This article appeared in the December/January issue of CHoWline, the monthly newsletter of the Culinary Historians of Washington, DC. But here I can share more pictures!
London’s Victoria & Albert Museum was established for edification and immersion. The sculpture hall’s reproductions of classical statues was created for students of drawing and sculpture, and in all the galleries you will still find students intent over their sketchpads.
Today visitors can immerse themselves in decorative arts from around the world and through time, crafted in silver, ceramics, photography, textiles and more, but sooner or later, like the peckish duchess who invented it, you will want tea. And the immersion can continue at the museum’s Victorian Tea, offered on Sunday afternoons, when the linens and good china come out.
In fact, the V&A was the world’s first museum to offer a café in 1856, at first in temporary Tudor-styles rooms that a leading newspaper described as “hideously ugly,” and by the 1860s in three grand, artist-designed and decorated rooms. The center Gamble room is the largest and is covered in majolica tiles colored yellow, burnt orange, and cream, with a ceiling of ornately enameled metal sheets. The materials are bright, dazzling, but also practical—fire-resistant, easy to clean and didn’t absorb odors.
To the right is the Poynter room, finished in dark wood and blue and white Dutch-style tiles, painted by female students at the National Art Training School. Originally, it was a grill room, serving substantial meals, including jugged hare, steak pudding, and seasonal tarts. A “second class,” budget-conscious menu offered veal cutlets for 10 pence and buns and sponge cake for one pence.
It was also the preferred dining spot of artist, Edward Byrne-Jones, who helped his colleague William Morris design the third room, where the Victorian Tea is offered. When hired, Morris was relatively unknown and had just started his firm. The room is decorated in his medievalist Arts and Crafts style, done in mossy green paneling and covered in gilded panels of entwined fruits and vegetables, with murals of maidens at their domestic chores. Like the museum’s collection, the rooms are learning tools, each representing a different design theory.
The Victorian Tea’s menu was created by food historian Tasha Marks, of AVM Curiosities, her firm, which explores food as an art and immersive experience. The menu includes five savory and five sweet items based on 19th century recipes from Mrs. Beeton, Mary Allen, and A.B. Marshall, some slightly tweaked for modern palates. Choices include Mrs. Beeton’s cucumber sandwich as well as a Nasturtium Open Sandwich that features fresh anchovy. Marks points out that Victorians really liked fishy flavors. From the era of empire, an Indian ham sandwich uses chutney from a Mary Allen recipe.
Marks continues, “On the sweet side we have fruit scones, which weren’t exactly a fixture on the menu in the Victorian era—they came slightly later—but you can’t have an afternoon tea without them!” Likewise, tea choices include the traditional Earl Grey as well as English Breakfast, which became popular in the 1930s.
The immersion experience extends to the table settings—Burleigh china specially designed for the service and mixed flatware that look like lesser pieces from the museum’s collection.
Fortified and refreshed, visitors can head upstairs to examine the silver collection’s many pieces devoted to tea. In fact, 18th century inventories showed that English households owned twice as many tea wares as coffee utensils. And as always, table service was an opportunity to show taste and wealth. More than an earthenware mug, a tea service of porcelain and silver might include candlesticks, a salver tray, tea caddies, and more.
It’s lovely to see the artifacts in their cases, but perhaps even lovelier to see them spread out on a tea table for you.