The History of Afternoon Tea: A Truly English Tradition

Next time you settle into your favourite armchair with a nice cuppa, you really ought to raise your cup to thank the seventh Duchess of Bedford. In the early ninteenth century, when tea was growing in popularity, the meals of the day were breakfast and a mid-evening dinner. Not surprisingly, the poor duchess complained of a “sinking feeling” at around 4 pm or 5 pm every day. A pot of tea, sandwiches and cake, taken in the privacy of her boudoir, soon put paid to hunger pangs. As time went on, she began to receive visitors to share her routine at Woburn Abbey. On her return to London, she sent out invitation cards, and other society hostesses followed suit.

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Charles II’s Portguese wife, Catherine de Braganza was addicted to the brew, and is said to have introduced the product to the court in 1662. We have been drinking it for over 350 years, but it was an established favourite in China for centuries before that. If you want to know how many cups we drink a day now, check out the daily counter on the website of the UK Tea Council – it generally reaches 9 figures by mid-evening! The official statistic, in case you can’t wait until midnight, is 165,000,000 per day.

The British & Irish Food website has suggestions of what to serve for your afternoon tea, and how to prepare it, with several scrumptious-looking cake recipes. It includes a short history, and helpfully explains the difference between different types – Irish, English, cream, or high. If you feel that being pampered should be part of the experience, and don’t know where to go, try the daily deal website Dealzippy, afternoon tea in London being a popular offer.

The process of serving afternoon tea in the Duchess of Bedford’s time had to be exact. The first pot of tea was prepared in the kitchen, and carried to the hostess. This teapot was warmed from another one (usually silver) that was kept heated over a small flame. By the 1880s, it had become fashionable for the upper classes to change into long gowns, gloves and hats, and to move into the drawing room.

Afternoon tea today usually consists of sandwiches and scones with jam (a twentieth century addition), followed by small cakes. The Bramah Museum of Tea and Coffee, has a lovely photograph of a tiered cake plate on its website, surrounded by traditional bone china crockery. Unfortunately, the museum itself is closed at the moment, while negotiating for new London premises, but when it re-opens, you will be able to discover the four-hundred-year-old social and commercial history of tea and coffee in Britain. The Twinings tea company also has a small museum, at the back of its historic shop in the Strand, purchased by the family in 1706, and converted from a coffee house.

Ettiquette dictates that this mid-afternoon offering, also know as low tea, is traditionally served at low tables or couches. The person nearest to the teapot should pour for everyone, so the old joke “shall I be mother?” isn’t strictly relevant. Afternoon tea in London is available at venues ranging from plush hotels in Knightsbridge to cosy Kensington tea rooms. Make sure you get a good deal by visiting Deal Zippy for the best prices.