Afternoon Tea is a classic British institution that is as popular now as it ever was, if not more so. The custom was originally ‘invented’ back in the 1840s by Anna Russell, 7th Duchess of Bedford and Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Victoria, as an elegant way to bridge the long gap between lunch and dinner.
In recent years, helped by the occasion of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the rise of popular TV food programmes such as The Great British Bake Off, our British food traditions have experienced something of a revival. So, what’s it all about?
Interestingly, Afternoon Tea is not all about the tea, though it is of course served alongside. The centrepiece is a presentation cake stand, ideally multi tiered, offering a mouth-watering selection of delectable treats, both sweet and savoury.
The Afternoon Tea menu is not fixed, but typically includes the following components:
- Freshly prepared finger sandwiches – always with the crust removed. Traditional fillings range from Cucumber to Egg & Cress, Coronation Chicken, Smoked Salmon & Cream Cheese, and Ham & Mustard.
- Freshly baked scones, served with double cream (or clotted cream) and home made preserves. According to different regional traditions, the cream either goes onto the scone before the preserves (Devon Cream Tea) or over the top (Cornish Cream Tea).
- Home made cakes and pastries, with a choice of delicacies that might include Chocolate Eclairs, Battenberg Cakes, Custard Creams, Macarons, Coffee & Walnut Slices, Carrot Cake and, of course, the queen of all cakes: Victoria Sponge.
Drinks will inevitably centre around a choice of teas, although Iced Tea or a glass of Champagne may also be served. The range of teas on offer varies from establishment to establishment. However, the mark of a good Afternoon Tea is that the tea should be loose leaf, never tea bags, and served in a china teapot.
Some of the most popular teas served include
- Assam – a satisfying, full bodied tea from the Assam region of north eastern India that has a distinctive ‘malty’ flavour
- Darjeeling – a famous aromatic Indian tea from the West Bengal region, with a hint of wildflowers and almonds
- Earl Grey – a popular black tea blend scented with Bergamot Oil that is traditionally served with a slice of lemon (though milk is also admissible)
- Lapsang Souchong – A strong, smoky Chinese tea that can be an acquired taste; tea drinkers tend to either love it or loathe it
If you’ve never had a proper Afternoon Tea, you’ve been missing out on a highly enjoyable and exceedingly civilised way of spending the afternoon, typically in sumptuous surroundings and in the company of friends. It’s an experience not to be missed.
Fortunately, there are many beautiful hotels, restaurants and cafés all over the country where Afternoon Tea is served with the proper decorum – you don’t have to go to The Ritz in London! If you’re not sure where to go, take a look at Into The Blue where you’ll find a great selection of Afternoon Tea experiences that can be booked and given as gift vouchers.
Afternoon Tea may be a relaxed affair compared to a formal lunch and dinner, but that doesn’t mean that you can turn up in jeans and trainers! After all, if you’ve gone to the trouble of taking Afternoon Tea in elegant surroundings, you need to make a bit of an effort. A smart/casual dress code is the order of the day.
In the same vein, Afternoon Tea is to be enjoyed calmly, and at your leisure. No wolfing down food, noisy cutlery clattering or loud conversations please. Impeccable table manners will be expected, while restrained, dainty eating and drinking will set the right tone for the afternoon.
A final word of advice: whatever you do, don’t be tempted to extend your little finger when you lift your china teacup. No-one does that.