This quintessentially British custom, which began as a light afternoon snack, has evolved into an indulgent meal, winning fans worldwide. The classic afternoon tea is now being adapted to suit regional palates.
THE ORIGINS of Afternoon Tea
The custom of afternoon tea came into practice in the 1840s, when gas-lighting was introduced in British upper class homes and it became possible, and fashionable, to take supper later in the evening. It was usual at the time to eat only two meals per day—breakfast and supper—so one influential aristocrat, the Duchess of Bedford, began to take tea with some light snacks at around 4 pm to tide her over until supper.
Over time, the Duchess began to invite her friends to take tea with her in her rooms at Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire. Soon, this boudoir meal for aristocratic ladies evolved into a social custom practised in drawing rooms throughout the country, as well as in the British colonies.
Afternoon tea gave rise to increased demand for bone china tea sets and porcelain manufacturing all over the world thrived as a result. In North America, the custom reached its zenith in the 1950s, when Emily Post, an American author, wrote an essay on proper etiquette at tea.
Traditionally enjoyed in the late afternoon, tea is now taken between 2 pm and 5 pm and can replace both lunch and dinner. In recent years, it has seen a resurgence in interest, with hotels, cafes, and tea shops around the world offering themed afternoon teas with sweets and savouries.
cream—before the jam, as per Cornish custom, or after, as done in Devon; whether to pour milk into the tea, or the tea into the milk, and so on.
Traditionally, a rich black tea, such as Darjeeing or Assam is served for afternoon tea. Afternoon blends and classic signature blends, such as Earl Grey, are also popular. Tea is always offered with a choice of milk or lemon and sugar. It is also customary to offer a variety of small crustless sandwiches, such as cucumber or smoked salmon with cream cheese, along with a sweet course of scones with jam and clotted cream, and pastries are served alongside the tea.
Today, venues offering afternoon tea are moving toward a more varied tea menu to complement the savouries and pastries on offer.
A good selection of teas from around the world is usually available, including Japanese and Chinese greens, oolongs, custom-blended teas, and fruit or herbal infusions. It’s also quite common to start an afternoon tea with a glass of Champagne. There are many variations on the food served at afternoon tea depending on where you are in the world. You could have dim sum, fresh seafood, and hors d’oeuvres, in addition to macarons, cupcakes, and cakes.