Afternoon Tea is delicious, but what is the history behind it?

The fanciest of china sets, fresh scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam, mini cakes and finger sandwiches. What’s there not to love? The British tradition of Afternoon Tea has certainly seen a rise in popularity recently, but where does it come from? With Afternoon Tea Week just around the corner, it’s time to find out.

Meet Anna, the Duchess of Bedford

It’s the early 19th century and we are at the court of Duke and Duchess of Bedford. Lunch was not a popular meal in the 19th century among the upper classes as they woke up late (around 10am or later) to have breakfast and the main meal of the day would be dinner. However, as lighting the house began to be more efficient, dinner was pushed later and later in the evening and it was believed to be served at 8 o’clock. I would definitely get hungry or peckish in between those two meals, that’s for sure! It is for that reason that Anna (very close to Anca, it must be fate!), the 7th Duchess of Bedford, started taking a small snack and some tea in her room during the afternoon.

As this became a more regular occasion, Anna started inviting her friends over to share the ritual, relax and gossip. Soon enough, the ladies started copying her and so Afternoon Tea was born. You must also know that tea at this time in history was still very expensive, to the point that it was kept in locked tea chests, and drinking it would be a sign of wealth. So as the upper classes adopted the ritual, wearing fine clothes and displaying the finest china, high-end hotels started offering it as a meal, gradually evolving to what it is today during the course of 20th century.

afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason
A birthday treat: enjoying tea in the Diamond Jubilee Salon at Fortnum & Mason

What is the difference between Afternoon Tea and High Tea?

Although you might sometimes see Afternoon Tea described as ‘High Tea’, the two are not to be confused! Traditionally, High Tea is the evening meal that the working classes would have upon returning home from work which included a hearty dish such as a soup or main course, followed by bread, butter, cakes and tea.

This was served at a high table or dinner table, which is where it derives the name from, and it must have appeared much later when tea was no longer exclusive to the upper classes. In contrast, Afternoon Tea was always served on low tables as it was intended as a snack in between meals and it was very much a tradition for the wealthy, who wouldn’t be at work during the afternoon.

What about cream tea?

Cream tea is a lighter alternative to Afternoon Tea in which a pot of tea is served with scones, cream and jam. If you think about it, cream tea is probably much closer to what the Duchess of Bedford would have had rather than the lavish meal it is today.

The origins of this tradition are highly disputed between Devon and Cornwall, two counties in England, where they differ slightly. In Devon’s tradition, the scone is layered with clotted cream first and then jam is spread on top, whereas in Cornwall, the traditional calls for butter, followed by a layer of jam and a spoonful of clotted cream. I personally prefer the Devon method, why add more fat? And even if you skip it, surely you would use the cream as butter and spread it first, right? Each to their own though!

cream-tea-scones
A tantalising cream tea picture from the Cream Tea Society, which shows the Cornish method of serving cream tea.

Afternoon Tea today is still an occasion where we take the time to catch up and relax as it was originally intended. So why not impress your family and friends next time with your newly acquired knowledge?

Stay tuned for my next post for a review of a very unusual afternoon tea location.

Cheerio,
Anca

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