“If Bergamot be yours, then chamomile is mine…”
Every so often to my surprise, the revolutionary sentiments behind ‘Indian by choice’ turn to serve as a throwback to our Raj past. There is the designer’s angst within me to straddle the two — the cause and the consequence — in my design sensibilities. So before I move on next season to wage a full-fledged war against western imperialism in colour names, let me dwell awhile on the aesthetic leanings of Victorian England.
Slipping back in time to the early 19th century, I discovered to my delight a boudoir secret of the seventh Duchess of Bedford – Anna Maria Russell. One of Queen Victoria’s Ladies of the Bedchamber and a lifelong friend, she had a strange quirk known only to her private retinue of servants. She’d ask them to sneak in a pot of tea along with a bit of bread and butter, and some biscuits and cakes, to quell a ‘sinking feeling’ she had mid-afternoon. Emboldened by the success of this new entrée in her daily routine, she invited her friends over to Belvoir castle. Apart from the usual bonhomie over the latest needlecraft, the ladies bonded around this light afternoon repast in the boudoir and followed it with a pleasant walk in the fields. The Queen got wind of this strange activity and thankfully, fell in love with it instantly. Adopting this ritual without hesitation, Victoria enjoyed having light cake with butter cream and fresh raspberries — later known as Victoria Sponge cake — with her precious spot of tea. Thus was the tradition of Afternoon Tea born.
By the late 1830’s, the afternoon tea convention took on proportions of a subculture in Victorian England. Though predominantly a cosy feminine affair, it soon became a social gathering with male friends joining in. Tea gardens became popular; taken from Dutch tavern garden teas, this was an idea that made tea even more fashionable to drink. On private grounds, ladies and gentlemen took their ‘little teas’ al fresco, engaging in delightful banter, the resident pianist adding cadence to the raillery. Social hostesses vied with one another to make these events memorable. They brought out their finest china, sterling and linens and “the table was laid…there were the best things with a fat pink rose on the side of each cup; hearts of lettuce, thin bread and butter, and the crisp little cakes that had been baked in readiness that morning.” — A Social History of Tea, Jane Pettigrew [The National Trust:London] 2001. Finger sandwiches, macaroons, hot buttered scones, crumpets, eclairs and buns — “dainty trifles, pleasing to the eye and palate, but too flimsy to allay hunger where it exists”- were served with clotted cream and an array of jams and conserves. Much of what we know about these bite-sized gourmet titbits on the tea menu was recorded not in cookbooks but in literature. Jane Austen and her contemporaries for example, chronicled the rise of this meal with delectable detail.
The British took their love affair with tea seriously. Even in far flung colonies, they built private tea houses on their estates to recreate the ambience of a Victorian country house. And for us, the memsahib of old Calcutta may be long gone but her presence remains — in her flavoured teas and the muslin of her tea strainer, which find a fresh lease of life in our collection this season. In our photo story, teas meet clothes in reminiscence of the refined elegance of a bygone era. From the Memsahib’s boudoirs and her tea gardens, we bring you gossamer muslins and crochet lace in delicate hues of rose, orange blossom, lemon, chamomile, mint, lavender and green tea. So this rainy August afternoon, drop by to choose your cup of tea.
August 5, 2015
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