Spots of tea
March 1, 2023
By Karen Barr
Discover trends on a teatime tour in southern Ireland
While visiting Ireland, there is always a warm welcome, with the offer of a steaming cup of tea. Five-star city hotels, lavish country escapes and castles are some of the places to enjoy afternoon tea. The country is also filled with lovely small hotels, inns, and family-run bed and breakfasts that offer a more pared down menu.
The Savoy, Limerick
At The Savoy, a five-star hotel in the historic city of Limerick, full afternoon tea is served in the playful library, with booklined walls, painted in blue, pink and burgundy. This is where mothers and daughters, couples and friends sit to catch up together on the weekend.
Pastry chef Joanne Flaherty suggests guests order Irish breakfast tea. “It’s what the Irish drink,” she says simply. As an add-in there is prosecco or even champagne.
Sandwiches are traditional and lightly seasoned. Think eggs with mayonnaise, or chicken, with a delicate curry dressing. A favourite is local smoked salmon on soda bread, with chive and cream cheese.
As for scones, Flaherty uses Kerry Gold 80 per cent salted butter. “I use salted butter because it’s already balanced. I don’t have to guess how much salt to add. Then, she adds, “To make the perfect scone, start with cold ingredients. When combining, give the dough only one or two turns.”
Traditional tea cakes including carrot cake, banana bread, and lemon loaf are all made in small loaf pans for an elegant presentation. The lemon cake is particularly flavourful, with the addition of lemon oil.
The dessert menu changes daily, at the discretion of Flaherty, who gives a nod to both French and North American styles. Raspberry macarons are sublime, sandwiched together with raspberry jam. The opera cake is perfectly constructed and lends a stronger flavour. There is even a small sugar doughnut filled with Callebaut chocolate. The miniature Oreo cheesecake has a digestive biscuit crust. “They don’t make Graham crackers, in Ireland,” she notes.
Children are also welcomed to join in the festivities of afternoon tea. Here, Flaherty has created a menu just for the little ones. Childhood sandwich favourites include roast chicken, and ham and cheese. Both scones and muffins are served with mixed berry jam. The beverage of choice is hot chocolate, with mini marshmallows, along with homemade chocolate chip cookies, and skewers of fruit.
Sheen Falls Lodge, Kenmare
Minutes outside the countryside village of Kenmare, in County Kerry, sits the stunning Sheen Falls Lodge. The five-star Relais and Chateaux property is a hideaway surrounded by nature. Sheen Falls and the babbling river provide a lovely view from the drawing room, where a lavish afternoon tea is served. Guests perch on winged backed chairs, complete with large pillows.
There are standout teas. The Irish whiskey cream tea adds a subtle sweetness of pure delight to the palate. The house blend is the Sheen Falls Lodge Irish breakfast.
However, Pedro Mathius, the pastry chef, sometimes prefers a different hot beverage. “On cold winter days, I prefer one of my divine hot chocolate drinks.”
To make this, he boils equal parts whole milk and cream together. Next, he adds a bit of brown sugar, along with a mix of dark and milk chocolate. “You can also add extra flavours like cinnamon, orange blossom or Szechuan pepper. Don’t forget the whipped cream on top!”
The sandwiches are delicious, with smoked salmon on rounds of homemade brown bread, made using a combination of the famous Irish Guinness beer and buttermilk. Crab with mayo and crème fraiche are presented on toasted rectangle of homemade sourdough.
Raisin and plain scones include a gentle sprinkle of icing sugar. A chef tip for perfect scones: “Don’t twist the cutter.” Clotted cream, homemade strawberry jam, seasonal berries, and a tart lemon curd are served alongside.
Of the three-tiered feast, the top dessert plate draws the most attention. Tall glass cylinders filled with lemon mousse provide even greater heights. Of all the afternoon tea desserts that rotate daily, Mathius has favourites. His pecan pie is made with a filling of toasted pecans, house-made apple puree, vanilla bean and eggs. Another is the chocolate brownie, with milk chocolate whiskey cremeux and milk chocolate glaze.
Ballyseede Castle, Tralee
Spend a night at a real Irish castle. Ballyseede Castle is set on extensive grounds, in Tralee, on the coast of County Kerry. Guests are treated to an afternoon tea, served on colourful patterned china, in one of the lavishly decorated public rooms. “All our ingredients come from local producers. We are surrounded by some of the best farmlands in Ireland. We even grow berries on site, with plans for expanding our gardens,” says Jonathon Sadlier, the executive chef.
As a family-run castle hotel, owned by Marnie Corscadden and Rory O’Sullivan, with a small kitchen team, everyone from pastry cooks to the executive chef pitches in to create afternoon tea. The menu changes seasonally.
All the breads are crafted in the castle’s kitchen. The Guinness Bread recipe contains both plain and whole wheat flours, along with eggs, nutmeg, ginger, treacle and the famous Irish beer. Combined with Irish smoked salmon the afternoon tea sandwich is mouthwatering. Freshwater prawns, with Marie Rose sauce, and shredded iceberg lettuce, rest on wholemeal soda bread.
Signature scones benefit from rich Irish butter and full-fat milk. “With your dry mixture you need to create a well in the centre and add in the wet mixture in two stages. Stir until all combined. Don’t overmix, and this will keep the scones fluffy,” explains pastry cook Vivienne Dineen.
There are the familiar tea cakes, such as squares of moist carrot cake, with decadent frosting and a sprinkle of walnuts. Gorgeously fresh pistachio, and raspberry macarons, add sophistication and colour to the plate. The delicate, two-bite berry custard tarts are always popular.
Plans for the St. Patrick’s Day afternoon tea are already made Sadlier confides. Think cabbage and bacon scones. Dark chocolate mousse, topped with white chocolate mousse will be placed in a chocolate cup and constructed to look like a pint of Guinness.
Castlewood House, Dingle
Castlewood House, in the oceanside town of Dingle, an hour south of Tralee, is a small 12-room property owned by Brian Heaton and Helen Woods Heaton. The couple spent years working in the hospitality field before becoming entrepreneurs, 17 years ago.
Guests gather in the afternoon, reclining in the drawing room overlooking the Dingle Bay. “I have been collecting china for a few years and just love it,” Woods Heaton says. “So, what better way to share it than to use it for afternoon tea.”
Scones and desserts are nestled inside a glass-domed cake platter. “The scones are made to my mother’s recipe. Short on the outside and fluffy inside,” she says.
A crowd pleaser is the Irish whiskey chocolate cake, made using rich dark chocolate. If visiting in September, wild blackberries are in season. Guests will enjoy blackberries as filling and garnishes for afternoon tea desserts. The couple and their three children like to pick the blackberries themselves on fun family outings.
Afternoon tea in Ireland is a time of pleasure, filled with warm hospitality, steaming tea, and divine savoury and sweet bites.
Karen Barr writes about arts, culture and cuisine. She is a graduate of George Brown College and a Red Seal pastry chef.
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