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Coffee is minute-made, tea is hour glass" preaches a solemn sign at a tea hole in Velhim, Goa. This legend is the tagline for Maria-Rosa's Tea Place, where robust Maria Rosa dishes out sharp beef samosas, two-toned cookies and scones among other eye-boggling items. "You see," she said, handing out a pleated teacup with violets, "coffee is for those who have no time. For tea-drinkers, time waits. " What this improbable spring of wisdom knew from habit, linen women and au courant restaurants have lately cottoned on to. As a gastronomic enterprise, tea has heritage, it's elastic with opportunity and is eminently marketable. Unlike coffee, which stands alone and waits for no one, tea and its accompanying cakes prefer a long, chatty party.
For those who appreciate exactitude, afternoon tea is actually an edited High Tea taken late in the afternoon instead of early evening, with fewer, lighter courses that veer more towards petit sweets and savouries than the full-bodied meats, breads, cheese and pickles - the true staples of High Tea - that historically reconciled a workingman's hunger at the end of the day. In fact, High Tea was even called Meat Tea.
Afternoon Tea or Low Tea was the contrivance of Anna Maria, seventh Duchess of Bedford (1783-1857 ), who, peckish around late afternoon, started having tea and breadstuffs to assuage the hungry wait till dinner. She started calling friends to these congresses and the noon tea party came to a boil.
Now, the local scene is spilling over. Tea parties have popped up everywhere - in private parlours, paid-for parlours, restaurants and even gardens and museums. In Delhi, it took Pamela Timms, an expat from Britain, an experiment with a pre-ordered tea party to turn it into a weekend concept that six turns later demands more room at the tea table (where one seat goes at Rs 800). "I've always been a fan of afternoon teas, having had many back home, and was wondering how to introduce them to Delhi," says the originator of Uperwali Chai (literally, high tea), a tea party that pops up at any suitably available venue.
"We do it the traditional way with cake stands, teapots and strainers. Everything's laid out prettily." For Timms, afternoon tea is the most perfect meal of the day, made fonder by her memories of afternoons spent baking and entertaining aunts and cousins in Scotland. At Uperwali Chai, Timms, along with Laura Staring, her Dutch accomplice, lays out a 14-course spread (half-savoury, half-sweet ) and, naturally tea - iced and hot. While tea convention calls for scones, Florentines, macaroons, Devonshire cream, cakes and cucumber sandwiches, Timms believes that tradition should keep up with the times. So, smoked fish patê on melba toast, cape gooseberry tarts, scones with homemade lemon curd, curry puffs and even mini uttapams have made it to her sessions.
Restaurants, particularly ones with genteel manners, have always kept High Tea menus, although most really serve Low Tea, which is traditionally lighter. Incidentally, 'high' and 'low' were original epithets for the height of the table on which the tea was served - 'high' for dining, and 'low' for parlour furniture. Such precision hardly matters to restaurants. Ones that put out a sterling High Tea are besieged by the kitty circuit whose women hanker after the fashionable propriety of tea. Mocktails are also on the cards for those yet to appreciate tea. "In Bangalore, tea parties and coffee mornings are in vogue," reports Archana Shenoy, a journalist from that city. "Events that would happen over lunches and dinners are now slotted as tea parties and they happen at all the five-stars," she says. For the hotels, the chance to pick up business in slack hours prompts tea-time discounts. They're usually all-women affairs, with lacquered hands picking extravagant menus where health juices and herbal teas supplement Earl Greys and Darjeeling first flushes. "And it's not just sandwiches and pastries at these parties, meats like salmon, gourmet hams like prosciutto and sausages - they're all here too," notes Shenoy. "The tea party has clearly replaced the luncheon in vogue."
While custom stays true to time, it's a little hard to honour the laws on tableware. After all, few own egg-shell tea services or whimsical James Sadler pots. But food first, accessories later (if ever), most believe. And in trying to keep the table holy, hostesses are raiding Parsi or anglophile bakeries for buttered scones, muffins, tarts, tea cakes and mini quiches. Those who can't be bothered to sew it together can call the caterers, many of whom are now sharpening their tea skills. "We've had at least five to six private tea parties at our outlets in Bombay," says Ashwin D'Souza, operations manager at Olive Bar & Kitchen. "A lot of baby showers and first birthdays are gloved in afternoon teas, as are small jewellery and art exhibitions. We've also been catering to home tea parties, where we provide the china as well," he says.
Food blogger Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal believes it's the perfect alimentary cometogether. "It's not as expensive as a dinner party, since alcohol is excluded, and food is served in smaller portions," she says. Munshaw-Ghildiyal is planning her third annual, monsoon all-women tea afternoon in July, to which she invites women she admires. Her own enthusiasm for tea is expressed at these parties, where she gets to exhibit teas she has newly sampled and tea-based-recipes she has minted. "Like tea-smoked tofu and tea-smoked chicken, green tea loaves, flower tea and Turkish apple tea," she says. This time she plans throwing in a tea-leaf reader for taste.
Alice Walker said tea to the English is really an indoors picnic. We've joined the table.
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