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Afternoon Tea - A Great British Tradition

Updated: Jun 5


I went out for afternoon tea with friends recently and it got me thinking about this great British tradition and how it all started. Did you know that afternoon tea has been a British tradition for over two centuries

That mid-afternoon slump and craving for something sweet is usually remedied with putting the kettle on and reaching for the biscuits. But drinking tea and eating a snack at 3pm used to be a much more refined affair. In fact, it’s traced to the tradition of taking afternoon tea – a civilised event that has increased in popularity again in recent years.

As much as afternoon tea is loved for its cute finger sandwiches, elegant desserts and restorative drinks, it’s also an occasion in itself. The how, where and with whom you indulge is just as important as what you indulge in. And we can thank one fine lady’s peckishness and desire for a good chit-chat for the whole affair.

Tea drinking had been the height of sophistication in Britain since the 1660s, when it was popularised by King Charles II and his Portuguese wife, Catherine of Braganza. But it wasn’t for everyone: hefty price tags meant tea was the preserve of the aristocracy.

It had also long been the fashion for aristocratic families to just have two main meals a day: a substantial breakfast and an evening meal, supplemented by a light lunch. But by 1840, with the advent of kerosene lamp lighting, dinner was eaten later – and Anna Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford complained of a “sinking feeling” around 4pm, what we now call the afternoon slump. Anna started ordering a tray of tea, bread and butter, and cake to her room around mid-afternoon, and invited friends to join her.

When Anna came to London, she brought afternoon tea with her and it soon caught on among the great and the good, then shortly after, skyrocketed with a royal endorsement. Lifelong friend Queen Victoria loved the idea and began to enjoy having light cake with buttercream and fresh raspberries – later known as Victoria sponge – to accompany her precious cup of tea. Ladies came for tea dressed in finery and, as the gatherings got bigger, they moved to the drawing room. When summer arrived, afternoon tea relocated to glorious, high society gardens. Tea was still a delicacy so serving it to a large number of guests in the beautiful grounds of your huge home was a way to display wealth. Tea would be served from elegant silver teapots into fine bone china cups, with dainty morsels carefully presented on low tables as the ladies relaxed in parlour chairs. My husband used to laugh at me when I insisted on a bone china mug for my cup of tea. I must have some aristocratic blood somewhere 😂 but, believe me, it really does make a difference to the taste. Try it!

The 'At Home' tea evolved and quickly spread throughout England. Announcements about tea were sent to relatives and friends stating at what hour the tea would be served. Sometimes entertainment was provided but more often it was simply a conversation and a little idle gossip over tea and cakes. If 'At Home' notices were received the guest was expected to attend unless regrets were sent. There was at least one person holding an at home each day and social ties were quickly established with women seeing each other so regularly. The taking of tea gradually spread from the home and out into society in general. Tea Parties became the norm and Tea Rooms, and Tea Gardens quickly sprang up everywhere. During the Edwardian period, the 'At Home' faded as the desire to travel increased. Tea was now served at four o'clock in the new tea lounges of luxury hotels, the Ritz being one of the most famous, and high-end stores such as Fortnum and Mason, and was often accompanied by light music and sometimes even a little dancing.

By the late 19th century, tea prices had become more affordable, allowing the burgeoning middle classes to partake in the sophisticated afternoon tea ritual. It spread across Britain and even to the USA. Tea dances became something of a phenomenon and lasted until well after the Second World War, but then gradually disappeared. The two World Wars radically changed the taking of afternoon tea, especially with tea rationing continuing into the 50's but the custom survived until well into the mid-20th century. However, as the British began their love affair with coffee bars, sadly, afternoon tea became little more than a morsel of faded British tradition to dangle before tourists.

Fast forward to the 21st century though and afternoon tea at the Ritz is now one of the hardest-to-book dining experiences in London. And outside the famous Betty's Tea Rooms in Yorkshire, queues circle the block. Come three o'clock, up and down the country, hotel dining rooms are full and tables groan under the weight of stands jam-packed with cakes and scones. Teas are back once again and in a big way.

Ironically, it is the economic downturn which began around 2008 that is credited for this revival. The return to more traditional values and homely pursuits is more prevalent when money is tight, it seems.

There is one big difference, however. In the duchess' time, tea neatly filled a gap in the day. Today, afternoon tea tends to replace lunch and diminish the need for a large dinner. 'Stay at Home' mums use afternoon tea as a way to meet and eat. And, what better way to use up time on a wet, cold 'staycation' than a few hours lingering over tea and scones? So fashionable is afternoon tea now that brides on a budget are choosing to serve it instead of the formal sit-down meal. And even Spas around the country are serving afternoon tea as part of a spa day out.

Afternoon tea is still not a regular part of the day for the majority of us though but it does remain a royal tradition. Queen Elizabeth II reportedly takes afternoon tea every day which consists of dainty, crustless sandwiches, sweet treats and scones.

What makes a proper afternoon tea?

Today afternoon tea in the UK is usually served in hotels and the odd surviving specialist tea room. And, contrary to what many overseas visitors to Britain believe, it is usually reserved for special occasions – a birthday, anniversary or special day out – rather than a daily event. But its constituent parts have changed little since the days of Anna, the Duchess of Bedford.

A selection of teas, such as Assam, Earl Grey, Darjeeling and Lapsang Souchong, should be served in pots and poured into teacups.

Sandwiches, cut delicately into fingers with crusts off and thoroughly English fillings like cucumber and egg mayonnaise, are presented on a cake stand with bite-size cakes and pastries. Scones with clotted cream and jam are often also served, but these didn’t become a regular feature until the 20th century.

Good manners should also be observed. During afternoon tea, teacups should only be raised when drinking and pinkie fingers are never poked out. When not drinking, teacups should always rest on the saucer. Sticklers for tradition may also like to make biscuits available, as was the fashion in the 19th century to allow the most demure ladies to eat a little something while keeping their gloves on.

What are the different types of afternoon tea?

High tea

Afternoon tea, or 'low tea' (traditionally served on low tables - hence the name) is sometimes mistakenly called high tea, which is a very different affair. It was a hearty meal served early in the evening in working-class homes during the 18th and 19th century after a hard day at work. The main meal of the day, it consisted of a mug of tea, bread, vegetables, cheese and occasionally meat served on the ‘high’, or main dining table. It’s why many people still call their evening meal their tea.

Cream tea

Scones have been eaten in Devon and Cornwall since the 11th century but it took the advent of the railway network and refrigeration to popularise the cream tea – taking tea with scones generously spread with clotted cream and preserves. Day-trippers to the seaside in the early 20th century would take the tradition home with them and scones would soon become an afternoon tea staple.

Strawberry tea

The addition of fresh strawberries to a cream tea makes it a strawberry tea.

Champagne tea

Afternoon tea developed when ladies drinking alcohol at all, let alone in the afternoon, was somewhat frowned upon. But not so today and many hotels now offer menus that include a glass of champagne with afternoon tea.

I am quite partial to a nice 'cuppa' in the afternoon, often accompanied with cake or biscuits and I do love going out for afternoon tea but I often have my tea and cake at home.

Did you know that I also make cakes for less formal occasions? If, like me, you enjoy a piece of cake with your cup of tea, take a look at my everyday cakes to see if there is something that you fancy. I'd be happy to let you have a no obligation quote. You can contact me in several ways:

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email juliascake.eatit@gmail.com

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