The History and Traditions of Afternoon Tea
Afternoon tea is a beloved British tradition that dates back to the early 19th century. It is a delightful and elegant affair that typically consists of a pot of tea, finger sandwiches, scones, and cakes. This quintessentially British pastime has a rich history and is still cherished and practiced today.
The tradition of afternoon tea is said to have been popularized by Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, in the 1840s. During this period, it was customary for people to have only two main meals a day—breakfast and dinner—leaving a long stretch of time between the two. The duchess would often find herself feeling hungry during this time and started requesting tea and light snacks to be served in her private chambers. This soon became a habit, and she started inviting her friends to join her for afternoon tea in her drawing room.
Word spread about the duchess’s tea parties, and the practice of afternoon tea quickly caught on among the upper classes of England. It became a popular social event, with elegant tea rooms and tea gardens cropping up across the country. The afternoon tea menu expanded to include a wider variety of delicacies, such as pastries, cakes, and sweets. The upper classes would often dress up in their finest attire and use the occasion to showcase their social status.
The etiquette and rituals of afternoon tea evolved over time and became more standardized. The afternoon tea ceremony usually begins with the selection of tea from a range of options, including black, green, herbal, and fruit teas. The tea is then brewed and served in a teapot, often accompanied by a tea strainer and a milk jug. The tea is poured into delicate porcelain cups, which are held by the handle with the pinky finger curled out—a nod to the sophistication and refinement associated with afternoon tea.
The food served during afternoon tea is equally important. Finger sandwiches are a staple, with fillings such as cucumber and cream cheese, smoked salmon, and egg and cress. Scones, which are often served warm, are typically accompanied by clotted cream and jam or lemon curd. These delectable treats are enjoyed with small, dainty bites, fostering an atmosphere of elegant leisure.
While afternoon tea originated as an upper-class social tradition, it has now become more accessible to people from all walks of life. Tearooms and hotels across Britain offer afternoon tea experiences, allowing people to indulge in this delightful tradition. Some establishments put their own spin on the experience by offering themed afternoon teas, such as Alice in Wonderland or Harry Potter-themed teas. This allows for a creative and immersive experience that adds an extra layer of fun to the tradition.
Not limited to just Britain, afternoon tea has also influenced tea culture around the world. Many countries now have their own variations of afternoon tea, each with their own unique customs and traditions. For example, in Japan, there is a traditional tea ceremony called “chado,” which involves the preparation and serving of matcha tea with Japanese sweets.
Afternoon tea continues to be an important part of British culture, allowing people to take a break from their daily routines and indulge in a moment of tranquility and indulgence. Whether enjoyed in a grand hotel or a quaint tearoom, the history and traditions of afternoon tea add an air of elegance and sophistication to this beloved tradition.