Tea and sandwiches

Dear Reader

This post is an extract from “The Twinning Game”, an account of the twinning between Alfriston and Veules les Roses.  The following scene takes place during the “exploratory visit” of Alfriston by Jean-Claude Claire, maire de Veules les Roses and two colleagues.  We took them to visit Rathfinny Estate, near Alfriston.  Liz had kindly organised the visit.

“The sun came out as we were walking towards Liz’s cottage where our lunch was spread on long table: a selection of sandwiches.

Now, I know there are sandwiches and sandwiches.  They are thinly cut or thickly cut, crust on or off, white, brown or granary bread.  Square or triangular shape.  Then you have the thickness of the cucumber, the horseradish or pickle filling etc.   But, REALLY, what is all the fuss about? I know I am going to offend a lot of English people but I just can’t get the sandwich mania.  A sandwich is a sandwich, whether all organic, thick or thin, brown or white.  It was invented by Lord Sandwich so he could carry on gambling the family wealth at cards without having to stop for refreshments, and that’s what it’s for.  Something you can stuff your face with without having to look up from your computer screen and that you can eat anywhere, no need to sit around a table and converse with other people.

Now I have started my rant, I might as well continue and make myself even more unpopular.  Take Afternoon tea.  The epitome of Britishness.  Of course copied from the Aristocracy, who else? In Italy, they took pizza from Neapolitan labourers.  French most famous dishes come from cheap cuts of meat for Bœuf Bourguignon or well past their youth chickens for Coq au Vin.  In Greece, the most famous dish The Greek Salad, is called the Peasant Salad.  But in England, it’s not the taste that matters, it’s the decorum.  And when it comes to decorum and etiquette, the British middle class is unbeatable.

I have been invited several times to Afternoon tea. By the way, the first time I was invited to High Tea, I ate before going.  I thought we were just going to drink tea!  One day, I was invited for afternoon tea at Horsted Place, described on their website as “an English country house”.  An ENGLISH country house, just in case you’d forgotten you were in Sussex, England.  Their Afternoon tea is served in a quintessentially ENGLISH setting.   Again.  In case you’ve forgotten you are in an English country house.

When French people want to go native, they go back to their roots, peasantry.  You see them enjoying a simple meal at l’auberge morvandelle in Burgundy, where they serve local products in season, rabbit, fresh cheese and “crâpiaux morvandiaux” with a country wine you’ll never find on a wine list.  They sit on hard chairs indoors or on a bench under an awning in the summer. After the meal, they have a chat with the owner who might proudly tell them that his family have been running the auberge for over a century and that nothing much has changed since his great grandmother’s time.

When English people want to go native, they go to a Victorian mansion turned country hotel and, for a couple of hours, they pretend they own the place.  And what do they eat?  Sandwiches!   Paper thin sandwiches, so bland they would not have offended the delicate taste buds the clients imagine Victorian people possessed.  And what does one drink with tasteless sandwiches?  Some of the worst tea on the planet!  It’s not me saying that.  Tea experts, English tea experts, are starting to say what French, German, Italian and Russians (to name but a few) tea drinkers have known all along.   The tea served in tea rooms is mediocre to say the least. Did you know that Indian tea planters export their poorest quality tea to the British market?  Once in the UK, if I believe the packagings , it is put into little sachets by monkeys in Yorkshire.  I seem to remember that they used tea bags at Horsted Place.  Even if it was loose leaf tea, my Earl Grey matched the food in blandness.  How it was served was another matter.  The fine china tea service matching the three tier cake stand was exceptional, and I understand the attraction if you like flowery design.   It didn’t work with me though.  I was so scared to break anything I almost did, so, in the end, it was a rather stressful experience.

Even though in France tea is not the national drink, (wine is of course), it is taken seriously.  Not long ago, I went to a small salon de thé in Chalon sur Saône.  The shop didn’t look anything special from the street, and inside it was rather dark, with simple and functional furniture.  The most important feature was the 50 or thereabouts boxes of tea sitting on shelves covering the whole right side of the tearoom.  The waitress came to greet us and after we’d stated the obvious, that we’d come for a cup of tea and a piece of cake, she started to enquire what tea we preferred.  Black, green or white? Oolong maybe?  Oo what?  Chinese, if you prefer.  Then, what strength we liked our tea.  And did we want it plain or fruity? Finally, as she couldn’t make much sense of our replies, she started opening boxes so we could smell and choose.  French people rely heavily on their sense of smell.  When she brought the tea to our table, it was served in Chinese teapots of thick clay, and it came with timers.  Each tea had a different brewing time.  Don’t ask me what I had.  All I can say is that it was light and full of subtle flavours.    Unfortunately, the cake I had was rather stodgy and going stale.  You can’t have it all it seems!

Liz’s sandwiches came from the village shop.  They were of the doorstep variety and with soft butter (or margarine?) oozing from all sides.  Cheddar and pickles, ham and lettuce, egg mayo, the usual.  With their plate in one hand and a glass of Bolney White in the other, our French visitors cautiously made their way to the living room, a sun drenched room with large windows over the Cuckmere valley.  They looked for a table around which to sit and, as there wasn’t any, they carefully took place on the large sofa and in deep armchairs.

French people are not used to eat on their laps.  Our friends looked a little tense until they found a safe place on the carpet where to put their glass.  Once ensconced among the cushions, their plate on their lap, they started to relax.  However, eating English sandwiches without dropping half of the filling is a skill you only master if you were brought up on them.  After several near misses, Mr le Maire wisely brought his plate to the level of his mouth so as not to receive a bollocking from Madame who had packed him off with a clean shirt and suit.

One thought on “Tea and sandwiches

  1. Bill’s comment
    Hi Babette,

    I was highly amused by your views of the English Afternoon Tea and very much agree with you.

    Having spent so much of my life travelling – a significant portion of which was to the USA – I am equally critical of the varieties of so-called sandwiches served in England’s hotels and cafes.

    In my opinion, the Yanks do sandwiches properly – with a generous, quality filling.

    For them, a sandwich should be a substantial snack, big enough to satisfy immediate hunger – or what I would call a small meal.

    I can only imagine what the average Yank or European or Australian thinks of the fag-paper-thin and limp excuses for food so often presented at exorbitant prices in “smart / up-market” establishments in England.

    It must seem that their admission to an English historic building is supposed to off-set the appallingly mean, tasteless and expensive food served within it!

    That said, the standard and cost of food at National Trust properties is improving, but you don’t get to eat it in the “smart” or “sumptuous” parts of the building.

    Very often the ‘cafe’ or ‘restaurant’ has been placed in what used to be servant’s quarters or stables – which confirms your view that better food is served in rustic surroundings – at least, in national Trust-owned stately homes.

    Actually, since I’m a firm believer in quality and value for money, I tend to avoid mansions in parks: in fact anywhere with touristic pretensions – when looking for somewhere to eat.

    These days a quick look at reviews on Trip Advisor will give you a pretty good idea of what’s good and where.

    For afternoon tea in our area, I’d highly recommend Steyning Tea Rooms, on the main road that runs through Steyning.

    It currently has 301reviews on Tripadvisor, 240 of which are excellent, 46 good, 8 average and 7 poor.

    here’s the link: https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g1096377-d2415330-Reviews-Steyning_Tea_Rooms-Steyning_West_Sussex_England.html

    I’ve eaten there three times and on each occasion was incredibly impressed with the quality, portions and value.

    For example: a choice of tea (in leaf form not bags) a good choice of sandwiches (including your choice of bread and fillings) and large homemade scones (both savoury and sweet) with a choice of homemade chutneys or preserves. And the decor – basic wooden tables and chairs.

    It’s wholesome, high quality food served in simple surroundings – and if I hadn’t been so impressed, I wouldn’t be recommending it.

    The only downside is it’s quite small – maybe 7 tables for four – so it’s worth booking.

    I’m also a great fan of good pubs serving tasty food – and we have a lot in our area, so I’ve attached a list (below) which I made for some neighbours new to East Sussex.

    My point is, England does have some excellent establishments that make good quality food (including sandwiches) and sell at reasonable prices – but you won’t find them in pretentious, historic buildings. As in France, go local and rustic !! You can’t beat it.


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