Tea has been a favourite drink among the English since the fashionable Queen Catherine of Braganza first introduced it to polite society. It is said that when she arrived in England from Portugal to marry King Charles II in 1662 she brought with her a casket of tea and used it as a social prop when she had to entertain ladies visiting court.
In the year 1840, the Duchess of Bedford, becoming hungry during the large gap between lunch and dinner, ordered some tea to be served to her bedchamber alongside some bread and butter, and cake. She had been feeling not only hungry, but also often melancholy at that time of day, describing it as a mood “dip”, but discovered that the tea quite restored her spirits.
Throughout the Georgian Era the majority of England's tea was coming from China, however in the 1830s as part of the British colonisation of India and Sri Lanka, the first tea estates were established in the north eastern Indian state of Assam, ending the British Empire's dependence on Chinese imports.
Tea, however, was still a luxury commodity and so it was only the wealthy who could afford to host an ‘afternoon tea’ for their friends. It became a way for women to gather and exchange gossip and even discuss more important subjects away from the repressive opinons of their men folk.
It was only with the reduction in tea tax in the early 20th Century that it really took hold in homes everywhere, and with it came the first tea-shops. Again, these were predominately the domain of women. Women could even, for the first time, run their own tea-shop businesses from their front rooms. Tea shops became a place to gather and talk without men, and played a huge part in the suffragette movement.
Today, tea-shops are still popular in small towns and villages of England, but most ‘grand’ afternoon teas are mainly to be found in city hotels.
Which type of tea?
According to historical records, there are nearly 6000 types of Chinese tea, which can be divided into 6 major categories: Green tea, black tea, white tea, yellow tea, post-fermented tea and Oolong tea.
The British, however, almost exclusively drink black tea as afternoon tea, to which they often add a little milk and sugar. This tea is usually imported from India or Ceylon.
What is served at afternoon tea?
When the Duchess of Bedford introduced her new passion for afternoon tea to her friend Queen Victoria, it was an immediate success with the monarch, who enjoyed having her tea with a light buttercream and fresh raspberries, now known as the Victoria Sponge Cake. This fashion, with royal endorsement, became a staple part of the British afternoon tea.
It was not many years before this that the Earl of Sandwich had suggested putting a filling between two slices of bread, and so delicate finger sandwiches were also part of the afternoon tea. A variety of sandwiches are popular, but you can’t really mention afternoon tea without mentioning cucumber sandwiches. They were, in fact, as much a part of the ritual in Victorian England as they still are today.
So grab your teapot, cut the crusts off your cucumber sandwiches, add biscuits or cake, and enjoy a traditional English afternoon tea!