The waiter at London's Dorchester Hotel, clad in a smart black tuxedo and bow tie, hovered discreetly beside a marble pillar, waiting for my signal.
"Would you care for tea, Madam?" he finally murmured, bowing and motioning me toward a low table surrounded by upholstered chairs, and set with a white tablecloth, silver cutlery and Wedgwood china.
At last, the moment I'd anticipated: afternoon tea at the Dorchester, the creme de la clotted creme of teas served with piles of finger sandwiches and no crusts, sweet pastries and, chiefly, authentic English scones.
English scones are, to my mind, the country's signature food, a biscuit that is light but hearty, plain but not sweet. A first cousin to baking powder biscuits, scones make a meal by themselves when spread thick with traditional condiments: butter, strawberry jam and clotted cream (more later on this strange dairy product).
Though whole nations have come and gone in the 63 years since the Dorchester served its first "cuppa," high tea at this venerable hotel seems likely to survive indefinitely. The English, after all, drink 512 million cups of tea each year, and show no sign of letting up.
But tea as the centerpiece of a meal is a much younger custom. Though tea-drinking began in earnest around 1660, it wasn't until 1840 that Anna, seventh Duchess of Bedford, decided to add sandwiches and sweets as a late afternoon pick-me-up.
Her casual soirees were soon the buzz of London, and by 1880, teatime was a formal social event for the nobs, and a cheap but filling supper for everybody else.
Today, tea at the Dorchester, served daily between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., is as carefully staged as any Japanese tea ceremony and begins when you choose your brew. Lapsang, Jasmine or Darjeeling perhaps? Or will it be China, Earl Grey or Tisane?
Cold milk goes into the cup first, then the hot tea is added. Presently a tray piled with bite-size sandwiches appears, of white and brown bread filled with smoked salmon, cheese and olives, thin-sliced cucumbers, prawns and smoked ham.
Now the second course is borne to the table on a silver platter: scones seconded by butter, strawberry jam and a dish of clotted cream. More tea is poured and the pastry cart rolls within range, laden with lemon tarts, eclairs and sponge cake. Conversation hums, the pianist at the Steinway patters out old favorites, and you find yourself wondering if you could make scones at home.
Fortunately, nothing could be easier, says Willi Eisener, the Dorchester's executive chef who inherited the original scone recipe when he joined the hotel in 1986. Chary of meddling with success, he turned it over to his pastry chef, Sous Chef Stuart Pate.
Mr. Pate, 32, a native of Devon, where a pot of strong tea, a plate heaped with tomato, cucumber, egg salad and tuna sandwiches, scones and a sweet tart occasionally still make a supper, learned scone-making at his mother's bread-board.
For scone-meister Pate, turning out 500 scones a day is a walk in Hyde Park. His staff of three bake 200 scones for breakfast, half with sultanas (golden raisins) and half with bits of apple. After lunch, 300 more go into the oven for the 150 to 180 teas served on a typical afternoon.
For successful scone-baking at home, Mr. Pate offers the following hints: Be sure to mix the dry and wet ingredients quickly, not over-beating the dough; excessive stirring makes scones dense and tough. Second, let the finished dough rest for an hour before baking, to make them light and high.
Though American and English ingredients vary slightly, Mr. Pate discounts the differences. His recipe calls for sultanas and castor sugar, a white sugar ground finely to pour easily. Both are hard to find in the United States, but regular white sugar and yellow or brown raisins do as well.
Mr. Pate also pooh-poohs differences in flours. But he does recommend trying to find fresh eggs that have been kept cool but not refrigerated. "Eggs have natural enzymes that break down during refrigeration," he says.
Though the average Brit no longer makes clotted cream at home (because of laws controlling dairy products), I was curious to find out how it used to be done. Mr. Pate's mother, who still makes it herself, does it this way: First she fills a 2-quart saucepan with unhomogenized milk (the butter fat left in). Fresh from the cow is best. She simmers the milk for two to three hours, boiling away the excess water. Then she drains the remainder through a muslin cloth, packs it into a bowl and refrigerates it. The crust that forms during chilling is part of the finished cream.
Makes 10 to 12 scones
1 2/3 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/3 cup salted butter
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup sultanas, or any other raisins
EGG WASH GLAZE:
1 whole egg
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon milk
To prepare scones, combine flour, sugar and baking powder. Cut butter into dry ingredients until mixture is like fine crumbs.
Beat egg and milk in separate bowl. Pour slowly into flour mixture, stirring to form semi-soft dough. Mix in sultanas but do not overbeat. Cover dough and allow to rest 10 minutes.
With minimum of handling, roll ball of dough out on floured board to 3/4 -inch thick. Cut into 2-inch rounds with cookie cutter or floured drinking glass. Place scones 1 inch apart on greased or nonstick baking sheet.
To prepare Egg Wash Glaze, whisk together egg, egg yolks and milk. Brush tops of scones with glaze. Let rest 1 hour. Bake at 450 degrees 10 to 15 minutes.