The History Of The Practice Of Afternoon Tea
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Everything from the three-tiered cake stand filled with dainty finger sandwiches, hot scones and miniature cakes to the ritual of pouring multiple cups of steaming tea make afternoon tea an elaborate ritual. It’s something to look forward to after the post-lunch slump hits and is usually taken between 3-4pm. The term ‘high tea’ actually refers to dinner and is incorrect when used to describe afternoon tea. Afternoon tea is actually ‘low tea’. 

‘Taking tea’ has been a big part of aristocratic British culture since the 1660s. King Charles II and his Portuguese wife, Catherine de Braganza, popularised the practice. However, steep prices ensured that tea was reserved for royalty. 

It was also the norm for aristocratic families to have two big meals in a day: a wholesome breakfast and substantial evening meal, accompanied only by a light lunch. But by 1840, dinner began to be eaten later than normal—at around 8pm—and Anna Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, complained that she had a “sinking feeling” around 4pm. She began to request that a tray of tea and snacks be sent to her room in the middle of the afternoon, and invited friends to join her.

The summer practice became so popular that the Duchess brought it to London, sending invites to her friends asking them to join her for tea and a walk in the fields. Other women liked the idea and it began to be considered respectable enough to be held in the drawing room of the house. Soon all of high society began to indulge in the ritual. Even Queen Victoria approved of the idea and began to enjoy cake with buttercream and fresh raspberries—which later came to be known as Victoria sponge—with her cup of tea. Back then, tea was considered a delicacy so serving it to guests in beautiful homes became a way to display wealth.

Tea had become more affordable by the late 19th century, and so the middle class began to partake in the erstwhile lavish ritual. The practice of afternoon tea then spread across Britain and even to the US.

In the 1920s, music became an important addition to the occasion. An orchestra in the garden was customary for the wealthy and other stylish youth attended tea dances in fashionable hotels. It’s also noteworthy that scones were not featured in the early years of afternoon tea and were only incorporated in the 20th century.

Today, afternoon tea is still a revered practice in Britain. Both posh hotels and specialist tea rooms offer it. It is usually reserved for special occasions and is rarely a daily event. A selection of teas is served in teapots and finger sandwiches with fillings like cucumber, egg and mayonnaise and salmon are common. Scones are served with clotted cream and jam, and a variety of cakes make their way to the table. Over the years, afternoon tea has evolved to different versions of itself that include cream tea (tea, scones, jam and cream) and even champagne afternoon tea (which includes a glass of champagne along with the other treats). Whichever the version, the practice symbolises rest and indulgence.