In our busy, time-poor lives, what is nicer than momentarily stopping for a scone and a pot of tea? Afternoon tea gives us a break in the rush of modern life. It does so now, just like it did back in the nineteenth century, when it was invented.
In 1840, Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, asked for a tea tray and cakes at four o’clock, as she found she was hungry at this time and also had nothing to do. She found this new pastime hard to break and soon invited other ladies in society to join her. The Duchess’s guests went back to their houses and instigated the ritual, thus spreading the new custom.
Queen Victoria liked the idea so much she started Garden Parties – the first of which was in 1868 and are still held to this day.
In the 1880s, ladies began to wear tea-gowns, which were soft dresses with a lot of lace, which came in at the middle. Edwardian society altered the time that Afternoon tea was taken: it moved back an hour to five o’clock.
The middle and lower classes soon heard about this new ‘meal’ in the day and so the teashop flourished, offering people the chance to break with their day for tea and cakes. For the first time, respectable women could eat out unaccompanied.
Actor and writer Noel Coward commented that it be “dreadful to live in a country without tea”. The Royal Family today will pause at five o’clock for their helping: they always drink Earl Grey Tea.
As with everything, there comes etiquette with Afternoon tea.
Scones are always broken; never cut. They should be served with jam and clotted cream, or butter. Crumpets should be buttered whole and then cut. Cakes and pastries should be made so the use of a pastry fork is not needed, although if that is not the case, the use of such an implement is perfectly acceptable.
If you take milk with your tea, then this is poured in after the tea itself. This is because in the Victorian era when Afternoon tea was introduced, the best households would have fine bone china cups, which could withstand high temperatures: milk could be poured in after the scalding water, whereas the lower echelons of the household would have pottery cups and mugs and milk poured in first would prevent the cups from cracking.
Afternoon tea continues to carry on in 2010 the world over, with The Ritz hotel and Claridges, both in London, offering one of the best.
Tutor, The English Manner