Fit for a queen: Victorian Afternoon Tea at the V&A
Food historian Tasha Marks tells us what's on the menu at an elegant new experience inspired by the 19th-century monarch
The Victorians were very important to the evolution of food, from introducing new ingredients via their trade roots to the boost in manufacturing during that era. There was so much breadth – at the top end you would have amazing feasts and banquets, while at the lower end there was a lot of food adulteration. The period instigated many things we take for granted - such as seasonality and British produce, which are undergoing a resurgence now - as well as new tastes: Queen Victoria was made the Empress of India in 1877, so there were Indian influences coming over, creating a really interesting melting pot.
All the dishes created for the afternoon tea are based on 19th-century recipes ranging from 1887 to 1901. I used my own archive – I'm terrible for collecting recipe books and paraphernalia. They're mainly the recipes of Mrs Beeton, Mary Allen and AB Marshall, and I used their recipes as a starting point, subtly changing some shapes and other elements to suit the modern palate while continuing to offer a taste of history.
There are five savoury and five sweet items. Victorians really liked fishy flavours and paste in general was very popular, so we have a crayfish and mayonnaise sandwich, as well as a nasturtium open sandwich that has an anchovy on it. There's also an Indian ham sandwich, using a chutney recipe from Mary Allen, Mrs Beeton's cucumber sandwich and an asparagus and parmesan tart.
On the sweet side we have fruit scones, which weren't exactly a fixture on the menu in the Victoria era – they came slightly later – but you can't have an afternoon tea without them! Likewise we are offering English Breakfast tea, which, although it wasn't popularised until the 1930s, is favoured today and offered alongside the more traditional Earl Grey. We are, of course, including a little Victorian sponge, as well as a gooseberry tart, a fruit that again was very popular but isn't often used today. My favourite item is the iced orange cake and there is also a lemon seed cake in a mini Bundt shape. Seed cakes were very prevalent and nearly every book I found that featured an afternoon tea included it.
The whole concept was created with the V&A's Morris Room in mind, where it will be served, from the Burleigh china specially designed by Benugo to what the waiters and waitresses are wearing. The V&A also has the first purpose-built cafe of any museum so it is imbued with history. My work, whether a collaboration like this or an installation in a gallery, is about bridging the cafe and the museum because smell, taste and other senses are closely linked to memory. You don't want to see an amazing collection and then just remember the rubbish egg sandwich you had in the cafe. It's about making the whole experience as good as you can and complementing the surroundings.
TASHA MARKS is an award-winning food historian and founder of AVM Curiosities (avmcuriosities.com), who, alongside food business Benugo (benugo.com), has created a new Victorian-inspired experience at the V&A. The Victorian Afternoon Tea is served in the museum's Morris Room every Sunday between 3 and 5:15pm from 13 November. It is priced at £30 per person or £35 with prosecco, and reservations can be made by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org; vam.ac.uk