Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Tea, with Cucumbers

I admit it, I haven't been drinking tea much. Not even my beloved ice tea. It's just been so hot outside, I've been drinking mostly water. Yes, yes, very good for me, but I miss my tea. That round of deprivation has ended. I brewed a pot of tea this morning and sat down with a nice cuppa and read.

As I sipped my white tea, blended with cucumber (yes, cucumber!) and lime peel, I thought about, well, what else, cucumber tea sandwiches.

It was Anna Maria Stanhope, seventh Duchess of Bedford, that began the tradition of afternoon tea. It was designed to be a light meal to bridge the gap between luncheon and dinner, which wasn't served until 8 P.M. Sandwiches were intended to be small and just enough filling to prevent overindulgence in the sweet teatime treats, like scones and other pastries.

But cucumber? In a sandwich? According to Wikipedia:

"Cucumber sandwiches contain little protein and so are generally not considered sustaining enough to take a place at a full meal. This is deliberate; cucumber sandwiches have historically been associated with the Victorian era upper classes of the United Kingdom, whose members were largely at leisure and who could therefore, afford to consume foods with little nutritive value. Cucumber sandwiches formed an integral part of the stereotypical afternoon tea affair. (By contrast, people of the era's lower working classes were thought to prefer a coarser but more satisfying protein-filled sandwich, in a "meat tea" that might substitute for supper.)

Some writers have attempted to draw out an association between the daintiness of the sandwich and the perceived effeteness of the British aristocracy. Cucumber sandwiches are often used as a kind of shorthand in novels and films to identify upper class people, occasionally in a derogatory manner. In the first act of Oscar Wilde's The Importance Of Being Earnest (1895), cucumber sandwiches that have expressly been ordered and prepared for Lady Bracknell's expected visit are all voraciously eaten beforehand by her nephew and host, Algernon Moncrieff; consequently he is forced to tell a little lie, with his butler's connivance: namely that "there were no cucumbers in the market this morning... not even for ready money". In addition, the sandwiches were once considered appropriate delicacies to offer to visiting clergy, in times when such visits were still a common feature of English middle class life.

The popularity of the cucumber sandwich reached its upper-class zenith in the Edwardian era, when cheap labor and plentiful coal enabled cucumbers to be produced in hotbeds under glass through most of the year. With the declining popularity of tea as a meal in the United Kingdom, there was a corresponding decline in the popularity of cucumber sandwiches, but they are still frequently served at teas, luncheons, and gatherings. They are now increasingly popular in the UK due to the hotter and longer summers, and the range of variants of accompaniments from take-away sources (e.g. supermarkets) is large; hence they are a popular lunchtime snack for workers. Most English cricket clubs supply malt vinegar and ground pepper to dash inside the sandwich, and this is the simplest form commonly used in England."

Okay, so that explains how cucumbers came to used in dainty, little tea sandwiches.

I have several tea sandwich recipes, a handful that involve cucumbers. I will be making several of them in the next coming days, and will share the recipes and my thoughts on them.

Until then, happy sipping!

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