It’s a warm summer’s afternoon, the rowers are splashing on the Avon, the picnic rug is set under the parasols, and the butler has just announced afternoon tea… does it get more English?
We can’t all teleport back to Oxford in the 1920s, but we can experience traditional English afternoon tea through the sophisticated and delicate food tradition of high tea.
No-one does a good high tea better than the English, and no high tea would be complete without those delicate, mouth-watering morsels known as tea sandwiches (along with some scones with cream and jam!). Here are our picks for the top seven English sandwich recipes to look out for.
When it comes to traditional English recipes, nothing gets more quaintly reminiscent of lawn bowls and afternoon tea than a perfect cucumber tea sandwich.
This delicate mouthful needs to be made with care and finesse: the bread should be crustless, the cucumbers peeled and seedless, and the butter fresh and thick. Don’t even bother if they’re not freshly made, and we’re going to suggest you become a proper English tea sandwich snob and turn your nose up if they’re not cut into delicate triangles. Pass the Earl Grey, darling!
A classic for the classy, no high tea array of English tea sandwiches would be complete without the intoxicating aromas of smoked salmon, on a bed of crème fraiche or cream cheese, and with the merest hint of dill. Rye or Pumpernickel bread are acceptable here, and we’ll even grant you a few translucent slices of English cucumber. If it smells fishy, forget it — the salmon may be old.
Quintessentially English, the egg salad sandwich is a stalwart of afternoon teas across Britain. A good egg salad sandwich consists of lightly hardboiled eggs, mashed with mayonnaise or yoghurt, and well seasoned with salt, pepper, and perhaps something daring like a sprinkle of chives or paprika. And, of course, a thick layer of the best English butter (preferably organic and from grass-fed cows for the best flavour).
A good egg salad sandwich should be moist but not soggy; rich but not sickening; and eggy but not sulphurous. If you can smell it from more than a metre away, the eggs may be overcooked or old — stay away!
White bread is compulsory here, crusts are best trimmed, and multiple layers of filling and bread, neatly cut, would be most welcome. For a taste of Harrod’s-style tea sandwiches, simply add some watercress for a classic ‘egg-and-cress’ experience. Subtle but exquisite.
Every good English patriot makes more roast beef than they need, so they can enjoy that special treat of a roast beef sandwich the next day. It’s the horseradish that makes it extra special, lifting the flavours of the roast beef and transforming them into a delicacy. Watch out for dry or curled looking slices of roast beef: this shows it might be old and tough. When it comes to traditional English recipes, roast beef sandwiches are really the cream of the crop.
Don’t even bother going here unless it’s the height of summer and you can find beautifully ripe, tasty, English-grown tomatoes. The tasteless watery pulp grown in hothouses or imported don’t deserve the name. A great English tomato tea sandwich should have slices of juicy, flavoursome tomato, a thick spread of good butter to prevent the bread from going soggy, a hearty bread, and a good sprinkle of salt and freshly-ground black pepper. Look for heirloom tomato varieties, which come in all sorts of beautiful colours ranging from blacks, purples, and greens, to the traditional reds, and even orangey-pink. If the bread looks soggy, forget it!
Cheese and Pickle
England produces some fine craft cheeses, and there’s no better way to try them than in that classic ploughman’s fare, the cheese and pickle sandwich. The piquancy of the pickle should be not too sour, not too sweet, and offset the richness of the cheese. Look for English classic cheeses such as Wensleydale, and places that make their own pickle.
Ham and Mustard
A classic ‘next day’ sandwich, nothing beats a sandwich filled with thickly sliced ham off the bone, fine English mustard, and perhaps a little cheese. Free-range ham will taste the best — pale shaved supermarket ham, cured in chemicals, has nothing on the thick rustic slices of traditional English recipes. Wholegrain mustard works here, as do some fresh salad greens — something robust like radicchio, even — and a few slices of ripe tomato, when in season. A nice rye or wholegrain bread goes well with the richness of the fatty meat.
If you happen to come across a delicious ham and mustard sandwich featuring a good melting cheese like Raclette, try toasting it or having it toasted for a radical combination of English and French cuisines — ploughman’s fare meets the croque monsieur!
There are other delicious combinations out there, but these are the classics when it comes to English tea sandwiches. Stick to simple, tried-and-true combinations, fresh ingredients, and avoid soggy or old-looking offerings, and you can’t go wrong.
Now, pour yourself a fragrant cup of tea with milk and a sugar cube, stir it with a dainty teaspoon, and lift one of those delicate little triangles to your mouth… we hope you’re on a lawn somewhere in the sun, watching the cricket, because it doesn’t get more English than this!