It’s lovely to have your food served on china and stir your tea with a silver spoon, but you sit up straighter when you do that, don’t you. And you worry if you might have something stuck in your teeth and if you should show your teeth at all when you smile or keep your lips stuck together and just tip your head back a bit for emphasis instead of letting out a big guffaw.
Not all English tea shops require the ladies to wear a proper hat and sensible shoes and the gentlemen to mind the manners, and they’re the ones I like to go to. You find them when you get lost walking in the English country side, walking across fields that have just been plowed for winter, or even off the road driving up to Scotland, and there is something really nice about the connection with the people in the shop, especially the further north you go. It can be a fine line between “Hello, how are you” when they pour the tea, and “who are you then?” but underneath they’re always glad to see you and sad to see you go. The pot of tea isn’t china or fragile at all, but a great big aluminum thing with a knitted or towel cozy over it to keep it hot and it comes out steaming into the mug and you might get asked if you want the sugar and milk or they might just decide for you if they think you could use it. To eat there are very serious scones, you couldn’t call them delicate, but you could call them sustenance. They’re served with jam that knows what fruit it came from and cream so thick it might not be legal in the States. Or you can get mince pies, shortbread, a sponge with jam spread on top or if there’s hot food, a meat pie, a cheese toasty (grilled cheese with cheddar) or a toasted bap with butter or really, butter with a bap.
If you’re really lucky there might be a selection of sandwiches which I think make a great dinner especially with any of the desserts. And if you don’t find them there, there is a never fail great selection of fresh sandwiches in triangle packs at the pharmacy. They don’t pack loads between the bread as we tend to do–it’s not dagwood country–but the combinations are fantastic. Curried chicken with an apricot chutney and arugula or prawn mayonnaise or tandori chicken with cucumber and yogurt dressing or farm fresh egg salad with watercress and some crazy cheese grated on the top or even a tiny slab of tuna salad to mix you up. They have strong cheddar with Branston pickle (a strong sort of brown chutney with fruits, nuts, onions and gerkin), or even cheese salad, which is chopped up bits of cheese stirred around with a bit of mayo and sliced almonds and sometimes a bit of chopped green olive or tiny bits of onion. They have the ploughmans breakfast of a three sandwhich combo, irish bacon, scrambled egg with cheese and turkey or a middle eastern spot of hummus, red onion, roasted red pepper and cucumber. It’s a tradition I never knew about; it’s unexpected excitement between two slices of soft bread. Always served cut in two, always cut point to point and never anything fancy about it.