All Scones Lead to Rome
“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves — slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.”
Thich Nat Hahn
In vino Veritas. In Aqua satietas. In... What is the Latin for Tea? What! Is there no Latin word for Tea? Upon my soul, if I had known that I would have let the vulgar stuff alone.
Hilaire Belloc, "On Tea," 1908
The image could not be more quintessentially British: the tiered cake stand overflowing with dainty sandwiches, cakes and scones while a loose leaf tea brews in an heirloom pot and peals of carefully calibrated laughter ring out and bounce off of artfully decorated salon walls. Afternoon tea is more than an institution, it occupies the collective imagination of what makes Britain British, in the fanciful way that such sweeping generalisations tend to spread. For those of us not from the UK, we imagine that every home has its cake stand at the ready and a pot of tea on at all times. For those of us who are from the UK, we scoff at the idea of such a cartoonish depiction, but we secretly love a good afternoon tea. The debate over Cornish v. Devon style scone (jam then cream v. cream then jam) continues to rage on, with no resolution in sight.
But wait, you're thinking- this is supposed to be a blog about two people living in Italy, and all of the wonderful and highly typical Italian things that happen to them. You know, all those wacky Italian hijinks they get up to, and all the really awesome authentic Italian food they eat…
And you would be absolutely right.
Because what if I told you that actually, the late afternoon snack that is almost a meal has a history that is literally millennia longer in Italy than it is in the UK? And that in fact, in terms of laying claim to things, the Romans and Etruscans were having their afternoon tea while Britannia was still the land of the painted people?
Indeed it was only in 1840 that afternoon tea began, with the easily bored and even more easily amused Anna, Duchess of Bedford demanding that something be done about the dip in blood sugar that seemed to visit around 4 pm. Luckily for her the Earl of Sandwich had made his name more than a century before whilst battling the twin demons of gambling and hunger, and the sandwich was as rightfully popular as ever (more on sandwiches another day). The late afternoon snack took off like wildfire soon after, with the leisure classes making ever more elaborate preparations for their drawing room tables to be laid and the lower and middle classes having their own pause for an earlier dinner or, high tea. That afternoon tea so perfectly coalesced with the heights of both Victorian etiquette and British colonial expansion made it one of the most recognizable and ubiquitous practices of British social life.
But actually, the afternoon pause and subsequent snacking were an integral part of the Roman meal structure. The merenda, or mid-afternoon meal, originally began as the noonday meal and had the connotation of food that was to be earned by working. As the latin prandium became the more accepted term for lunch, the merenda was pushed back further into the day, and its significance changed as a result. While it still remained a part of the working man's meal schedule it often contained sweet foods or treats similar to what a larger breakfast would have been. Thus it went from being foods that one had to earn before eating to a treat that one could reward oneself with for having earned. So while the Roman relationship to food was always an amorous one, the merenda was a particular moment of indulgence and satisfaction. By the 1500's the merenda was any outdoor or celebratory meal (which we would later call a picnic) eaten in leisure with friends and family, and the tradition of small dishes with hot drinks in the late afternoon continues in many of the countries still within the Latin orbit. During this same period, the English outright condemned eating in between meals, specifically the “mid afternoon merenda and late night collations”. The poor Duchess of Bedford would have been famished.
With all this in mind, if we're thinking about what is authentically Italian in terms of the types of meals and meal structure that have defined this region for centuries, shouldn't we be thinking about how wonderful it might be to have a proper merenda? Because there is something quite special about those hours after the heat of the afternoon begins to finally wane, when young and old alike emerge from a siesta and haven't yet shaken off the last drops of sleep. Those are innocent moments, when it's not quite the time for an aperitivo but something needs to be drank, and a stiff shot of espresso is a too fast, too brutal re-introduction to the world of the woken.
And let's be clear about one thing: new or not so new, no one knows the value of a good cup of tea better than the British, and nothing makes those first steps out of the midday fog nicer than a bit of cake and a scone. But rather than quibble over who has rights to what, shouldn't we be figuring out how to bring these two traditions together? Because let's be honest, British friends- how much would you love a proper afternoon tea in the waning rays of the Tuscan sun? Can't you just see the Instagram likes cascading onto your profile?
And Italian friends, are you saying that you wouldn't be able to tuck into some local cheeses sandwiched together with fresh herbs and salad, followed by some jam, clotted cream, and scones, all washed down with a real cup of tea? Or better yet, a chilled prosecco? Are you saying that every now and then you couldn't forego some stale potato chips and peanuts at the local aperitivo bar for a crumbly, delicious pecorino scone?
(We did say this was a culinary project, after all. Challenge accepted.)