Unbeknownst to many, the ritual of afternoon tea, the most renowned British tradition par excellence, is a rather new tradition.
Tea drinking dates back to more ancient times, indeed to the 3rd Millennium B.C. in China but it became popular in England in the 1660s thanks to King Charles II and his Portuguese spouse, the Infanta Catherine de Breganza. However, the concept of having afternoon tea didn’t come on the scene until the mid-19th century.
It was around this time, more specifically, in 1840, that Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford is said to have complained of having a “sinking feeling” during the late afternoon. Up until that time, it was customary for people to eat only twice a day, at breakfast and at dinner time, which was at about 8 p.m. This meant that there was a long time between the two meals. The Duchess found a solution in savouring a pot a tea consisted of a tray of tea, with some bread and butter and cake, which she privately indulged in during the afternoon in her private boudoir. Some time earlier, the Earl of Sandwich came up with the innovative idea of putting a filling between two slices of bread, thus the sandwich as we know it today came to be. This “afternoon tea ritual” soon became a regular occurrence at Woburn Abbey and she was known to invite friends around too.
Other social hostesses soon picked up on the idea and afternoon tea became a respectable enough practice to move it the into the drawing room and before long all, it became a fashionable social event where members of the jet set were sipping tea and munching on sandwiches between 4 and 5 p.m. However, it officially became a formal occasion when Queen Victoria started to engage in the ritual of partaking in afternoon tea delicacies.
You can often find hotels and sophisticated coffee houses serving ‘high tea’. Upper class citizens were known to serve a ‘low’ or ‘afternoon’ tea at around four o’clock, prior to the customary walk through Hyde Park that was all the rage at that time. While members of the middle and lower classes indulged in a more substantial ‘high’ tea at about 5-6 p.m. instead of having a dinner later on in the evening. The names of the meals actually originate from the height of the tables on which the meals were served.
Afternoon tea menu
When one thinks of afternoon tea, the first thing that springs to mind is that it involves elements like etiquette, lace and exquisite, dainty food.
An afternoon tea menu is generally very light and consists of crust-less finger sandwiches usually on buttered bread with fine slices of cucumber, smoked salmon or chopped boiled egg and watercress. Scones are also served with clotted cream and preserves such as marmalade or lemon curd.
Popular tea blends for this afternoon break include black teas (made with loose tea leaves and using a tea strainer) such as Earl Grey and Assam or herbal teas like chamomile and mint.
Afternoon tea etiquette
Afternoon tea is traditionally served in three courses on a 3-tiered curate stand alongside a pot of tea with one’s finest porcelain crockery . The order in which afternoon tea delicacies should be eaten will be described below.
Although afternoon tea is considered to be a rather formal affair, it actually requires eating with your fingers and not cutlery.
Tea sandwiches and savoury items should be eaten first in at most 2-3 bites. You shouldn’t touch any food that you are not going to eat, and these should be eaten off your plate.
Finish all the tea sandwiches and savouries prior to passing onto the second course.
Scones must be served with clotted cream and jam (usually strawberry) alongside a selection of other preserves including lemon curd. Scones must also be eaten with your fingers.
Select the scone you will be eating from your plate. Using the spoons provided, put a dab of jam and clotted cream onto your plate.
Knives are used to spread the jam and cream onto your scones.
Do not use the same spoon for both the jam and the clotted cream. Most importantly, do not use the serving spoon to put the jam or cream directly onto your scone.
The desserts are the third and final course of the afternoon tea ritual and like the previous courses, this course must be eaten with your fingers.
All pastries and sweets should be dainty delicacies which can be consumed in 2-3 bites.
Although several foreign visitors to the UK still believe that afternoon tea is a customary habit where everyone stops for a cuppa, unfortunately, afternoon tea has now become a luxury for the British too; perhaps savoured during a birthday treat in a hotel out in the country, or a weekend break after going on a spending spree in the city.
Apart from being able to indulge in expensive afternoon tea served at sophisticated restaurants and coffee houses such as The Ritz, or Claridge’s in London to name but a few, there are also many other locations worthy of note throughout the UK in which you can savour this traditional ritual.
A particular way to enjoy afternoon tea in London is the Brigit’s Bakery Afternoon Tea Bus Tour (see https://b-bakery.com/london/bus-tours/afternoon-tea-bus-london) or go to Betty’s Tea Rooms in Harrogate or York (see: https://www.bettys.co.uk/traditional-afternoon-tea ).
Nowadays, afternoon tea is normally savoured within the comfort of your own home with a piping hot cuppa (made with a teabag) and a selection of biscuits to dunk in your tea or perhaps a quick sandwich with a filling of your choice to keep the hunger pangs at bay until your evening meal.