Afternoon tea is a tradition that originated in England in the 1840s. The credit for introducing afternoon tea goes to Anna Maria Russell, the Duchess of Bedford.
The tradition of afternoon tea has a fascinating history that can be traced back to the early 19th century in England. During this time, there was a significant gap between breakfast and dinner, leading to hunger and fatigue in the afternoon. A light meal called “luncheon” was introduced to address this issue. However, even luncheon wasn’t sufficient to keep hunger at bay, especially for the upper classes, who dined fashionably late (between seven and nine in the evening).
Anna Maria Russell, later known as the Duchess of Bedford, played a pivotal role in popularising afternoon tea. It was during a visit to the fifth Duke of Rutland that Russell devised the idea of afternoon tea. Seeking to alleviate her hunger, she had tea accompanied by savoury sandwiches and sweet cakes. This simple meal quickly became Russell’s preferred mid-afternoon repast. She even started inviting her friends to join her for afternoon tea sessions. The popularity of this custom soon spread among the upper and middle-upper classes.
The influence of Queen Victoria
While Anna Maria Russell introduced afternoon tea, Queen Victoria helped popularise and solidify its place in British culture. Queen Victoria was a friend of Russell’s and a fan of afternoon tea herself. As the influential queen began partaking in this tradition, it gained even more prominence and became a fashionable social event.
Queen Victoria’s love for afternoon tea had a profound impact on society. The aristocracy and middle-upper class eagerly followed her lead, embracing afternoon tea as an opportunity to socialise, indulge in delicious treats, and engage in stimulating conversations. As a result, afternoon tea became a symbol of sophistication and elegance.
With Queen Victoria’s endorsement, afternoon tea culture flourished in the 19th century. As more people adopted the tradition, it became an integral part of British society. Tea rooms and tea gardens began to emerge, offering the perfect setting for afternoon tea gatherings.
These establishments were meticulously designed, providing a refined ambience for tea enthusiasts. Elaborate tea sets, delicate china, and exquisite tableware were used to create an elegant atmosphere. The afternoon tea experience became not just about the food and drink but also about the aesthetics and ambience.
These gatherings often adhered to specific dress codes, making it a special occasion. While formal attire is no longer obligatory, attending an afternoon tea is still considered a delightful experience. Whether hosted at home or enjoyed in a restaurant or hotel, afternoon tea provides an opportunity to savour tea, delectable treats, and impeccable service.
Hosting an afternoon tea
Hosting an afternoon tea can be a delightful and rewarding experience. Whether you organise it at home or book a venue, there are a few key elements to consider.
- Tea Selection: Offer a variety of teas to cater to different tastes. Include classics like Earl Grey and English Breakfast, as well as herbal and flavoured options.
- Food Choices: Prepare a selection of savoury sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam, and a variety of sweet pastries and cakes. Ensure there is a balance between flavours and textures.
- Table Setting: Create an inviting table setting with elegant tea cups, saucers, and plates. Consider using a tablecloth and adding fresh flowers or a centrepiece for a touch of sophistication.
- Service: If hosting at home, take on the role of the host or hostess and pour the tea for your guests. Provide milk, sugar, and lemon as accompaniments. If hosting at a venue, rely on the staff to provide attentive service.
- Atmosphere: Enhance the ambience with soft background music and dimmed lighting. Consider using scented candles or diffusers to create a pleasant aroma.
Afternoon Tea Week
Afternoon Tea Week is an annual celebration of this cherished tradition. It takes place in the United Kingdom during the second week of August, and it offers a fantastic opportunity to indulge in the delights of afternoon tea.
During Afternoon Tea Week, various establishments, including hotels, tea rooms, and restaurants, organise special events and promotions centred around afternoon tea. This celebration aims to raise awareness of the tradition, encourage people to experience afternoon tea and support local businesses.
Whether you are a seasoned afternoon tea aficionado or new to this delightful tradition, Afternoon Tea Week provides the perfect opportunity to explore different venues, sample unique tea blends, and indulge in various delectable treats.
Afternoon tea offers a delightful escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Whether you choose to attend an afternoon tea at a luxurious hotel or host your own gathering at home, this timeless tradition promises an experience of elegance and indulgence.
Afternoon tea is served between three and five in the afternoon. This year’s Afternoon Tea Week starts on 7 August.