One of the breakout stars of the PBS series, Downton Abbey, is tea, specifically afternoon tea served with all the customary accoutrements. While the Granthams bring afternoon tea to life on our tellies, credit Queen Victoria’s chum, the Duchess of Bedford, for popularizing a fancy way to stave off the inevitable hunger pangs that occur between lunch and dinner.
A handful of establishments on Long Island serve this oh-so-British ritual: Le Chat Noir in Rockville Centre, Robinson’s Tea Room in Stony Brook, Secret Garden in Port Jefferson, Teapot in Bellmore and one of our favourites, the Hidden Oak Café in Westbrook, the 19th-century Manor House of William Bayard Cutting, on the grounds of the Bayard Cutting Arboretum in Great River. Take your tea like the manner born, in the Manor House.
If you take sugar or lemon, it goes in before the tea; milk gets added after. Proper folk never stir their tea in a circular motion. Place your teaspoon in the teacup at 6 o’clock and slowly fold the tea toward 12 o’clock and back. Never, ever clink your teaspoon against the side of the teacup.
Afternoon tea is more than just a cup of Earl Grey; it is a rather prescript light meal taken between 4 and 6 p.m. that includes four elements: savory (tea sandwiches, savory tarts), scones served with clotted cream, jam or lemon curd, sweet (pastries, fruit tarts, petit fours) and of course tea—loose tea, never tea bags. Tables are laid with linen tablecloths, napkins and the best bone china. Characteristically, etiquette must be observed; you don’t want to be seen as a wanker, do you? Smart casual dress is expected. White gloves and hats are no longer de rigueur, but they are fun. The loose-leaf tea is brewed in a teapot and then poured—while the teapot’s top is securely held—through a strainer into a teacup. If you take sugar or lemon, it goes in before the tea; milk gets added after. Proper folk never stir their tea in a circular motion. Place your teaspoon in the teacup at 6 o’clock and slowly fold the tea toward 12 o’clock and back. Never, ever clink your teaspoon against the side of the teacup. After stirring, rest your spoon on the saucer, to the rear of the teacup. Lift the cup gently off the saucer, holding it by the handle but not hooking your finger through said handle. Do not hold out your pinkie in an attempt to look sophisticated—it simply isn’t done. Tea is to be sipped, never gulped or slurped. Dunking your biscuit, scone or pastry into your tea is frowned upon. Scones should be broken in half and the condiments (clotted cream or jam) should be spooned onto your plate and then onto your scone. When finished, lightly dab at your mouth with your napkin and then place it to the left of your plate.
Emboldened with this knowledge, venture forth to the Hidden Oak Café without your knickers getting in a twist. Reservations are required for afternoon tea taken either in the library, parlor or on the covered porch overlooking the great lawn with the picturesque Connetquot River in the distance. Several varieties of tea as well as traditional finger sandwiches, housemade scones and pastries, served on an elegant three-tiered stand, are on the menu. Mother’s Day is undeniably one of the most in-demand days for afternoon tea at the Hidden Oak Café. Thankfully seating is limited so Mum will not feel like she is taking tea in steerage. And remember to call ahead for reservations.