Afternoon tea, that most quintessential of English customs is surprisingly, a relatively new tradition.
The custom of drinking tea dates back to the third millennium BC in China, it was popularised during the 1660s by King Charles II and his wife the Portuguese Infanta Catherine de Braganza. However, it was not until the mid 19th century that the concept of ‘afternoon tea’ first appeared.
Afternoon tea was introduced in England by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in the year 1840. The Duchess would become hungry around four o’clock in the afternoon.
The evening meal in her household was served fashionably late at eight o’clock, thus leaving a long period of time between lunch and dinner. The Duchess asked that a tray of tea, bread and butter (sometime earlier, the Earl of Sandwich had had the idea of putting a filling between two slices of bread) and cake be brought to her room during the late afternoon. This became a habit of hers and she began inviting friends to join her.
This pause for tea became a fashionable social event. During the 1880’s the upper-class and society women would change into long gowns, gloves and hats for their afternoon tea which was usually served in the drawing room between four and five o’clock.
Afternoon Tea Etiquette
When deciding what order to eat your afternoon tea goodies, think savoury first and progress to sweet.
Finger sandwiches served at afternoon tea always have their crusts cut off and are served in small squares, rectangles or triangles – ideal for eating by hand.
Next, move onto the scones and cakes. Scones should break into two halves easily without the need for using a knife. They should be eaten in two halves, rather than being sandwiched back together.
Cream or jam first?
There is an everlasting debate about whether cream or jam should be added first to the scone. While the Devon tradition is for cream with jam on top, the Cornish prefer it the other way around. Don’t worry, whichever way around you decide, you won’t commit a social faux pas. The only thing to remember is that scone should be pronounced ‘skon’ and not ‘skone’.
Preparing your tea
Allow the tea to brew between three and six minutes; leave it any longer and you risk ‘stewing’ the tea, damaging the flavour.
Tea or milk first?
Some say it is traditional to put milk into your cup first before pouring the tea. In the past, this was to stop low quality drinking vessels from cracking due to the hot liquid. It is not an issue nowadays and therefore more common to add milk after the tea. This allows you to add just the perfect amount of milk to create the tea colour of your liking.
Afternoon tea myths
When drinking your tea, some people say sticking your little finger out creates a perfect balance when handling your tea cup. This is a myth, albeit a funny one. All fingers should be kept on or near the teacup when drinking your tea.
Afternoon tea was introduced in England by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in 1840.
. . . the Devon tradition is cream with jam on top, the Cornish prefer it the other way around!