We’re back from our holiday in Madeira, and I have to say it’s quite a shock to the system. We’ve dropped more than 15 degrees Celsius, we spent a rainy afternoon today negotiating jammed Oxford and Regent Streets buying gifts, and we returned home with damp feet to find that the heating had given up. So you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m not feeling at all present, and that I’ve been transported to our afternoon tea on the terrace of the Reid’s Palace hotel in Madeira.
Afternoon tea is an English institution, and the English seem to have taken it with them wherever they went. In Madeira, I read that some people returning from sweltering in the colonies spent a few months on that island (to acclimatise) before heading back home. With all those long afternoons in a kind of limbo, it seems quite sensible and civilised to fill your time with tea, refreshing sandwiches, little sweet things and scones.
Almost as famous as afternoon tea itself are all the rules of etiquette and ritual that go with it. Some say that to pour the tea before the milk signals a quality porcelain cup (because a cheap cup will crack), while others say pouring the milk first prevents it from being scalded. The Devonshire school of cream tea applies cream onto the scone before the jam, whereas the Cornish school applies jam first (I can’t remember which school Foodie Doctor follows, but she did tell me when we went for afternoon tea in London). The pinkie question – out or in? The Reid’s book on tea insists that it should be kept firmly with the other fingers, because “it is not an antenna trying to receive the BBC World Service”. The sandwiches should all be eaten before any of the cakes are touched. A used napkin should not be placed on the table if you step away (because it’s the hostess’ prerogative to do so to signal the end of tea).
With all of this to keep in mind, it’s a wonder that afternoon tea is relaxing at all. But it genuinely is. With a view of the Atlantic, a mild temperature, and a charming Victorian terrace, I realised that I was finally learning how to holiday à l’Européenne.
Indian holidays are by and large, in contrast, nowhere near as relaxing. They usually involve having your schedule dictated to you by someone else, enduring plenty of obligation visits and errands, constant power struggles between competing (and often hidden) agendas that reach above and beyond just that one trip, and everyone piling in (invited or not) into debating every decision. I’ve had my fair share of these. I was pretty relieved to hear, though (when I mentioned this to my European husband), that he’d had his fair share of Indian holidays too. And then I watched that Thanksgiving episode of Dharma and Greg. If what I’m talking about doesn’t ring a bell, then watch that episode – they were definitely having an Indian holiday. I think I’m going to agree with the most powerful man on Earth here: “what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart”.