Afternoon tea, that most quintessential of English customs was introduced in England by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in the year 1840. The Duchess would become hungry around four o’clock in the afternoon. The evening meal in her household was served fashionably late at eight o’clock, thus leaving a long period of time between lunch and dinner. The Duchess asked that a tray of tea, bread and butter (some time earlier, the Earl of Sandwich had had the idea of putting a filling between two slices of bread) and cake be brought to her room during the late afternoon. This became a habit of hers and she began inviting friends to join her.
This pause for tea became a fashionable social event. During the 1880’s upper-class and society women would change into long gowns, gloves and hats for their afternoon tea which was usually served in the drawing room between four and five o’clock.
Traditional afternoon tea consists of a selection of dainty sandwiches including cucumber and mint; egg mayonnaise with cress; smoked salmon with cream cheese; Coronation chicken; Ham and mustard. There are scones served with clotted cream and preserves. Cakes and pastries are also served. Tea grown in India or Ceylon is poured from silver tea pots into delicate bone china cups.
The range of teas on offer can vary from half a dozen to over a hundred, including some very rare and obscure ones. Some of the common teas on offer will include the following:
A blend of black teas scented with oil of bergamot named after Charles, 2nd Earl Grey, who was Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834.
A Chinese tea fired over smoking pine needles, which produces a striking smoky odour and flavour.
A strong full-bodied tea from India, which has a distinctive, ‘malty’ flavour.
An aromatic and astringent tea from India, with a hint of almonds and wildflowers.
Many places also offer set menus that include a glass of Champagne with the Traditional Afternoon Tea.