AFTERNOON tea - what could possibly be more thoroughly British! The table spread with scones and crumpets; with macaroons and meringues; with little cucumber and egg sandwiches, crusts incisively removed.
A sponge cake looks light and tempting. A Dundee cake, its top patterned with almonds, looks heavier - and also tempting. A chocolate cake with far too much filling looks irresistible.
Buns in neat little paper cases are each snow-capped with white icing and decorated with a single red glace cherry. Moist and sticky gingerbread on one plate vies with crumbly-crisp fingers of Scottish shortbread on another.
There are date-and-walnut slices and coconut pyramids and plenty of jam-tarts (flaky pastry cups containing gooseberry jam, raspberry jam, or lemon curd: the green, the red, and the yellow). Loads more little sweet bite-able things fill up whatever spaces are left: They have names like "Melting Moments" or "Crunchie" or "Yum Yum."
Strawberry jam or honey and (ideally) clotted Cornish cream is at hand to spoon with delicate liberality onto the scones. The yellowest butter stands ready to be spread, to melt instantly into the spongy holes that moon-crater the upper surface of the small, round, hot crumpets, toasted at the open fire only moments before eating.
To many British people, such teatime spreads seem more a matter of happy childhood memory than 1990s fact.
Children's parties or special occasions for the Women's Institute or village-church fetes or Young Farmers' Club discos are today perhaps the more likely contexts for elaborate teatime baking to be done and consumed. Or afternoon tea might be a special treat when on holiday or out for a Sunday afternoon run in the car.
"Home baking" can be found in tearooms or even first-class hotels throughout the country. London's Ritz Hotel is famous for its afternoon teas (make sure you book a long time ahead). But beware! By no means are all British hotels geared up to serve afternoon tea that is up to standard; I have encountered some dreadful examples of the genre.
Here in Glasgow, the most exclusive hotel, One Devonshire Gardens, serves a very commendable version. The new five-star Hilton boasts an even more elaborate afternoon tea. For my money, though, it is the Gleneagles Hotel near Auchterarder in Scotland that serves the ultimate afternoon tea, with a central table from which you can help yourself to the point of plenitude. A useful guide for travelers on the afternoon-tea-trail in Britain is Egon Ronay's book "Just a Bite," though its quality judgments are s till not 100 percent reliable.
Eating habits in many British households have changed vastly in the last 20 years. Fewer people have full-scale three-or even two-course lunches anymore. And afternoon tea is not as common as it once was. With more women going out to work, there are fewer at home at 4 o'clock in the afternoon to have friends over. There is also less time to spend in the kitchen baking; and baking is what tea is - or was - all about.
But, the picture is not entirely bleak. Baking prowess, particularly in northern England and in Scotland, has long been shown off at "high tea," which is less of a visitor affair and more of a family tradition. It takes place at the end of the workday and still replaces evening dinner on a regular basis in many homes. Probably occurring about 5:30 or 6, a main dish - fish or a "fry-up," including bacon, eggs, fried bread, and fried tomatoes - kicks off high tea. This is followed by bread, butter, and jam .
When I was a child in Yorkshire, I was always being told firmly: "Finish your bread-and-butter first!" In other words, eat the dull stuff before launching into the highlight of high tea, which was all the cakes and pastries. Actually the bread-and-butter part can be delicious, too.
In Scotland a tradition that has not completely vanished is "supper." This is much like afternoon tea but at 9:30 or even later in the evening. It is done for visitors (although the children would've eaten earlier). Again, it is sandwiches followed by cakes and pastries (the more the merrier).
If baking at home - for the home - is alive and well anywhere in Britain, it is in Scotland. And although there are many similarities between teatime treats in each of the countries, the Scots have some specialities all their own.
Aileen Thorburn, for example, who has long lived near Glasgow but comes from Kilchrenan, further Northwest, includes girdle scones among her typical teatime items. In fact, as a child, she remembers her mother baking twice a week on a heavy iron griddle (the Scots' word is "girdle").
These girdle scones are unique to Scotland. She demonstrated making them for my benefit. Flour, baking soda, cream of tartar, and milk are all mixed, with a pinch of salt, to a thick consistency. (Only practice, I suspect, tells you exactly when, by adding the milk, the consistency is reached.)
The scone is rolled out on a floured board, not too heavily, cut into four triangles, and placed on a hot griddle until brown. Turned over, it is browned also on the other side. Then it is stood on its edges to brown. The scone rises nicely as it is cooked. It is split open to eat and is really a substitute for bread: It can be eaten with bacon in it (for breakfast) just as pleasantly as butter and jam (for tea).
Names for the results of Scottish baking are as different from those in English baking as English names are from American. This isn't just confined to "cookies" and "biscuits." Someone should write (perhaps already has?) a thesis on the subject.
What the English call a scone, the Scots specify as an oven scone (as opposed to a girdle scone, which the English don't make at all). What the Scots call a crumpet is not much like what the English call a crumpet, being thinner and wider and not having yeast in it. And what the Scots call a pancake, the English call a drop scone (see Ms. Thorburn's recipe at right). While what the English call a pancake - a large, very thin-batter thing to be folded over sugar and lemon juice on Shrove Tuesday - is actu ally more like a Scottish crumpet, but not really.
One thing that everyone agrees about, however, is shortbread. And that is definitely what the Scots say it is. Only it should be added that the Scots say it can be made in so many slightly varying ways, that somebody should write a thesis about this as well. Butter, flour, and sugar are the essential ingredients, but proportions may differ surprisingly, and additional ingredients may include cornstarch, rice flour, egg yolks, cream, baking powder, vanilla, and more.
Like all baking, shortbread is more experience and experiment than pure science. Some say handle it as little as possible. Others say knead it till the cows come home. Some make it thick, some thin. Some bake it slowly, some fast.
I visited Betty MacKay, a retired head teacher, and her mother, Annie MacKay, at home in Rosneath, for instruction. Betty makes the shortbread (there is always some in the tin ready for visitors); her mother makes the oatcakes (ditto). After a detailed demonstration of the shortbread technique, we sat down to afternoon tea. Discussion during that delectable event revealed baking philosophies at charming variance between daughter and mother. Daughter follows recipes. Mother never; she believes in intuitio n and invention. She doesn't even follow her own mother's methods, but has arrived by due processes at the definitive oatcakes she makes today by a touch of this and smattering of that - by long trial-and-error.
Actually Betty has also arrived at her particular brand of shortbread by long experience. To my tastebuds, it is excellent. But Mrs. MacKay, for whom daughter Betty makes a batch of thinner shortbread, is still critical.
I asked her why she liked her daughter's thinner shortbread (as I tucked into a superb "Chocolate Walnut") better. I was crisply silenced by her honest Scottish reply:
"Actually," she said, "I don't like either the thick or thin very much. I prefer my own make."
* Ian Murray, owner of the `Word of Mouth' cookbook shop in Glasgow, recommends `The Book of Afternoon Teas,' by Leslie Mackley, for well over 100 recipes. (Published in 1992 by Salamander Books, London; part of Hodder and Stoughton).