Today, afternoon tea is almost as emblematic of Great Britain as the Union Jack. In fact, many people probably suppose that the ancient Anglo-Saxons brought this concept with them when they first arrived. The truth, however, is that this delicious tradition dates back only to the 1840s.
The British Afternoon Tea
At that time, British society relied on two daily meals: a kind of breakfast-lunch combination at mid-morning and a late supper. In the mid-1800s, though, dinners started getting served later and later, at least in well-to-do households. That’s because kerosene lamps allowed people to dine after the sun went down. Of course, these ever-later dinnertimes meant that many people were frightfully hungry throughout the early evening hours.
To address this issue, Anna, Seventh Duchess of Bedford, devised the ritual of afternoon tea. At first, the Duchess sat alone in her boudoir drinking her tea and snacking, but soon she hit upon the idea of inviting friends to join her in this practice at Woburn Abbey, her country home. Among women of the upper classes, and later among the working classes, an enduring custom was born.
Eventually, British society established two distinct kinds of afternoon tea, low tea and high tea. Low tea is a mid-afternoon combination of light snacks and tea, primarily enjoyed by women and served on tables comparatively low to the ground. When partaking in low tea, it is imperative that one’s manners and social graces be on full display. High tea, by contrast, is a meal for working-class families to relish. They gather around a high table after work, and they feast upon salmon and other fish, steak and kidney pie, potatoes, beans and desserts such as crumpets. At these heavy meals, manners are, to put it mildly, not as important as they are at low tea.
Types of Afternoon Tea’s
Tea is now prevalent at British dining tables no matter the meal or the time of day. But
afternoon tea retains its cultural significance, although the English tend to hold afternoon teas only for special occasions, like birthdays, rather than on a daily basis. Even so, there are more varieties of afternoon tea today than ever before. The basic version, sometimes called a “cream tea,” includes scones, jam and clotted cream. Sometimes diminutive cakes are substituted for the scones, and once in a while you’ll find wedge-shaped sandwiches offered at cream teas.
If you take the basic components of a cream tea and serve candies or other sweet treats
along with them, you get the ironically-named “light tea.” If you take a cream tea and serve strawberries instead of sweets – a wise choice for the health-conscious – you now have what’s known as a “strawberry tea.”
Serving champagne, meanwhile, gives you a “champagne tea.” Further, whenever a head of state or a member of the Royal Family hosts an afternoon tea, the occasion is termed a “tea reception.” Queen Victoria was the first monarch to hold such a reception, by the way. Today, tea receptions can include hundreds of guests and last up to three hours. And then there’s the “deluxe afternoon tea.” Scones and jam are served at deluxe teas, as are cakes, coffees and a wide variety of confections, including petit fours.
Finally, as an adorable footnote, the British have not excluded children from their teatime terminology. When a child sits at a small table and gathers her teddy bears and dolls around her to sip imaginary tea from toy cups, it’s called a “teddy bear tea.” In the United States, incidentally, this scene is more often referred to as a “tea party.”