Pre-pandemic, the stricture around causes for celebration was more rigid than it is today. A birthday, a promotion, an anniversary of any sort was grounds enough to open a bottle of something lovely and gather. These days, though, I feel we’re all far quicker to reach for the party poppers. In a recent conversation with an interior designer, I learned of a client who, on the first day of installation earlier this year, opened a bottle of champagne to mark the arrival of each furniture delivery. The pandemic has warped our sense of gratitude – we are the luckiest people in the world when our takeaways arrive sooner than expected; charmed to find the mug of tea, made and forgotten, still warm.
So, to get to the point, whimsical national observances (read: flimsy reasons to celebrate) often sniggered at or ignored, have become starred dates in my diary. Monday 9 August commences Afternoon Tea Week, so I’ve spoken to some brilliant tablescaping experts and even a top pastry chef to ensure we’re all ready to make the most of the celebrations of one of England’s great traditions, afternoon tea.
“Afternoon tea is a ritual, a celebration, and a moment of calm all in one,” says Rosanna Falconer, a brand consultant, co-founder of FashMash and tablescaping aficionado. Falconer’s Instagram account is a riot of colour and a goldmine for table styling inspiration, especially for afternoon tea setups. “The process is quite distinct from a grabbed cuppa in a much-loved, perhaps chipped mug,” she says. “It’s important to create a considered tablescape, but don’t feel pressured to match.” For Falconer, it’s the “mixing and matching” of vintage tea crockery that brings the magic to afternoon tea with loved ones. The only rule? “Just keep the colour palette consistent.”
“It’s meant to be indulgent and elevated beyond the everyday,” agrees Isla Simpson, a tableware designer and illustrator. “I always go for an informal, cottagecore feel, using proper table linen and large platters decorated with chintzy motifs of florals or English summer vegetables.” Simpson’s new tea service designed for Moda Operandi celebrates the bucolic ceramic tradition in particular with hand-painted radishes and broad beans.
Creating dynamic layers and points of interest should be top of the afternoon tea host’s agenda, according to the new head pastry chef at the InterContinental London Park Lane, Radoslav Georgiev. Georgiev is the mastermind behind the hotel’s new Royal Afternoon Tea menu (from £48pp), which takes inspiration from its royal heritage as a historic home of Queen Elizabeth. By using towering cake stands and contrasting the delicate, colourful confections against dark, decorative plates to make them stand out, Radoslav’s aesthetic considerations for afternoon tea aim to imbue the experience with a sense of spectacle.
According to Cheffins, a firm of property advisors, estate agents and auctioneers, values of patterned tea services in this tradition have grown at auction in recent years, hence their popularity amongst young, taste-making individuals like Falconer and Simpson. Brett Tryner, a director from the firm’s fine art department, says: “A couple of years ago a smart Spode tea service might only have sold for around £50, but now we are seeing that values have more than tripled, with the best examples now selling well into the hundreds of pounds.” Interestingly, he tells me that alongside interior designers working for private clients, buyers also include those from younger age groups following the cottagecore or chintz trends which have been flooding social media of late. Tryner adds: “No one wants a plain white plate or teacup anymore. Rather, a willow pattern design that looks as if it has been handed down by Granny, is far more fashionable. This kind of ware is now being quickly snapped up by the design-conscious who undoubtedly have enjoyed dusting these off since the end of lockdown.”
When it comes to entertaining and enjoying our rediscovered freedoms, more eye-catching plates with a maximalist element indeed make for a more “Instagrammable” table for guests to enjoy. “For me, it’s all about being creative, releasing your inner maximalist and showcasing your personality,” says Emma Deterding, founder and creative director of KDLoves. She adds: “You want to layer colour, pattern and texture for a really bright and bold setting that will set the mood for the entire afternoon.”
“The best afternoon tea tablescapes have longevity,” agrees Kate Cartwright, the brand marketing manager at patterned ceramics maker, Burleigh. “Your table should look striking both when the guests arrive, and when they begin to filter home. Imagine the way the table will look once the cake stands and serving dishes have been depleted. More often than not, the table will lose some of its charm, so be on stand-by with more large, decorative bowls and dishes filled with fruit and snacks that guests can help themselves to as the afternoon progresses. This gives the table a bountiful, generous look, filling the gaps (and any pesky new stains!) on your table.”
Laura Jackson, the co-founder of Popcorn Shed, also believes in the notion of filling large bowls and platters with interesting snacks for more of a spectacle when it comes to afternoon tea. “Popcorn has made a comeback,” she tells me. “And with some of the current flavours on the market such as cherry Bakewell, it makes a perfect addition to afternoon tea, piled high for guests around a beautiful table to sample.”