Afternoon tea is like a retreat for your body and soul: choose a beautiful venue with awe-inspiring interiors, take a close friend with whom you can share the most personal stories, and enjoy the teeny-tiny sandwiches, petit fours and gossip.
There’s something very exciting about afternoon tea for me. First of all, sipping on tea from fine china in the middle of a weekday makes me feel like royalty – and what girl didn’t have dreams of being a princess? Second, having tiny food, for some reason, gives a feeling of extreme gastronomic satisfaction. Third, after 3 hours of chatting and devouring sweets with a girlfriend you two find a new deeper personal connection.
My love for afternoon tea was born three years ago in Sri Lanka, where, inspired by the country’s colonial past, my friend Yash and I had the first afternoon tea together. We decided then that it should become a tradition. So when Yash planned a trip to Boston I knew exactly where to take her.
Boston Public Library is one of my favorite spots in the city…
with its gorgeous ceiling artwork…
grand lions guarding the main staircase…
and beautiful sun-lit courtyard.
I could just sit here with a book and a cup of coffee all day and be happy. But the fact that you can have afternoon tea in this majestic setting makes it a dream come true.
The set up for afternoon tea in the Courtyard restaurant is bright and clear with sunlight coming from windows facing the open courtyard, white linens and fine china with silver pattern.
To complete the picture the menu is printed on a page of a vintage book.
For the longest time I referred to afternoon tea as “high tea” which, as it turned out, is completely wrong. Funnily enough, the correct way is to say “low tea”. “High tea”, or as it is also called “meat tea”, actually refers to evening meal of a working class served between 5 pm and 7 pm.
As this article about afternoon tea traditions suggests:
“Traditionally, the upper classes would serve a “low” or “afternoon”’ tea around four o’clock, just before the fashionable promenade in Hyde Park. The middle and lower classes would have a more substantial ‘high’ tea later in the day, at five or six o’clock, in place of a late dinner. The names derive from the height of the tables on which the meals are served, high tea being served at the dinner table”
The afternoon tea would normally be served in a sitting room where low tables (like a coffee table) were placed near sofas or chairs.
But where does this tradition take its roots?
According to this article on history of afternoon tea, it was one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting, Anna Maria Stanhope, known as the Duchess of Bedford, who came up with the idea.
Because the noon meal had become skimpier, the Duchess suffered from “a sinking feeling” at about four o’clock in the afternoon. At first the Duchess had her servants sneak her a pot of tea and a few breadstuffs. Adopting the European tea service format, she invited friends to join her for an additional afternoon meal at five o’clock in her rooms at Belvoir Castle. The menu centered around small cakes, bread and butter sandwiches, assorted sweets, and, of course, tea. This summer practice proved so popular, the Duchess continued it when she returned to London, sending cards to her friends asking them to join her for “tea and a walking the fields.” The practice of inviting friends to come for tea in the afternoon was quickly picked up by other social hostesses.
At Courtyard you have a good choice of black, green and herbal teas. Once tea is served, a three tier stand full of colorful little treats arrives.
In all honesty I should say that taking pictures of this gorgeousness took at least 15 minutes and both me and Yash, who is as crazy a foodie as I am, received some curious looks from people around. But we were prepared for anything in order to get a good shot.
The lower tier features savory snacks like Wild Mushroom Butter & Watercress on Pain de Mie, Smoked Salmon & Cured Onion with Pumpernickel, and Deviled Chicken & Espelette Pepper.
Anything that has a name as impossible to pronounce as Pain de Mie or Espelette will sound fancy and delicious. Strictly speaking these are tiny crust-less sandwiches all of which were moist and full of flavor. But the absolute winner was Lobster Salad in Pate a Choux. After all, we are having tea in Boston, so lobster must be on the menu.
As I am much more into sweets than savories, the sandwiches were just a warm up and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the middle tier.
Where do I start? My favorite was Chocolate Sinclair, or what I would call a chocolate covered brownie. It has a full bodied taste of dark chocolate and rich texture. Although, instead of crunchy top layer you get a layer of chocolate it doesn’t feel excessive, it only makes the whole thing better.
Second best is a Fresh Fruit Tartlet with Vanilla Crème Patisserie.
I love short dough pastries. Partly because I love making the dough, but also because it’s a perfect 2 in 1 combination of soft and crumbly. You might get messy eating it but that’s part of the deal. Fruits that actually have taste although it’s April are sinking in pastry cream. The mint leave on top gives a sweet final touch.
On to the third tier of buttery scones.
Plain and Currant Scones are wonderfully paired with Devonshire Double Crème, Lemon Curd and Orange Preserve. These babies might seem too simple and almost the opposite of fancy, but they always took a special part in my heart. A good scone should be moist, light and airy, and that’s exactly what these scones are. Topped with cream and preserve they are a perfect last accord in the symphony of afternoon tea.
When you feel like you couldn’t possibly have another bite and all the latest rumors are covered, take a minute to walk up the main staircase and onto the second floor where the Bates Hall is located.
Boston Globe writer Sam Allis described “Bates Hall, the great reading room of the BPL, vast and hushed and illuminated with a profusion of green lampshades like fireflies” as one of Boston’s “secular spots that are sacred”.
Admire the reading room that reminds a Roman basilica and the numerous people deep in their thoughts not giving as much as a glance when you roam around with camera.
Address: 700 Boylston St, Boston, MA
Hours of Afternoon Tea: Wed – Fri: 2.00 pm – 4.00 pm, Sat: 11.30 am – 3.00 pm
You can make a reservation here.
AUTHOR: YULIA DYUKOVA
Yulia is a Russian food and travel blogger who found home first in Sri Lanka for 3 years, then in Brazil for a year and is currently based in Austin, Texas. She is the kind of person who starts a research of the new country by googling “what to eat in…” instead of “what to visit in…” Yulia is a self-proclaimed “food nerd” who will spend hours reading on the origins of pecan pie before trying it and who doesn’t consider waiting in line of 50 people to get a cronut a waste of time. She finds it hard to keep her delicious findings to herself and that is the reason why this blog exists.