BY TAMRA BOOTH, KEEEPS
Afternoon tea, a classic British custom is actually not that old at all. Whilst drinking tea dates back to 3000BC in China and was made popular in the 1660s by King Charles II and his wife, the Portuguese Catherine de Braganza, it was not until the mid nineteenth century that the ritual of afternoon tea became popular.
During the early nineteenth century, the Victorian upper class were drinking tea like it was going out of fashion and it was around that time that Anna Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, complained about “having that sinking feeling” during the late afternoon. Back in those days, there were only two main meals a day, albeit they were both rather substantial, with 9-courses being served for both breakfast and dinner, eaten around 10-11am and 8-9pm respectively.
However, come four o’clock, Anna was absolutely starving and needed something to get her through to supper later that evening. She requested some tea, bread and butter and cake be brought to her and savoured it in her boudoir. With that, the afternoon tea ritual was born and Anna was guzzling down tea and cake on her own and with her girlfriends on a daily basis. Of course, this caught on quickly and the idea soon spread across Britain. It turns out our nation simply cannot resist the opportunity to fit in a slice of cake and a hot brew.
One of the reasons afternoon tea became so popular was because of the company Anna held. She was a lifelong friend of Queen Victoria and was one of her ladies-in-waiting. When she brought the occasion with her to London, the Queen loved and raved about it. When we say ‘raved about it’, we mean she gave afternoon tea a royal endorsement and the rest was history. Queen Victoria’s favourite snack at afternoon tea was a light cake with buttercream and fresh raspberries along with her cup of tea. Of course, we now call this ‘Victoria Sponge Cake’.
Whilst the upper classes certainly enjoyed their tea, in the Victorian era (1837-1901) all echelons of society were enjoying that tasty hot beverage and it was heavily engrained in British culture no matter your social standing. The difference was in how it was drunk. The wealthy would drink their tea with fine porcelain teacups and saucers, decorative teapots, mahogany tea caddies and silver tea urns as, for them, afternoon tea was a grand event and a place to display your interests, tastes and identity.
The working classes, however, didn’t have the time or money to enjoy tea in the middle of the day, so they usually favoured “high tea”. There is a misconception that “high tea” was for those with high class or status but, in reality, it referred to the height of the tables that the workers gathered around to drink tea and enjoy a meal. A completely different affair to afternoon tea, high tea involved a hearty meal, usually consisting of meat pies and potatoes, bread, vegetables and cheese, all served with a lovely mug of tea and no porcelain teacups in sight. It’s why many people still call their evening meal, ‘tea’!
With tea being such an important part of British culture at the time, of course there existed the “Tea Snobs” who would judge people relentlessly on how they made their tea. Even today, 150 years later, we still have the same argument, albeit perhaps with less gusto, of whether milk should be added first or last to a cup of tea, with this being used as a marker of class back in the day. A “Miffy” or “MIF” was the name used for someone who put their milk in first, with it being used as a slur to describe “inferior” behaviour.
Editor’s Note: As a die-hard MIF, I would like to point out that scum forms when milk is added last. As the butler in the BBC series ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ advised the household staff who were arguing about the virtues of milk before or after the tea is poured, “Those of us downstairs put the milk in first, while those upstairs put the milk in last.” This debate will no doubt run on for many years to come!
Nowadays, afternoon tea isn’t a regular part of the day for most of us and it appears that the only person having afternoon tea on the reg is Queen Elizabeth II who reportedly takes it every day with dainty crustless sandwiches, sweet treats and scones. For the rest of us it is reserved for a special occasion, celebrated by booking a table at a specialist tearoom, fancy hotel or lovely café. But what history has taught us is that this is an occasion and custom that was initially and historically enjoyed in the comfort of your own home with some friends. So, for this year’s Afternoon Tea Week, we give our 5 best tips on how to create a fabulous afternoon tea experience at home.
5 ESSENTIALS FOR A TEA-RIFFIC AFTERNOON TEA AT HOME
1. Respectable Receptacles
In terms of what you most enjoy drinking your tea out of, unlike back in the 1800s, there is no right or wrong answer, it simply comes down to preference. The science says that a teacup is traditionally used as you have less chance of burning your tongue due to the shape of the cup. Wider at the top, angled and narrower toward the bottom, this allows the top of the tea to cool whilst keeping the rest of the tea warm. Mugs on the other hand, are made from a thicker ceramic which means the heat is retained better than smaller and thinner teacups.
Usually, teacups are used for formal or special occasions and if you do go out for afternoon tea, it’s likely to be served in a teacup to mimic the tradition. However, at home, a mug is a perfectly acceptable, and often preferred, receptacle for tea.
Handmade mugs are perfect for afternoon tea, as it is a chance to show off your tastes and identity through the different designs, colours and textures you get through handmade, just as the Victorians did over 150 years ago.
Due to the cost of tea back in the 1800s, the wealthy would usually drink lighter coloured teas, like Assam with afternoon tea, whereas the working class would enjoy a black tea with their evening meal, simply because it was the cheaper option.
Today, there are so many different tea brands and types of tea on the market that it is fun to offer a selection of teas for your guests to try for your home afternoon tea. Some firm afternoon tea favourites are Earl Grey, Assam and Darjeeling.
Earl Grey is the world’s most popular black tea, which pairs well with sweets and scones thanks to its citrusy flavour and natural sweetness. Assam, often mentioned as Queen Elizabeth’s favourite tea (and as a daily afternoon tea taker, we should take heed!). Taken with milk and sugar, its robust and tannic flavour is ideal with savoury foods like sandwiches and quiche, as well as sweets. Darjeeling has two types - first and second flush. They are both delicious with savoury foods but the second flush is particularly fruity and goes well with French pastries, chocolate and fruit-based desserts.
Some of our favourite tea brands here at Keeeps are: Good and Proper Tea - a UK company with fully compostable teabags, that ensures ethical sourcing and production of tea; TeaPigs - an amazing array of flavours and the first tea brand to be awarded the Plastic-Free Trust mark. TeaPigs’ bags are biodegradable, and the outer wrap is compostable Natureflex. The box is made from FSC, recyclable card and printed with vegetable ink. The company also is a member of the Ethical Tea Partnership; and finally Darvilles of Windsor which is now run by the fourth and fifth generation of the Darville family. Darvilles of Windsor has specialised in tea blending since 1860, and lucky for us, they are pretty much on our doorstep! They have held a Royal Warrant for 70 years, as granted by King George VI in 1946, and they still supply teas and goods to the royal household at Windsor Castle. We love the historical background of this company and as the Royal tea of choice, it must taste good!
3. Classy Crockery
Traditionally, afternoon tea was all about the grandeur. Whilst you don’t have to go out and buy a silver tea urn or mahogany tea caddy these days, a unique and stylish ceramic cake stand will certainly be a fine substitute, take centre stage of the table and be a great talking point! Topped with a Victoria Sponge, Carrot Cake with reams of cream cheese frosting, or delicious homemade cupcakes, you simply can’t go wrong.
For those cucumber finger sandwiches, and other savoury delights, a ceramic platter is a great practical alternative to a traditional tiered stand and can also act as a centre piece – seriously, check out #afternoontea for some platter Insta-inspiration. Get creative on how you present the food, using different colours and shapes to make it a real feast for the eyes!
Finally, some gorgeous pottery side plates are perfect for people to help themselves in style and create a real quaint affair. There is something so wholesome, stylish and homely about serving homemade food on handmade plates!
4. Flavourful Finger Foods
We already mentioned the cake stand, but what goes on top is just as important! The Devon Baker bakes an amazing carrot cake, perfect for placing in the middle of the table or for something a little different, Amy Treasure has a tasty Victoria sponge cupcake recipe which would make a perfect afternoon tea sweet treat.
In terms of sandwiches, it seems that the traditional fillings are still very popular with smoked salmon and cream cheese, cucumber and cream cheese, and egg mayonnaise and cress all coming out on top. However, we live in the modern age so if you fancy a hummus and roasted vegetable sandwich for afternoon tea then the world is your oyster – go for it!
If you feel like making the food yourself is too much, then so many local and UK businesses are now delivering incredible afternoon teas, right to your front door. A few of our favourites are Piglets Pantry. Based in West Sussex, their strawberry afternoon tea for two looks incredible and great value for money at £35 for two people. Cutter & Squidge are a family-run bakery created by two sisters and are renowned for being London’s only all-natural bakery, making everything from scratch using British ingredients or sourcing from British producers.
Last, but certainly not least, is Strawberry Grove which has cafés in Marlow, Maidenhead and Lane End. Sourcing ingredients from local businesses and UK suppliers, it was originally famous for its salt beef bagels but its sweet treats are second to none. Originally a café chain, it diversified during the pandemic, creating an online farm shop. Their afternoon teas are truly delicious!
5. Cracking Company
Finally, the whole point of an afternoon tea was for the Duchess and her friends to catch up on the latest gossip and have a good old chin wag. The invention of the afternoon tea was often called a feminist affair, given it was one of the first places and events that women were allowed to entertain in mixed company, and could socialise with their friends somewhere that wasn’t a formal ball or party. One hundred and fifty years later, we still love socialising with our mates over a decent cup of tea, but an Afternoon Tea is now more of an occasion, a great gift or a caring treat to show your friends you love them!
We hope you have learnt something from reading this blog and are inspired to get your bake on and get your friends round for some tea and sponge. Whether you buy or make your own afternoon tea, make sure you invite your best pals round to enjoy it with you!