With Afternoon Tea Week taking place from August 8-14, we take a closer look at the indulgent ritual
There’s no doubt that we Brits love our tea. A mug of milky builder’s brew is practically the official national drink, and it certainly feels as if the cuppa has been part of our culture for, like, ever.
Not so, however. Because while the Chinese have been slurping the brown stuff since the third millennium BC, tea only really made it to these shores relatively recently. In the 17th century in fact, when Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza (queen to Charles II) introduced us to its wonders; she’s got a lot to answer for.
At first, tea was a luxury that only the upper echelons of society could afford, but it was soon adopted by the middle classes, and by the 19th century, dedicated tea houses had begun to pop up all over. Char was soon being drunk all across the country, and across the classes too.
It was about 200 years later, though — at around the 1840 mark — that the afternoon tea ceremony came into being. Back then it was the norm to eat only two meals a day (quelle horreur!) — breakfast, then dinner at around 8pm.
You’ve got to have sympathy, then, for Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford (and Queen Victoria’s chum), who was said to complain of “having that sinking feeling” in the late afternoon, and started asking for a pot of tea, a tray of bread and butter, and a slice of cake brought to her boudoir at around that time.
Finding it hit the spot really rather well, she started asking her mates around to share her cheeky little snack. It seemed that Anna was on to something, as word spread and, before long, ‘taking tea’ became de riguer, with upper class ladies donning their full finery for this new event between four and five.
As its popularity grew, so the ritual evolved. In warmer weather, it moved outside and the gents decided to get in on the action too, and soon anyone who was anyone was nibbling on finger sandwiches at four o’clock, just before the fashionable promenade in Hyde Park.
Somewhat confusingly, the upper classes called it ‘low tea’ while the lower classes invented their own version (taken slightly later, and involving a more substantial supper of a mug of tea, bread, veg, cheese and sometimes even meat), which was known as ‘high tea.’ (The high and low-ness of it all was to do with the height of the tables and chairs. Posh peeps would indulge while relaxing in their comfortable lounge chairs, while the less well-heeled would sit up at the family dinner table.)
These days, afternoon tea is delicate affair, treated as a special ritual and usually seen as a bit of a treat, rather than a regular part of day to- day life (sadly). A three-tiered cake stand is practically mandatory, loaded with cucumber, smoked salmon and egg and cress sandwiches (definitely sans crusts), sweet pastries and cakes and, more recently, scones with jam and cream. And, of course, a teapot or two. (If you’re doing it properly then a tea bag just won’t do — it’s got to be loose leaf all the way.)
Another recent addition (and one that we are totally in favour of) is the addition of a glass of Champagne.
It’s always fizz o’clock somewhere, right?