'One thing special about St. Patrick's Day in Ireland is afternoon tea. That's a must," said Gerri Gilliland, owner of Gilliland's in Santa Monica, where a typical Irish tea will be served on Sunday to commemorate that day.
St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, who is said to have banished all vipers when he was made priest (which creatively explains why there are no snakes in Ireland), is celebrated in Ireland with a warming pot of tea customarily served from a tea cart, not the table.
"The breads and sandwiches are on the top shelf, the sweets below. Somebody plays 'Mother,' meaning, of course, that someone is made in charge of the cart," Gilliland said.
In Ireland, typical tea fare starts out with Buttermilk Scones, baps (buns), soda breads ( bannocks )--either wheat or plain--and sandwiches, such as smoked salmon and eel from the freshwater lake of Lough Neagh. Cucumber and watercress sandwiches are also a favorite in Ireland, as they are in Britain.
Tea Traditions Changed
Gilliland points out that the Industrial Revolution changed the complexion of afternoon tea throughout Britain. The Industrial Revolution made it possible for the elaborate tea custom, practiced by privileged class, to be available to the poor masses, who previously could not afford the time or the products.
"After all, the poor were busy digging potatoes. It was then that commercial bakers began experimenting and developing products and when regional specialties began to flourish," Gilliland said.
Today's Irish tea cart may include biscuits (cookies), spongecake, poundcakes and fruitcake, as well as small cakes. "Never chocolate and never marmalade as are found in English teas. Chocolate is not complementary with tea," Gilliland said.
Shortbread, which is actually a Scottish invention, was popularized in Northern Ireland because of geographic proximity. When shortbreads are cut into triangles they are called "petticoat tails." In Ireland, shortbread is made with rice flour, which seems to enhance texture and taste.
Another Irish specialty, not likely found on English tea tables, for instance, is Boiled Cake, which always appeared on the tea cart at Gilliland's home in Belfast. Although the cake is actually a fruitcake, it is served spread with butter to enrich it even further for an afternoon pickup. The word "boiled" refers to the cooking of the fruit with sugar and eggs for a custard base before flour is added.
Yet another specialty of Northern Ireland is the potato apple cake, which is actually a potato griddle cake stuffed with apples. Bap, the most traditional, and probably the oldest known tea accompaniment, is similar to a bread bun served with butter.
Plain spongecake is split or rolled and filled with jam and seasonal fruit. Creamed cakes, so called because butter and sugar are creamed before flour is added, include such classics as the Madeira cake, named for the beverage with which it is served--not made. "Madeira is the forerunner of the traditional poundcake and it was originally served by the Irish aristocracy, who actually were the English and Scots, not Irish."
Small cakes may include lemon curd tarts and almond pastry, which is a version of the British jam tart. Macaroons, also considered small cakes, are much like Italian amaretti, but made with rice flour.
Cake and macaroon leftovers accumulated during the week are generally turned into a trifle flavored with Irish mist or Harvey's Bristol Cream Sherry and served with tea on the following Sunday. The cakes are sliced to use as the trifle layers, and the macaroons are crumbled to make topping crumbs.
Irish tea also boasts some special touches that differ slightly from English tea, starting with terminology. "One never 'makes' a cup of tea. In Ireland one 'wets,' 'soaks,' 'draws' or 'brews' a cup of tea."
Gave These Pointers
Gilliland gave these pointers for making perfect Irish tea, stressing that only fresh water be used:
"Boil water no longer than 30 seconds to keep water as fresh as possible. Also never reuse water that has stood in a pot overnight.
"The pot should be warmed with hot water before using. Irish tea-makers prefer black tea, such as Darjeeling; not Chinese or green tea.
"A rule of thumb is to allow one teaspoon of tea per cup. First, place as much tea as will be needed for the number of persons to be served in the pot. Then, pour boiling water into the warmed tea pot over the tea leaves. Steep for two to five minutes, then stir to blend well. No need to strain the tea leaves, as do the English. "The Irish don't mind tea leaves in their cup," Gilliland said. And always use milk, never half and half. "Some Irish folk use lemon for Russian-style tea, but most prefer milk."