The English tradition of afternoon tea as a time for relaxation, refreshment and socializing dates back to the 1840s. It can be traced to Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford. One day, the duchess asked that a tray of tea and some bread and cakes be brought to her room about 4pm, to tide her over until the customary 9pm dinner hour. This practice spread among her friends. Over time, what began as one woman’s late-afternoon pick me up developed into a social occasion.
Victorian ladies were judged by the quality of their afternoon teas. The menu generally included delicate sandwiches to take the edge off the appetite, breads or scones, jams, simple cakes and sometimes elaborate sweets. Until Queen Victoria introduced the Russian custom of adding lemon to tea after a visit with one of her daughters there, the English generally took their tea with milk.
Although many believe that English high tea is a more formal version of afternoon tea, this is not the case. High tea simply means more substantial fare and a later hour. Generally served around 6pm, high tea was marked by addition of one or more cooked dishes to the usual afternoon tea fare. Common among the Victorian working classes and in the country, high tea was a sit down meal that replaced dinner. It is still common in the country regions in the north of England and in Scotland.
Cream tea originated in the western part of England around Devon and Cornwall. Its name comes from the practice of serving the local clotted cream and jam with afternoon tea scones. Although the recent interest in afternoon tea in this country is based on English customs, ceremony and ritual also surrounded the serving of tea in China and Japan. The Japanese, in particular, emphasized the aesthetics of tea service and had formal rules of governing the making and serving of tea. Garden teahouses were part of the Japanese tradition.
Afternoon Tea: American Style
Although we tend to think of “teas” as a woman’s domain, there’s certainly no reason to exclude men from these gatherings. After all, a tea is nothing if not gentile. Its white lace, flowers, and mannerly behavior. It can be a step back in time, a reason for a woman to wear a hat or for a man to buy a suit. It can be for best friends on a raw and rainy afternoon by the fire. It can be to introduce your children to something other than Nintendo, to entertain a visiting relative, or show off a new grandchild. It can bring a neighborhood of divergent people together for a few hours, or it can announce an engagement. It can be for the groomsmen as well as for the bridesmaids, or it can simply be something different to do with the people in your bridge group or book club. Just think of a tea as an opportunity to enjoy good company, special friendships, and a bit of food-essentially, a chance to have a wonderful time!