Afternoon Tea: A History
“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”
Afternoon tea has been a part of British life since the early 19th century, filtering down from the aristocracy to be enjoyed by nearly everyone. It’s been served at the Hotel Café Royal for decades, most recently in the sumptuous Oscar Wilde Lounge. These days most of us don’t break out the good china and the cucumber sandwiches every day at 5 o’clock, but we still aspire to spend an hour or two with some cream cakes and a pot of tea if we possibly can.
We’ve looked into its history to see where this delightful meal comes from, and how it’s evolved over the years into the joyous celebration it is today.
From Ancient China to Victorian England
Tea itself has been around for thousands of years, first prescribed as a medicinal drink in ancient China, later becoming a fashionable everyday drink during the Tang dynasty. Portuguese traders brought it to Europe in the 16th century, finally introducing the British to their greatest love.
It was a few hundred years later in the 1840s when afternoon tea was created, or so the story goes. Anna Maria Russell, the Duchess of Bedford and close friend to Queen Victoria, bemoaned the ever-increasing gap between luncheon and dinner, and longed for something to keep her going in between. During a visit to the Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire, Anna Maria finally listened to the wisdom of her stomach and ordered a tray of tea, bread and butter, and cake as a light afternoon snack.
Her moment of genius was so ideally satisfying that she invited her friends to join her on other afternoons for light refreshments, and thus, afternoon tea was born.
Afternoon tea at Hotel Café Royal is served in the historic Oscar Wilde Lounge, named in honour of the rooms most famous patron.
The golden age of afternoon tea
By the end of the century, afternoon tea had become a daily ritual for the upper classes, though it had spread in various forms through much of the rest of society too. In the more privileged households the ladies would dress for the occasion whether at home or out in public, and the selection of goodies on the tea tray become equally elaborate. Pastries, scones, clotted cream, delicate cakes, and the ubiquitous thinly sliced cucumber sandwiches.
The late 19th and early 20th century marked the high point of afternoon tea’s splendour, with all the most fashionable people going to the most fashionable hotels to enjoy the most sophisticated fair. Hotel Café Royal was very much at the centre of this vibrant culture, attracting the likes of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, and Noel Coward.
Though the exuberance of the 20s and 30s was brought to a swift end, afternoon tea endured as a special celebration of enjoyment and delight, and is now more popular than ever.
How to do afternoon tea
Many people have attempted to dictate the ‘proper’ way to take your tea, but really the only rule is to enjoy yourself. Firstly, it’s always a good idea to dress up a bit when going out for afternoon tea, just to add to the sense of occasion and to suit your chosen hotel or restaurant.
Feel free to spread your scone with jam and then dollop cream on top, or spread it with cream and put the jam on top – either way is perfectly acceptable. Sandwiches are usually fine to eat with your hands if they’re properly made, but a fork may be necessary for certain cakes and pastries. Just go for whatever works best.
When it comes to tea, loose leaf is always better for the taste. Flavoured or delicate teas like Earl Grey or Darjeeling are best without milk, while most other black teas are fine with. The often-debated question of milk in first or last was originally seen as a social divider, as pouring hot tea directly into a cheaper, low quality cup would often crack it. These days this problem no longer exists, so you’re free to put the milk in first or afterwards according to your own tastes.
Finally, no one will be impressed if you extend your little finger while drinking your tea. No one’s quite sure where this odd practice comes from, but it’s an afternoon tea etiquette faux pas.