Afternoon tea has become such a part of British life that we don’t think twice about it. It may now have taken on a different form with just a break for tea and biscuits, but in one way or another it is very much part of British heritage and traditions. Finding an afternoon tea spot as a treat that serves the best tea, the nicest scones and the most indulgent clotted cream is a weekend mission for many afternoon tea connoisseurs.
A traditional afternoon tea would usually include scones with clotted cream, a cake of some description – usually some small ‘fancies’ and some sandwiches cut up into very dainty portions – often with no crusts and of course featuring the cucumber sandwiches – there’s no messing about here either – the cucumber should be very thinly sliced to be just right.
There are now all manner of afternoon teas with the tradition having spread across cultures and to many different countries. You can enjoy an afternoon tea with a glass of champagne, or even a an oriental twist on the food selection with sushi or sashimi, or curried snacks, you can enjoy afternoon teas with pretty much any local delicacy from the region you are drinking it in. In some cases, brands have seized the opportunity to promote their brands by organising launches around afternoon teas and creating small fancies shaped like their products or with branding on them.
This, however, is all a far cry from the very original afternoon tea where Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, feeling a little peckish around 4pm and not able to wait until their fashionably late evening meal at 8pm, sent up for a tray of cake, tea and bread and butter. It became a bit of a habit and soon she started to invite her friends to join her in her rooms at Woburn Abbey and soon after she took the habit with her back to London. The popularity grew and it moved to the drawing room and became a fixture on any respectable lady’s afternoon agenda.
The difference between a ‘low’ afternoon tea or a ‘high’ afternoon tea came from the description of the types of tables that it would be served on. The lower or middle classes would enjoy a ‘high’ tea which would usually be around 5 or 6pm and would be served at the dinner table and at times would replace the fashionable late dinner. The upper classes would enjoy a ‘low’ afternoon tea at around 4pm, served in the drawing room, usually at lower tables and this would be in addition to the late dinner.