The Afternoon Tea | Embracing the British Tradition
A quintessential British custom, the afternoon tea is deeply ingrained in the UK’s culture and history. This tradition has evolved over centuries, becoming a symbol of British sophistication and elegance. This article, will take you on a journey through time, exploring the origins, evolution, and modern-day significance of this delightful tradition.
The Birth of a Tradition
The tradition of afternoon tea, contrary to popular belief, is a relatively recent addition to British customs. While tea-drinking has been popular in England since the 17th century, the idea of dedicating an afternoon to tea came about 200 years later.
The credit for initiating this tradition goes to Anna, the Duchess of Bedford. The Duchess found herself feeling peckish around four in the afternoon, a time far too early for dinner but late enough to warrant a light snack. To quell her hunger, she began requesting a small meal of tea, bread, butter, and cake in the late afternoon. This habit soon turned into a social event as she began inviting friends to join her for these afternoon tea sessions.
The Evolution of Afternoon Tea
Initially, afternoon tea was a private affair, confined to small gatherings at home. However, when Queen Victoria started attending these tea parties, they began attracting larger crowds and gained more prestige. By the 1880s, afternoon tea had become a widespread tradition across England, celebrated with great enthusiasm.
In those times, affluent women would dress up in long gowns, gloves, and hats for their afternoon tea, which was typically served in the drawing room between four and five o’clock. The meal consisted of delicate sandwiches, scones served with clotted cream and preserves, and an assortment of cakes and pastries. Tea sourced from India or Ceylon was poured from silver teapots into delicate bone china cups, adding a touch of elegance to the affair.
Afternoon Tea in the Modern Era
The tradition of afternoon tea has seen a resurgence in recent years, spreading globally while maintaining its British roots. Today, the afternoon tea is no longer a simple home-cooked meal. Instead, it has become an occasion to celebrate special life events with family and friends.
Though the tradition continues to feature small sandwiches and pastries, they are now presented more artfully on tiered stands. Additionally, contemporary afternoon tea often includes extra indulgences such as a glass of champagne.
The London Afternoon Tea Experience
For many tourists visiting England, participating in the afternoon tea tradition has become an essential part of the experience, especially in London. Numerous hotels and restaurants offer afternoon tea, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in British culture.
However, afternoon tea in London isn’t limited to hotels. There are several local bakeries where you can enjoy a more relaxed yet equally fulfilling afternoon tea experience. One such place is Brigit’s Bakery in Covent Garden, known for its comfortable ambiance, excellent food, and top-notch service.
The Art of Afternoon Tea
Enjoying afternoon tea is more than just sipping tea and eating sandwiches. It’s an art form, a ritual. From selecting from a variety of teas to savoring each layer of the tea stand, every aspect is important.
The tea stand, typically a three-tiered structure, is an integral part of the afternoon tea experience. The bottom layer houses the scones, the middle layer features mini sandwiches, and the top layer is reserved for small pastries and cakes. Each item is designed to be light and snack-sized, though they can be surprisingly filling!
The Tea Selection
The choice of tea is as important as the food in an afternoon tea ritual. Traditional options include Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Darjeeling, Assam, Green Tea, Peppermint Tea, and Chamomile Tea. However, some establishments offer a more diverse selection, including exotic teas sourced globally.
The Dress Code
Visiting a restaurant for afternoon tea often requires adherence to a certain dress code. Men are typically required to wear a shirt and tie, while women are expected to don dresses. The entire experience is designed to be a sophisticated affair, and the dress code ensures that guests contribute to the ambiance.
The Afternoon Tea Etiquette
While afternoon tea is a relaxed affair, there is a certain etiquette associated with it. Guests are expected to look smart, behave courteously, and respect the serving order of the tea stand. The heavy scones are at the bottom, followed by light sandwiches, with the cakes and pastries at the top.
The Regional Variations
The afternoon tea tradition varies across different regions of the UK. Devonshire Cream Tea, for instance, is world-renowned for its unique combination of scones, strawberry jam, clotted cream, and hot sweet tea. Other counties, such as Dorset, Cornwall, and Somerset, also claim to offer the best cream teas.
The Joy of Afternoon Tea
The afternoon tea tradition brings a sense of joy that transcends the simple act of eating and drinking. It’s a chance to connect with loved ones, engage in pleasant conversation, and enjoy the simple pleasures of life. The tradition of afternoon tea, whether enjoyed at home or in a restaurant, is one that continues to bring people together, underscoring its enduring appeal.