Cucumber Sandwiches – that old English High Tea Tradition

Whilst visiting Ceylon Tea Trails two weeks ago I was presented with the most delicious cucumber sandwich at high tea. Whilst not a great lover of “High Tea’s”; one because it interferes with my sunset beer and spicy salty nibbles, two because I frankly have not had that many due to the fact that I am not from English aristocracy or sufficiently affluent to be able to afford eating out at any other time other than lunch or dinner (you don’t seriously expect me to slave away in the kitchen all day just to prepare a dainty sandwich and a home-made scone to accompany a cup of tea??).

Well almost not! The cucumber sandwich at Tea Trails was so good that I have tried to recreate it at home today. Before I give you the recipe, here’s a little history of the little dainty sandwiches that accompany a high tea…

It is the sandwich that defines the English high (or afternoon) tea: its presentation and filling; its size and shape and slenderness; whether it is with or without the crust. Tea sandwiches should know their place—that is, before the scones and well before the cakes.

 It was in 1840 that Anna Maria Stanhope, seventh Duchess of Bedford, hit upon the idea of afternoon tea, a light repast designed to bridge the lengthy gap between lunch and dinner, which in fashionable circles wasn’t taken until 8pm. The sandwiches served at teatime are just filling enough to inhibit overindulgence in the scones, cream and jam, and iced ginger and chocolate cakes.
Afternoon tea at Ceylon Tea Trails complete with cucumber sandwiches
Afternoon tea at Ceylon Tea Trails complete with cucumber sandwiches

The cucumber sandwich may well be the apotheosis of the English teatime snack, immortalized in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest when Lady Bracknell arrives for tea, only to find that her nephew, Algernon, has scoffed the lot. Consequently he is forced to tell a little lie, with his butler’s connivance: namely that “there were no cucumbers in the market this morning… not even for ready money”.

Many varieties of the cucumber sandwich exist nowadays, the Americans have added cream cheese, mint, dill and even ground raw garlic or onion powder (which to me sounds tasty but defeats the object of having a light teatime snack) etc., the Indians (particularly during cricket matches) sometimes add green chutney and slices of boiled potato. The original, however, was just very finely sliced bread with butter and skinned slices of cucumber sprinkled with salt, pepper and a dash of lemon juice.

Cucumber sandwich
Cucumber sandwich

I didn’t want anything too fancy so I took the basics and added some different but subtle touches:

Ingredients (serves two or three):

  • 1/4 cup very finely chopped chives (in Sri Lanka I used the leaves of the tiny red shallots). You could use fresh mint here too but I couldn’t find it in Sri Lanka
  • 2 tablespoons salted butter
  • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise (I used Hellmans…it has to be thick mayo not runny)
  • 6 slices of bread (sandwich bread is good because it is dense…white or brown, although I would prefer brown – I only had white today)
  • 3-inch length of cucumber
  • salt
  • pepper
  • lemon (or lime) juice to taste


  • Firstly mix the mayonnaise with the chives (and/or mint) and some salt and pepper (and lemon juice if desired but take not to make it too runny) in a bowl. Chill.
  • Warm the butter to room temperature so it is spreadable.
  • Slice the cucumber as finely as you like it. Skin it first if desired.
  • Spread the butter on 3 slices of bread and ensure there are no holes for the cucumber juices to make the bread soggy.
  • Arrange the sliced cucumber on the buttered slices and dust with salt, pepper & lemon (lime) juice.
  • Spread the remaining 3 slices liberally with the chilled mayo mixture
  • Put these slices onto the bread slices with cucumber, gently push down and slice into slim fingers or little triangles (take the crust off if desired for a more authentic effect)

Brew a cup of tea and enjoy!

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