“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”
Although I love living in the U.S. and am appreciative of my life here, there are still some British traditions that I miss. At the top of the list is afternoon tea! When I worked in a London office, all worked ceased every day at 3pm for “teatime.” This was a daily occurrence which usually lasted about thirty minutes, (Okay, maybe 40-50 minutes on a Friday afternoon). The large aluminum teapot was brought out, we added loose tea leaves along with boiling hot water freshly drawn from a “tea urn”. Next, we poured the brewed tea through a sieve into china teacups (always with saucers) and added milk, and for those who like it sweet, sometimes sugar. The tea was often accompanied by small cakes or iced or jam (jelly) donuts for a delicious afternoon snack.
I have been drinking tea for as long as I can remember. I remember being a very small child, perhaps two or three, and my Mother giving me two cups of hot tea with milk to try. One was sweetened with sugar and the other not. She asked me to tell her which I liked best. I took a couple of sips and told her I liked the unsweetened one best. Ever since that day, I drank at least a cup of tea every day morning or afternoon (sometimes two or three!) Tea is my beverage of choice upon waking and I cannot function in the morning without that first cup. Family members used to remark about me “Don’t even talk to Fiona in the morning before she’s had her tea!”
Although it may seem steeped in tradition and history, afternoon tea in England is actually a relatively recent tradition. The drinking of tea dates back to the third millennium BC in China, and was popularized in Britain during the 1660’s by King Charles II and his wife. However the concept of “Afternoon tea” did not appear until the mid-17th century and was introduced by Anna – the seventh Duchess of Bedford in 1840. Rumor has it the Duchess became hungry during the hours between lunch and dinner (served fashionably late at 8pm) so at around 4pm she requested tea, some small sandwiches and a little cake be brought to her. This became a daily habit and she often invited friends to enjoy the indulgence with her. The practice became popular, but the more working classes in industrial areas of England could not afford such items so they developed their own version of afternoon tea, called high tea – this usually included a mug of tea, bread, vegetable, cheese and sometimes meat. In modern day Britain afternoon tea is more likely to be a high tea served in a mug, using a teabag, served with a biscuit (cookie) or a prepackaged cake! Of course, one can still find the traditional, more decadent, afternoon tea served in fine restaurants and hotels around the country.
Afternoon tea also has regional variations. The West Country’s “cream tea” boasts to be the best. The west country of the U.K. is considered the counties of Devonshire, Somerset and Cornwall. Devonshire (or Devon as it is usually called) produces a delicious type of thick clotted cream, which is served on top of scones accompanied with fruit preserves along with the tea. It is a delicious treat and the smooth milky flavor of the clotted cream really compliments the crumbliness of the scone and the sweet tanginess of the strawberry jam.
If you have never tried afternoon tea, I urge you to do so! It is a divine time out during a busy day. This blog is very informative about different types of tea, and Whittards of Chelsea has a great list of the best tea blogs around. The tea and scones or cakes can easily be made at home; here is a basic recipe:
Or alternatively, there are many places in the U.S. which serve afternoon tea. The above picture was taken at Shakespeare’s Pub and Grille in San Diego, CA. The pub has a small tearoom attached to it and tea (dozens of variations served both hot and iced) is served daily each afternoon. Until next time, happy tea-sampling!