More ambitious cooks or students of history might want to consult "Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management." This volume, originally published in 1861, is what real-life Mrs. Crawleys would have used to instruct their staffs on what to serve for tea — things such as tea cakes and biscuits — but instructions in it are often vague compared to the step-by-step instructions in our cookbooks today.
Those who want to give their tea a modern, California twist might take a cue from pastry chef William Werner, whose patisserie, Craftsman and Wolves in San Francisco's Mission district, serves tea every weekday afternoon.
There's no chintz or flowery tidbit trays here. Werner serves his savory ginger-scallion madeleines, buckwheat crumpets and almond-elderflower tea cakes on a simple, wooden three-tiered serving stand that fits Craftsman and Wolves' modern look.
"We've had guys come in with their significant others and actually enjoy afternoon tea, because it's not dainty and frilly," he says.
According to Werner, even tea purists have been really happy with it, although Downton Abbey's acerbic dowager countess, played by Maggie Smith, may find it too avant-garde. She did, after all, find electricity to be unnecessary.
Tea and the rituals surrounding it — both from a British and an Asian perspective — are becoming more popular, says food anthropologist Linda Wyner, who runs Pans on Fire, a Pleasanton cookware store.
Both Wyner and the Thorpes agree that afternoon tea is more than just food and drink. It's also about the art of conversation and socializing.
"We don't follow a lot of ritual (surrounding food) anymore," Wyner says. "To sit down for an hour and do nothing but sip tea and talk about the day's events or world politics, that's what people aspire to — to have that kind of leisure."
Well, that and a really good scone. With lime curd.