But this tea was like no other English afternoon tea. A collaboration between Deblonde and Twining (``just call me Sam,'' he says with a chuckle, even though he has been awarded the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth), this summer afternoon tea was an ingenious blend of old English tradition and lively global flavors.
Deblonde, bespectacled and dapper in chef's sparkling whites, explained matters earnestly in a charming French accent undiminished by years of working in London. ``I wanted to do something special to mark the 25th anniversary of London's Four Seasons and I also wanted to highlight fresh fruits and vegetables in season.''
So, instead of the predictable cucumber sandwiches served on wafer-thin crustless white bread and scones with jam and clotted cream, Deblonde drew on his culinary experiences traveling throughout the world.
``I got so many ideas,'' he said. ``Each country has its own specific tastes and textures and unusual [to Westerners] methods of preparation.''
The result was a delicious balance of exotic tastes and textures, which nevertheless held fast to the identity of the favorite English pastime.
Scones and sandwiches are essential to the English tea. But the scones Deblonde served were perfumed with passion fruit and studded with golden papaya.
Japanese-influenced dainty finger sandwiches were served on a seaweed and sake bread baked locally by Le Bus bakery according to Deblonde's recipe. Twining, imposingly tall, personally selected a Twin-
ing's tea to blend perfectly with this eclectic menu.
Sam Twining has plenty of hands-on experience with teas and herb brews. He is the ninth generation to be in the family tea business. The House of Twining was founded in 1706, when Thomas Twining bought a tiny coffeehouse just off London's Strand. To set his coffeehouse apart from the competition - there were more than 2,000 coffeehouses in the city - Twining introduced tea.
Thomas Twining's reputation as a master tea blender spread quickly and business flourished, although at the time tea was heavily taxed and incredibly expensive. The cost? Sixteen shillings per pound, or $1,000 at today's rates. Not surprising that the lady of the house stored it in a padlocked tea caddy (tin) with the key on a belt around her waist. At teatime she would unlock the caddy and carefully weigh out a small amount, just enough for the number of privileged guests.
A popular story is that the tradition of afternoon tea was made famous by a Duchess of Bedford who found that by mid-afternoon her energy level was so low she needed a little something to revive her - and a few cream cakes didn't hurt.
Today, the House of Twining exports an impressive variety of affordable black teas and herbal teas, caffeinated and decaffeinated, loose and tea bags to more than 90 countries. Production has now moved to Hampshire, but visitors to London can visit the shop at 216 The Strand, where the company has been conducting business since 1787.
So what do you serve with Marinated Lamb and Tarragon Sushi Rice on Seaweed and Sake Bread, or Langoustine Prawns and Coconut on Pimento Bread? And does a Darjeeling go with Papaya and Passion Fruit Scones or the stunning presentation of Melon and Port Sorbet nestled in an espresso cup dipped in dark chocolate, then artfully scrolled with chocolate tinted with cafe au lait?
For this international culinary symphony, Twining chose a refreshing and fragrant jasmine tea, which enhanced and never overpowered each sweet and savory bite.
What is Sam Twining's favorite brew? Twining cautions that ``tea is like wine and should be chosen according to the food, the weather and the time of day. And no, it doesn't matter whether you use loose tea or tea bags. I might start off the day with English Breakfast, a lively full-bodied brew, and a perfect waker-upper. If it's a hot day, the wonderfully smoky Earl Grey is soothing, and if it's a really miserable day, the pungent, robust Irish Breakfast is very satisfying.''
Then he added with a glint in his eye, ``Don't forget to mention my Marriage Counselors Blend. A lady once told me her problem . . . She only likes Jasmine and her husband prefers Irish Breakfast. I just told her to brew them together - and they were perfectly happy.
``The motto,'' said Twining, ``don't be afraid to experiment.''
While tea was sipped and scones nibbled on, Sam Twining talked about the history, etiquette and new and old traditions concerning tea.
``Power teas are now the popular equivalent of your American power lunches,'' he said. ``It's one of the cheapest and relaxed ways to entertain - and you can do it at your place of business or at home.''
He also set us straight on the differences between high tea and the elegant afternoon tea.
``It may come as a shock,'' he said, ``but high tea was really a blue-collar meal - like bangers and mash [sausages and mashed potatoes]. It was eaten about 5 o'clock when workers came home from the factories and needed something substantial. And it was always served at a high table in the kitchen. English afternoon fare such as finger sandwiches and tiny cakes served at a low table just wouldn't cut it.''
For the best cup of tea, the success is in the brewing. Twining's rules: Empty the kettle and fill with freshly drawn water from the cold tap. While the water is heating, warm the teapot with hot water and drain. Do not use aluminum or chipped enamel pots, as these metals may spoil the tea.
Measure a good quality tea to your taste - as a guide, one teaspoonful per person and one for the pot. As soon as the kettle reaches the boil, bring the teapot to the kettle and pour boiling water over the leaves. Cover with the lid and let stand for three to five minutes according to the size of leaf. Stir the pot before pouring. Never, ever use a tea cozy, as this allows the tea to stew.
* The following recipes have been adapted for the home cook.
PLUM TOMATO AND ARTICHOKES ON SUN-DRIED TOMATO FOCACCIA 6 marinated baby artichokes
2 plum tomatoes, diced
4 slices sun-dried tomato focaccia, about 6-inches long and 1/4 inch thick
1 to 2 tablespoons softened butter
Drain artichokes. Chop coarsely. Mix with plum tomatoes and set aside. Spread focaccia thinly with butter. This prevents sogginess. Spoon equal amounts of the artichoke mixture over each of 2 slices of focaccia. Top each with remaining slices and press lightly. Cut each sandwich into 3 pieces. Makes six servings.
Nutritional data per serving: Calories, 125; protein, 0.8 grams; carbohydrates, 16 grams; fat, 7 grams; cholesterol, 5 milligrams; sodium, 151 milligrams.
SCONES WITH PAPAYA
AND PASSION FRUIT Vegetable spray
6 tablespoons butter
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons passion fruit pulp, mashed
1/4 cup diced papaya
2 eggs, beaten
About 1/3 cup milk
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray a baking sheet with nonstick vegetable spray. Rub butter into flour until mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Stir in sugar and baking powder. Make a well in center and add passion fruit pulp, papaya, eggs and enough milk to make a soft dough. On a floured board, knead into a ball. Roll out approximately 1/2-inch thick. Cut into 2-inch rounds with a cookie cutter and place on prepared baking sheet. Let rest 20 minutes. Bake 15 minutes until risen and golden. Makes 8 to 10 scones.
Nutritional data per serving: Calories, 113; protein, 4 grams; carbohydrates, 21 grams; fat, 2 grams; cholesterol, 44 milligrams; sodium, 98 milligrams.
MELON AND PORT SORBET 1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 1/2 cups pureed ripe cantaloupe
1/4 cup port
4 store-bought chocolate cups, 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter (optional)
In medium saucepan, mix sugar and water to dissolve. Bring to boil. Add pureed melon and remove from heat. Cool. Stir in port. Pour into shallow bowl, cover and freeze 2 hours or until crystals form on surface and at sides of bowl. Remove from freezer, stir and whip until frothy, about 2 minutes. Cover and return to freezer until firm. Spoon into chocolate cups, small glasses or demitasse cups. Makes four servings.
Nutritional data per serving (excluding chocolate cups): Calories, 92; protein, 0.6 gram; carbohydrates, 20 grams; fat, 0.2 gram; cholesterol, none; sodium, 7 milligrams.
Afternoon tea is said to have been invented by a duchess who found that cream cakes were a nice pick-me-up.