“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”
Afternoon tea, that most quintessential of English customs is, perhaps surprisingly, a relatively new tradition. Whilst the custom of drinking tea dates back to the third millennium BC in China and was popularised in England during the 1660s by King Charles II and his wife the Portuguese Infanta Catherine de Braganza, it was not until the mid 19th century that the concept of ‘afternoon tea’ first appeared.
Afternoon tea was introduced in England by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in the year 1840. The Duchess would become hungry around four o’clock in the afternoon. The evening meal in her household was served fashionably late at eight o’clock, thus leaving a long period of time between lunch and dinner. The Duchess asked that a tray of tea, bread and butter (some time earlier, the Earl of Sandwich had had the idea of putting a filling between two slices of bread) and cake be brought to her room during the late afternoon. This became a habit of hers and she began inviting friends to join her.
This pause for tea became a fashionable social event. During the 1880’s upper-class and society women would change into long gowns, gloves and hats for their afternoon tea which was usually served in the drawing room between four and five o’clock.
Traditional afternoon tea consists of a selection of dainty sandwiches (including of course thinly sliced cucumber sandwiches), scones served with clotted cream and preserves. Cakes and pastries are also served. Tea grown in India or Ceylon is poured from silver tea pots into delicate bone china cups.
Nowadays however, in the average suburban home, afternoon tea is likely to be just a biscuit or small cake and a mug of tea, usually produced using a teabag. Sacrilege!
To experience the best of the afternoon tea tradition, indulge yourself with a trip to one of London’s finest hotels or visit a quaint tearoom in the west country. The Devonshire Cream Tea is famous world wide and consists of scones, strawberry jam and the vital ingredient, Devon clotted cream, as well as cups of hot sweet tea served in china teacups. Many of the other counties in England’s west country also claim the best cream teas: Dorset, Cornwall and Somerset.
There are a wide selection of hotels in London offering the quintessential afternoon tea experience . Hotels offering traditional afternoon tea include Claridges, the Dorchester, the Ritz and the Savoy, as well as Harrods and Fortnum and Mason.
John Wesley deplored it, Samuel Pepys was an early adopter and George Orwell wrote an essay on how to make it perfectly – for 358 years, the British people have had a love affair with tea. Today, Google is celebrating the nation’s favourite drink with a doodle. The quirky animation shows a teabag with a union jack tag (followed by a strainer, sugar, milk and honey) being dunked in a succession of cheerful cups.
On 23 September 1658, the London republican newspaper Mercurius Politicus carried the first advert for tea in the British isles, announcing that a “China drink called by the Chinese, Tcha, by other Nations Tay alias Tee” was available in a coffee house in the city. But it was tea addict Catherine of Braganza – wife of Charles II – who turned it into a fashionable drink.
Soon the middle classes were drinking it, huge taxes were whacked on it, and tea-smuggling became a serious problem. It took William Pitt the Younger to see sense and remove the taxes before the working class could afford to settle down for a nice brew. By the mid-18th century, tea had became the country’s most popular drink – pushing ale and gin from their place in British hearts.
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Before long, the East India Company was using tea clippers, such as the Cutty Sark, to bring the harvest from India and China as fast as possible, and, in 1908, the teabag was invented, revolutionising the making of the 165m cups of tea drunk in the UK every day.
Yet tea time is now under threat. It has been five years since ordinary teabag sales started to fall (5% this year to £614m), apparently because younger people have fallen out of love with builder’s brew. While a third of 55- to 64-year-olds have a restorative cup of char more than five times a day, only 16% of 16- to 34-year-olds do the same. Sales of green tea, on the other hand, have shot up.
One thing that is not yet over is the storm in a teacup: in June, Aung San Suu Kyi was slammed as a “disgrace” by the grandson of former dictator General Ne Win – for serving Lipton tea at a banquet. “It should be at least Twinning’s [sic] Earl Grey or Fortnum and Mason’s Queen Anne Tea,” he wrote on Facebook.
- This article was amended on 23 September to correct references to the United Kingdom in 1658. The United Kingdom came into existence in 1707.