Afternoon tea is a Great British tradition enjoyed by millions of thirsty natives and curious tourists alike. But where did the idea come from, and what are the essentials that no true British afternoon tea can be without? Take a look at the past and the present of this quintessentially delicious pleasure…
For the genesis of afternoon tea, one must travel back to 1840, just three years after Queen Victoria succeeded to the British throne. And its invention is credited to one member of the nobility who just couldn’t wait to have her dinner.
Anna Russell was the seventh Duchess of Bedford and lived at the sumptuous Woburn Abbey, on the border between Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. But while she lived a luxurious lifestyle, she was caught out by shifting traditions around meal-times. In the 19th century, providing artificial lighting to homes through candles and lamps was increasingly practical and cost-effective, and as a result, many households were having dinner later and later into the evenings.
This simply didn’t work for the duchess, who found herself getting hungry in the late afternoons, often several hours before dinner was to be served. So she started asking for tea, cake and bread and butter to be brought to her, in order to tide her over until dinner. And soon enough, she saw the opportunity to turn this mini-meal time into a social occasion by inviting her friends to join her.
By the later years of Queen Victoria’s reign, the concept of ‘afternoon tea’ had spread like wildfire and had become a social essential, whether at home or in the tea rooms that had sprung up across the country. The expected dress when taking afternoon tea had become more elaborate: hats, gloves and gowns becoming the traditional norm. The food available diversified, too, with scones, pastries, clotted cream and small sandwiches accompanying cake on the menu.
But one staple remained untouched – tea. And 180 years later, that remains the case. Afternoon tea is still enjoyed up and down the land, even if the gowns and hats have fallen by the wayside.
So alongside delicious food and refreshing tea, what makes for the perfect afternoon tea experience? Here are four bits of kit no tea party should be without:
Ideally this would be a circular, tiered affair, that allows you to neatly present all your various cakes and treats to all your guests.
Leave the ‘World’s Greatest Mum’ mug in the cupboard! Use only the finest-quality cups, accompanied by matching saucers.
Silver service might be a bit too much to expect these days, but spotless, polished knives, forks and teaspoons are the next best thing.