into squares.
Place scones so they are just touching on baking tray.
Bake for 12 – 15mins or until golden brown and cooked through.
Serve with butter and maple syrup or your choice of accompaniments.