A ritual of sipping and nibbling

I am wearing my new coat. It is a rather jaunty, fashionable coat, but it is also very smart, so I feel quite in command of the situation as we enter the Signet Library in Edinburgh. I have elected to go scruffy for this visit to the city, rather than taking the tweed-jacketed option, but this will not be clear to an observer until I’ve removed the coat to reveal my open flannel shirt and Banksy tee. The Signet Library is the home of the Society of Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet, a private fellowship of solicitors, and is a beautiful late Georgian Neoclassical building, rather brutally appended to the seventeenth-century Parliament Hall in the 1820s. The interior of the main library is a vision of British architectural harmony and restraint – although I’m sure it’s not always been the done thing to put Corinthian capitals on Doric columns. We are here however, not to criticise the minutiae of the architecture, or to consult the collection, which for all its comfortable, leather-bound avoirdupois is freighted largely with jurisprudential tedium, but for afternoon tea. It is eleven in the morning.

This morning tea was the opening salvo in a weekend of celebrations for Spawn’s twenty-first birthday, for which Spouse and I were visiting her in Scotland. The Signet Library’s collection is no longer routinely consulted, so the society which owns it has taken the canny decision to turn it into a very swish city-centre venue for weddings, events and afternoon tea. There may be a degree of vocational bias involved, but I find it hard to imagine a better setting for… well, for more or less anything, but especially for this highly ritualised nibbling and sipping procedure.

I’m no expert on high tea, but I’ve had a few, and the format is always pretty similar – unlimited quantities of traditionally brewed tea, and multi-tiered stands filled with savoury and sweet dainties. We all opted for the same tea, a Taiwanese semi-fermented oolong, with a woody, berry aroma, which ranged from delicate when first brewed to dense and fruity towards the bottom of the pot. By the end of our slow progress through the food, we’d worked our way through at least a pot each of this refreshing infusion. Arriving with the first pot was an amuse-bouche in the form of a tiny cup of sweet-potato soup, heavily peppered for a warming if incongruously rustic effect. While delicious, it was not particularly compatible with the flavours of the tea, and without anything else on the table to cleanse the palate it was one of the few mis-steps in the meal.

The pace was languid, as it should be, with no sense at any point that we should be consuming the meal on any timetable but our own. Our savoury stand arrived at just the right moment, and after a brief explanation and sequencing advice from our waiter, we set to. A couple of items were entertainingly disguised as sweets, an exquisitely detailed miniature cornet of mackerel mousse, adorned with a flake of kimchi, and a panna cotta, of which more in a moment. Spawn’s favourite savoury was a small barrel of fried mozzarella atop a tiny terracotta flowerpot filled with orzo salad: the mozzarella was not the tough, moisture-reduced kind usually found fried in breadcrumbs, but soft, sumptuous and delicately flavoured. For me, the star of the first act was a game pie topped with half a preserved blackberry; this had a perfect, complex balance of game flavours, strong but controlled, and a filling whose fibrous unction complemented the crisp, friable casing precisely. The three finger sandwiches had excellent fillings, but I’d have preferred better bread: soft white sandwich bread is traditional, but a strong, white sourdough like that made by the Bertinet Bakery would offer some texture and flavour without detracting from the essential sandwich-ness of the experience. I completed my ascent of the stand with the panna cotta, which was made with goat’s cheese, and topped with preserved beetroot. This was nearly as good as the game pie, a consonant collision of the musty, tangy cheese with the earthy notes of the beetroot, and although it was not turned out for us to observe the wobble, the texture was just on the line between creamy and coherent.

Tiny cubic scones formed the base of the sweet stand, with (of course) clotted cream and strawberry jam. They were more or less perfect, although not as good as those made by Dear Friend in Glasgow, and there wasn’t quite enough cream and jam for all of them. The remaining tiers were filled with more tiny, perfect things. It’s hard to resist itemising them, but I stayed strong for the savoury stand and I’ll stay strong here – I love lists, but not other people’s. Worthy of mention were a pumpkin panna cotta with exactly the right amount of sweetness, which is to say not much, including a layer of oatmeal which was barely sweetened if at all; and my favourite, a faultlessly textured macaroon in which coffee and chocolate were brought to a precise equilibrium. The Battenberg cake was amazing on paper, and appealed directly to my Turkish heritage with rose and pistachio flavoured sponges, but sadly both flavours, especially the rose, were drowned out by the marzipan. Spawn was particularly taken by the apricot frangipane tart, which was indeed excellent.

It was getting on for lunchtime by the time we were done, but lunch was not required. The original idea of high tea was of a light meal to keep hunger at bay as the evening mealtime got later during the nineteenth century. However, statute is interpreted according to precedent, and those that I’ve enjoyed, at usually significant expense, have involved considerable quantities of food, delivered in a large number of small packages. At the Signet Library we were served a feast, capped with a shot-glass of tart apple sorbet, a summing-up that somehow both reinforced and neutralised the flavours of the meal. There were no more than a couple of very small faults, which in no way detracted from the overall quality of the experience – and quite honestly, I wouldn’t expect total perfection across such a large number of demanding and delicate pieces of food for the price that we paid. The experience of eating such an extremely high quality array of treats, in such elegant bibliophilic surroundings, in celebration of Spawn’s twenty-first, was priceless.

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