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Afternoon Tea Tradition

Afternoon tea: a slice of tradition infused with elegance

The tradition of the English afternoon tea started in the mid-nineteenth century. Among the upper and middle classes, lunch was usually taken at 12 or 1 o’clock, and dinner was comparatively late at around 7 or even 8 o’clock. Anna Maria, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, is credited with inventing afternoon tea in 1841, when she started drinking tea and eating a light snack in the mid- to late-afternoon, to bridge this long gap between meals.

The tradition of the English afternoon The idea was very attractive and soon caught on, with the Duchess inviting guests to join her in the ritual. In other fashionable circles, dinner was taken earlier, and the tradition of afternoon tea did not take hold. By the 1860s, however, it had become widespread.

Having evolved in the highest social circles, the tradition of afternoon tea acquired many airs and graces, having more to do with fashion, elegance and ritual than the simple need to have a cup of tea and cake. Tea was sipped and food nibbled from the finest bone china. The food itself was delicate in the extreme, with wafer-thin bread and butter or sandwiches and elegant cakes and scones, presented beautifully on intricate table cloths.

With such social mores associated with afternoon tea, it was only natural that much etiquette grew up around the occasion. The hostess would be responsible for pouring the tea, which would then be distributed by any gentlemen present. Thoughtful hostesses would serve biscuits so that the ladies could eat without removing their gloves, as sandwiches would require. Many contemporary instruction manuals go into great detail on these points.

A meal that oozed refinement

It was around the same time that cucumber sandwiches assumed an important role in the ritual of afternoon tea. White crust-free bread, so thin it was transparent, was lightly buttered to protect it from the cucumber juice, and again very thin cucumber slices were placed in the sandwich. This food epitomised upper-class taste, as it was a very light sandwich favoured by the leisured classes, who unlike the working classes, did not need the calories.

The food served during afternoon tea quickly evolved into the traditional three-tiered tray offering that we see today – with elegant, thinly-sliced sandwiches on the bottom tier, scones, to be covered with preserves and cream, on the middle, and dainty cakes on the top.

Afternoon tea is sometimes mistakenly called high tea, whilst it is more correctly called low tea. High tea was a working man’s main meal, served at the high table, after a full day’s work. Low tea was served on the (lower) drawing room table, and was the lighter, afternoon preserve of the upper classes.

Whatever you would like to call it, and whatever food you have to accompany it, the one irrefutable fact about afternoon tea is that it must include a cup of the beverage that gave this quintessentially English ritual its name.