I arrived in Scotland a little over a month ago, hungry to discover. Pictures of kilted folk eating haggis, people drinking Scotch to the tune of trilling pipers, a salmon dish or two and maybe some mutton danced in my head. That archetypal pop-culture knowledge in hand, I came with small expectations, but still dreamt big, hoping to find something that I could return with and use to wow the folks back home. Something missing from the States' tables and shelves that I felt we should have though we didn't. And, by God, I think I've found it.
With all the pictures I've recently received of the snowstorms that froze over the Queen City a couple of weeks ago, I've become more convinced that afternoon tea is the single most woeful omission from the common American dining scene that I've encountered in Scotland. After all, could you not imagine how well a nice hot "cuppa" and some chocolaty, buttery biscuits would go down after coming in from the nippy ice and snow? How divine a buttered scone and a hot mocha would be to cure the cold in your bones? I know it sounds a little ridiculous to be so enthusiastic about a small ritual, but allow me to explain.
First of all, mid-day slumps are hell. You need a pick-me-up and a release, and a quick cup of coffee will work, yes, but why not sit down and relax, steep a cup, and arrange a plate of little sweets to go with it? The act of doing those things is in itself relaxing, not to mention the fact that it brings people together. I myself am prone to want to get to know the girl or guy who's offering cookies around the office, and I find it hard to argue against the relaxing nature of brewing tea. And if tea's not your thing, that's great, too, for afternoon tea is accepting - coffee, cappuccinos and lattes are all considered "teas" as well. The important thing is the ritual of putting it together with a nice plate of cookies and biscuits, maybe some finger sandwiches, sitting down, and taking the time to enjoy it all, maybe with company.
Secondly, let's talk about the cakes and biscuits that go with tea. There's flapjacks, these oatey delights that lie somewhere between oatmeal cookies and a dense breakfast cake and are divine when dipped in milky tea or coffee; there's scones, a fairly well-known thing in America, but here are done with a luscious slathering of thick clotted cream and jam, a match made in fatty, crumbly heaven. There's bourbon biscuits, Digestives, iced ginger biscuits - the list goes on and on and on.
You'd be hard pressed to find a bad tea biscuit. For argument's sake, though, I must also detail the Tunnock's tea cake. It's a year-round s'more, essentially, with a shortbread base, a creamy ball of marshmallow on top, and a coating of chocolate to finish. Why those haven't made the jump to America, I don't know, but they're a solid reason in themselves for making afternoon tea a thing in the States.
I could go on to talk about how a proper full tea with sandwiches and an assortment of cakes stacked on tiers is visually appealing, or how the act of sharing it all in little cottage-like tea rooms brings people together, or how the absence of churning, hip music in the background and a soundtrack of quietly clinking mugs and crunching biscuits allows for better conversation. But you get my point.
I can't fully express to those who haven't been to a tea room or a proper, hour-or-so long afternoon tea the entire romantic effect of the ritual - I will, however, suggest trying it on your own with a friend, a few mugs of whatever hot drink you like, and a plate of cookies and biscuits. For, even if just only on the weekends, afternoon tea is a delicious way to buckle down, socialize, or even just enjoy some damned good baked goods in your own little microcosm of comfort.