Tea has not been part of English culture for as long as you might think, less than 500 years, which I suppose is quite a long time, but it did not really take off until the Victorian era.
The taking of Tea, started in Britain around the middle of the 17th century, was mentioned by the famous London Diarist, Samuel Pepys, in an entry of 1660, in which he mentioned he had never tasted it before. At the time, the most popular non-alcoholic beverage was coffee and there were a plethora of ‘coffeehouses’ across Britain, indeed by the later half of the 1600s there were more than 3,000 of them. They were places of debate and business and because of this Charles II tried to suppress them, also he was a drinker and preferred tea.
Tea was generally drunk by Ladies at the time, as they were routinely banned from coffeehouses. It was made popular by Charles II’s wife, the Infanta Catherine of Braganza, who would take Tea in her boudoir and invite friends over to converse, but there was no set time for this.
It is probably important to note that Tea was expensive and unavailable to all but the wealthiest families. It was slowly and increasingly being imported into Britain by it’s international traders. It was not until the Victorian era that Tea became increasingly popular across the social and economic classes.
So that brings us onto the concept of Afternoon Tea. It is generally held that Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, invented the institution. The Duchess was suffering hunger regularly in the afternoons as Dinner was not served usually until around 8pm and the only other meal of the day, generally speaking, was Breakfast. Therefore she started to take a snack of Tea, Bread & Butter and Cake privately in her rooms. Later, as the habit became known, she would invite her friends round and it proved exceptionally popular to the society of 1840 England. Soon, all fashionable hostesses around London were inviting their friends ‘to take tea’ with them. The fashion of Afternoon Tea soon spread beyond the elite and Tea Parties, Tea Rooms and Tea Gardens sprang up everywhere.
The Afternoon Tea faded from general society in the Edwardian era and transferred to the lounges of Hotels to be served at 4pm, where it has stayed ever since. Although the tradition of the Tea Dance that accompanied our Edwardian ancestors has also faded, the Afternoon Tea has stayed and become a quintessentially British thing. Afternoon Tea is served in most hotels, some restaurants and many tea rooms around the UK.
As for the composition of Afternoon Tea, that has changed little over the course of its short history. Originally, as mentioned earlier, it was a light snack; bread, butter, maybe a slice of cake and, naturally, Tea. This soon developed into sandwiches, cake and Tea, but the introduction of Scones was not until as late as the twentieth century. It should always be served on a tiered tray and the Tea, loose leaf, should be served with a proper China Tea set.
A modern Afternoon Tea consists of a selection of finger sandwiches including cucumber, ham & mustard, egg mayonnaise and smoked salmon: Warm Scones with clotted cream and Jam (jelly to our American cousins): A selection of cakes and pastries, these are generally dainty and, naturally, a selection of Tea.
One small thing to note is that Afternoon Tea is different from High Tea. High Tea or sometimes referred to as Tea, especially in the Northern parts of England and Scotland, is actually an evening meal or dinner, traditionally of the working classes (blue collar) and was first used in the Victorian era around the same time as Afternoon Tea came about and was there to distinguish the 2 meals.
Now I am off to linger over my Afternoon Tea…